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Sabres' Hunwick nearing return, joining Rochester for conditioning assignment

Matt Hunwick is inching closer to making his long-awaited debut with the Buffalo Sabres. Hunwick, a 33-year-old defenseman acquired with Conor Sheary from the Pittsburgh Penguins in June, was assigned to the Rochester Americans for a conditioning assignment Tuesday.

Hunwick is expected to play Wednesday night against the Binghamton Devils at Blue Cross Arena and could remain with the Americans for a home game Friday night against the Cleveland Monsters. He was unable to practice with the Sabres until Nov. 29 because of a neck injury suffered during an off-ice offseason workout.

His potential return is good news for the Sabres, who are in need of blue-line help. Injured defensemen Jake McCabe and Casey Nelson remain week to week, while Marco Scandella wore a white non-contact jersey during an optional morning skate Tuesday.

"I think it’s a good step in the process, especially not having played a game in six, seven months, something like that," Hunwick told reporters Tuesday in KeyBank Center. "It will be a good start."

Hunwick has played in 521 NHL games for five teams. In July 2017, he signed a three-year, $6.7 million contract with Pittsburgh, where he never quite fit into coach Mike Sullivan's system. Hunwick had four goals and six assists with a minus-4 rating in 42 games.

It was in stark contrast to his play one season earlier when he was plus-8 in 72 games for Toronto. Hunwick and Sheary were acquired for a conditional 2019 fourth-round pick. He counts $2.25 million against the cap this season and is under contract for the same amount through 2019; however, the Sabres have received salary-cap relief this season since he's on long-term injured reserve.

Hunwick, a seventh-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan in 2014, played on a fourth defensive pairing with winger Remi Elie at practice Monday. It remains unclear whether he will play one or both games with Rochester, though it is unlikely the Sabres would rush him into their lineup.

"Hunwick’s done a great job. ... He’s in a good place," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "We just need to get him some action. Possibly two games – Wednesday and Friday home games."

It's been an unusual six months for Hunwick. He was a healthy scratch throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs last season when the Penguins lost to the Washington Capitals in the second round. The injury put his 2018-19 season in jeopardy, and he was unable to join the Sabres until this past road trip.

This past week has given Hunwick more practice time to learn the Sabres' system, particularly defensive-zone and neutral-zone coverages. He also has enjoyed Housley's uptempo practices, which served as an important step in his return to game action.

The veteran accepted the conditioning assignment because there is no other way to get acclimated to game speed.

"It will be good to get a couple games in before joining the team again," Hunwick said. "The NHL game at the start of the season is maybe a hair slower than it is at the midpoint and obviously the playoffs are another step up. Joining kind of halfway through will be like getting right in the fire. This will be a good opportunity to kind of get my feet wet."

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Rochester winger Dalton Smith was suspended one game by the American Hockey League on Tuesday as a result of a boarding incident in the third period of a 2-1 win over Providence on Friday night.

Smith hit Providence's Jakub Zboril from behind in the defensive zone but was not penalized. Zboril left the game and has not played since. Smith will serve the suspension Wednesday night when the Americans play Binghamton.

Smith, 26, has one goal among three points in 18 games for Rochester this season.

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Oskari Laaksonen, a 19-year-old defenseman drafted 89th overall by the Sabres in 2017, signed a two-year contract extension with Ilves of the Liiga in Finland on Tuesday. Laaksonen, who is on Finland's preliminary roster for the World Junior Championships, can leave Ilves at any time if he signs with the Sabres. He has three goals among 13 points in 25 games this season.

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