ROCHESTER – Among the 25 red, white and blue jerseys on the ice for Americans practices over the past week, defenseman Lawrence Pilut has been easy to spot.
Just look for the only orange sweater.
Five months after the Sabres prospect injured his left shoulder and underwent surgery, he has started skating with his teammates in a non-contact role.
While Pilut hasn’t been cleared to play, he said he could be ready in about two weeks.
“I’m feeling almost normal, and it’s a good thing,” Pilut told The News following Monday’s practice in Blue Cross Arena. “I feel like I got my strength back and put on a couple pounds over the summer, and I feel like that’s a good thing for me.”
Pilut, 23, hasn’t played since leaving Game 3 of the North Division semifinal playoff series against the Toronto Marlies on April 24.
“He’s chomping at the bit,” interim Amerks coach Gord Dineen said.
After Pilut had surgery in early May, the Sabres said he would need five to six months to recover. Despite having to rehab his shoulder, he still packed on about 13 pounds during the offseason.
The Amerks now list the 5-foot-11 Swede at 194 pounds.
“A lot of my focus in the summer went to putting on a couple pounds and just refreshing mentally,” Pilut said. “It’s a long season over here from Sweden. It’s different. You just got to keep that mental shape up. ... I feel like I have more power this season.”
Pilut’s return will give one of the AHL’s deepest blue lines a lethal offensive threat.
Following five seasons in Sweden, Pilut acclimated to North American hockey almost immediately a year ago, quickly morphing into a star.
Pilut registered two goals and 13 points in his first seven AHL games and three goals and 22 points in his first 15 outings.
“When I would I talk to him about the adjustment to the North American style, he talked often about the angles and the width of the ice and as a defenseman getting comfortable with that,” Amerks General Manager Randy Sexton said. “But his performance didn’t reflect that.”
Pilut’s combination of speed, playmaking ability and supreme vision made him perhaps the AHL’s biggest early season surprise. Sabres fans began waiting for his arrival.
In late November, the Sabres recalled Pilut, and he compiled one goal and six points in 33 NHL games.
“I felt good when I was up last year,” Pilut said. “Of course, I had a dip a little bit. But I’ve learned from it. I think I can play up there. I just need to be me, play with that confidence I can.”
As Pilut mentioned, he struggled at times as a rookie.
He went pointless in his final 14 NHL appearances. The Sabres even scratched him. When he returned to the AHL in late February, he mustered only four assists in 15 games.
Pilut, like many young offensive defensemen, must learn to manage the puck.
“I still have some ways to go in just managing a little better decisions sometimes,” he said.
So what would be growth for Pilut this season? He already proved he can score.
“He doesn’t have to go out and put up the points he did last year,” Dineen said. “He just has to play a type of brand that translates to the NHL.
“In the end, like we tell most of the guys, they got to punch a hole in the lineup up there, make the decision for management.”
That brand must include more consistency.
“That’s a big thing for me,” Pilut said.
Given the Sabres’ recent development record, they likely won’t rush Pilut. Other than winger Tage Thompson, who spent most of last season in the NHL, they’ve kept their prospects with the Amerks for long stints.
“The one thing with our organization now is we’re being very patient with players, making sure that when they are ready that they’re ready to go and not come back,” Dineen said. “For him, it’s getting all the habits so it translates to him just being a regular, everyday NHL player.”