Jack Eichel keeps inching closer to a return to the Buffalo Sabres' lineup and the franchise's marquee man took another step in that process Wednesday, joining the team for its morning skate in advance of its game against the Detroit Red Wings in KeyBank Center.
Eichel, who has not played a game this year since suffering a high ankle sprain in practice Oct. 12 on the eve of the season opener, participated in virtually every drill the team performed. He skated quickly and there didn't appear to be any lag in his speed, his ability to work his edges or turn.
"It's nice to get out there with a bunch of other people instead of myself," said Eichel, who has been skating on his own for more than a week. "That's what you miss the most when you're hurt. You miss playing but you miss your time with the guys, being in the locker room at the same time as them, just being around them. It's tough to not be on the same schedule as them. It's nice to get back in the swing of things."
"It was a chance to get back at a practice, albeit a morning skate, to be out there with players, commotion, movement, motion in a different way for him," said coach Dan Bylsma. "It's a good sign for everybody for him to be able to get out there and do that. Hopefully he can progress in the next few days to more levels of practice."
— Mike Harrington (@BNHarrington) November 23, 2016
As for a timetable, no one is saying for sure. The injury occurred six weeks ago Wednesday and was expected to have a recovery time of 6-8 weeks, so Eichel is right on schedule.
"It is hard to say. An injury like this, you kind of want to take it day by day," he said. "Obviously I think I have something on my calendar I have circled where I think I can play. But that's pretty fragile and can change pretty quickly. For me personally, not only my ankle and my entire game I want to feel like I'm back to normal. Obviously I want to step in and make an impact but I want to step in the way I want to and not really have one foot in. Be completely back and be ready to make a difference."
"I'm not putting a time frame on it but we're starting to see the end of him getting back to practice," said Bylsma, who seemed to indicate Sunday could be Eichel's first full practice with the team. "We're starting to see the end is getting near."
Eichel praised the Sabres' medical and rehab staffs for their work during the entire process and said they've made sure he's remained patient through each stage.
"For the most part, I've progressed through everything," he said. "Prior to skating with the team, you go through everything. I've had a little bit of physical contact. Soft starts, pivots, crossovers. You guys saw me out there. I feel pretty comfortable. When you're out there, you pretty much forget about the ankle and that's a good thing. It's important to get my game back to where I want it to be overall. Playing with the puck, playing without it, the physicality, the speed of it. That's all important. When that comes back, I'll know I'm ready to play."
The Sabres are getting center Ryan O'Reilly back tonight after he's missed the last five games with an oblique injury. O'Reilly had his own work to do today, of course, but he was watching Eichel like everyone else.
"He looks so good out there. He's just so smooth on his skates, it looks like he can play already but it's something we have to be smart with," O'Reilly said. "It's nice to have him out there. If we can get him back, it makes us a lot better. He's such an effortless skater and the way he handles the puck is so smooth. His shot is so good that every time he touches the ice, he's one of the best guys out there."
— Mike Harrington (@BNHarrington) November 23, 2016
Eichel said it's been difficult to watch the Sabres while he's been out, particularly as their offense dropped to the bottom of the NHL scoring charts. But he's been heartened by the club's two-game winning streak and its four-goal output Monday against Calgary.
"Teams go through lulls in the season, that's why it's 82 games," he said. "You don't score goals for a couple of games and everyone is jumping on the fact you're missing guys and what's wrong with the team and everything like that. It was big for us to get that win against Pitt and it was a good win for us against Calgary to score four goals. There's a lot of ups and downs in a season. For us, it's just trying to rattle off wins when you can. It's important not to get into those losing streaks like we did. We don't want to lose games consecutively. That's how you take yourself out of the picture quickly. We've got to start adding the wins up."
Eichel said he's spent a lot of time during his layoff watching other NHL games, something he said he wouldn't ordinarily do while he was playing.
"When the team is struggling you want to be out there trying to help them and do what you can," he said. "When you're not able to do that, it's pretty tough on you and it's even tougher on them. Knowing the guys in here and the resilience in this organization, I think we'll be fine. We've got a lot of season left in us and we just want to put our best foot forward.
" ... You can learn a lot from games and what other teams do. I think I have a couple things up my sleeve when I come back."