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Scott Wilson nearing return, could bolster Sabres' depth at center

It's unclear how long the Buffalo Sabres will be without Jack Eichel. The captain and top-line center did not return after aggravating an upper-body injury in the first period of a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Monday.

Coach Phil Housley was hopeful that Eichel would not miss much time, however, it is a devastating blow to an offense that was already struggling to score goals. Evan Rodrigues could get an opportunity to center the first line if Eichel is unable to play Thursday against Florida, but that is also a hit to the Sabres' depth down the middle.

While there isn't an NHL-ready center in Rochester, one two-time Stanley Cup champion is close to returning to the lineup from injury: Scott Wilson.

"It’s been a long time,” Wilson told The Buffalo News on Monday morning. “Obviously I haven’t played a real game in eight or nine months but just being back with the guys and kind of getting to know everybody, being on the road a little bit. It’s been refreshing for sure.”

Wilson, 26, skated on the top line with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart when Eichel was absent from practice Sunday in HarborCenter. Wilson won't draw that assignment when he finally returns, but he has proven capable of contributing valuable minutes in a bottom-six role.

The problem is Wilson has not played this season because he broke his ankle during a practice in late September. He has been skating with Dennis Miller, the Sabres' director of rehab and development, for roughly the past month.

Those exhaustive on-ice sessions are used to condition players for when they are finally cleared to return to practice. That time finally came for Wilson last week. He has participated in most practice drills, including the penalty kill, but is still at least one week away from returning to game action.

Wilson, a seventh-round draft pick of Pittsburgh in 2011, has two Stanley Cup rings from his time with the Penguins. He had three goals among six points in 20 playoff games during the Cup run of 2016-17. He's also been able to score in the past, including a 22-goal season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL in 2015-16.

Wilson has since failed to produce offensively. He had zero points in 17 games between Pittsburgh and Detroit before he was traded to Buffalo last December. Wilson had six goals among 14 points with a minus-17 rating in 49 games for the Sabres the rest of the season.

That was enough to earn him a two-year contract extension in July, and he gained 15 pounds in the offseason to better prepare him for this season.

"I just like the way he plays the game," Housley said of Wilson shortly before the injury occurred. "He’s hard on the forecheck. He’s physical. He brings that presence in the locker room of winning Cups and he’s able to share that information. Now he’s in a good place as far as the way he’s playing the game. He’s playing with speed. He’s getting some opportunities."

Wilson is accustomed to long, arduous rehabs after injury. In March 2016, he suffered a lower-body injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season, including the Penguins' first Stanley Cup run. He returned the following season to have eight goals among 26 points in 78 regular-season games.

Wilson, who can also play on the wing, is a capable penalty-killer and could add some grit to the third or fourth line. However, he is unlikely to solve the Sabres' scoring woes. They recalled winger C.J. Smith, who was tied for the team lead in Rochester with 29 points in 33 games.

Smith had one shot on goal late in the third period and was a minus-1 in 11:31 against the Islanders. If Eichel is unavailable to play Thursday, Buffalo could turn to Victor Olofsson. The 23-year-old winger has 29 points in 30 games with the Amerks and could play on the second or third line in Buffalo, which would allow Rodrigues to move back to center.

Eichel's injury and the departure of Patrik Berglund have delivered a blow to the team's depth at center. Casey Mittelstadt has struggled to adapt to the position during his rookie season, and Vladimir Sobotka has not contributed much offensively.

Fourth-line center Johan Larsson got some playing time with Skinner and Reinhart during the third period Monday. At the very least, Wilson's return would provide Housley with some flexibility and someone who can free Rodrigues up from having to contribute on the penalty kill.

"I still have another week until – kind of a 10-12 week period just kind of see how you’re feeling," Wilson said. "I think with surgery you have to be smart about it, too. You can’t be going out too early. Then you just have setbacks for another year or what not. They just told me when I feel ready to let them know, and I feel like I’m pretty close. It’s been feeling good."

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