Neither Jack Eichel nor Jeff Skinner were on the ice in HarborCenter when the Buffalo Sabres returned to practice Sunday afternoon. Both forwards were still in transit from All-Star festivities in San Jose and will not skate with the team until Monday.
That forced coach Phil Housley to give Sam Reinhart a linemate who had not skated with the team in nearly two months: defenseman Casey Nelson. Nelson, 26, has missed the Sabres' past 19 games with an upper-body injury, though he estimated he began skating with rehab and development coach Dennis Miller "a couple weeks" ago.
Nelson appeared game-ready during practice drills, but he has not been given a timeline to return to game action.
"He’s day to day," Housley said of Nelson. "See how he reacts after today, but he’s missed a considerable amount of time. We’ll just take it as day to day right now. See how he feels tomorrow because that was a pretty good fast-paced practice."
Nelson, who signed with the Sabres as a free agent in March 2016, was amid a career year before suffering the injury during the first period of a 4-3 overtime loss to Toronto on Dec. 4. He has one goal among five points with a plus-6 rating in 22 games this season.
Prior to the injury, Nelson had played in six consecutive games and was in the Sabres' lineup five times during their 10-game winning streak. Now a clean bill of health is not enough to assure him of a roster spot. Upon returning, Nelson could be one of nine healthy defensemen on the roster.
Lawrence Pilut, 23, has one goal among five points with a plus-5 rating in 16 games since being recalled from Rochester and is unlikely to return to the AHL. Matt Hunwick, who was acquired along with Conor Sheary from Pittsburgh in June, is finally healthy after missing the first 33 games because of a neck injury. Hunwick has been a healthy scratch for 13 consecutive games.
Nathan Beaulieu, who reportedly requested a trade from Buffalo if his playing time does not increase, has been a healthy scratch in 12 of the past 15 games.
"Just concentrate on yourself," Nelson said. "Control what you can control. … You just keep your head down. You just have to get better every day and when your name gets called you have to go out and play. That’s about all you can control."
With Nelson filling in on the first forward line during practice, Hunwick was paired with Marco Scandella and Beaulieu skated with Pilut. Additionally, Rasmus Dahlin remained with Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe with Rasmus Ristolainen. Housley said he had yet to determine which defensemen will play Tuesday night against Columbus.
Scandella and Pilut both struggled in a 4-3 loss to Vancouver before the All-Star Break, and Housley said previously he wanted to get Hunwick playing time soon.
Nelson, who is under contract through next season, will likely require a conditioning assignment in Rochester but would have to pass through waivers to remain with the Amerks beyond the maximum six days.
In addition to changing the defensive pairings, Housley tweaked his forward lines for Sunday's practice. Sheary and Casey Mittelstadt were joined by Evan Rodrigues on the second line, while Tage Thompson played left wing on the third line with Vladimir Sobotka at center and Jason Pominville at right wing. Remi Elie skated with Nelson and Reinhart on the top line.
The fourth line of Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Kyle Okposo remained intact. The Sabres will return to practice Monday morning in HarborCenter.
Western New York kept tabs on Eichel and Skinner at the NHL All-Star Game. According to NBC Sports, Buffalo led all markets in ratings for Saturday night's main event in San Jose. Pittsburgh ranked second, followed by St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Las Vegas.
Rochester defenseman Brendan Guhle participated in the hardest shot, faster skater and breakaway relay challenge during the AHL All-Star skills competition Sunday night in Springfield, Mass. Guhle, 21, was a late addition to the All-Star festivities. He replaced Amerks defenseman Zach Redmond, who suffered an injury last Wednesday against Binghamton.
The AHL All-Star Classic, a 3-on-3 round-robin tournament, will begin at 7:20 p.m.