(Photo credit: Lisa Gansky)
Beware the Ides of March.
Or, if you're the Buffalo Sabres, beware bringing Jack Eichel back too soon.
The Sabres superstar forward has been out of action since suffering a high-ankle sprain in a game against the Boston Bruins on February 10. Now, just four-and-a-half weeks later, the 21-year-old center looks primed to return to the lineup within the next few days after practicing the last two days with his teammates.
"I felt good this morning," Eichel told the media after practice on Wednesday. "I felt really good. I felt better today than I did yesterday. That's what you want to look at for the positives. You just want to take a step forward every day and I thought I did that today."
For the Sabres, that news can only be viewed as a small ray of sunshine on an otherwise embarrassing season. However, it won't take much for that sunshine to turn into a big, black hole.
No such thing as too careful
Despite happening to different ankles, Eichel has suffered two high-ankle sprains in two years. The "injury prone" term that so many like to throw around doesn't apply here, but that doesn't mean his injury history is something to ignore.
After playing in 81 games as a rookie, Eichel will have failed to hit 70 games played in each of the last two seasons. With a fresh new eight-year, $80-million contract set to kick in next season, taking care of the best player on the team and the face of an organization needs to be priority number one for the Sabres.
Head coach Phil Housley has made it clear that the team doesn't want to risk further injury by rushing Eichel back despite Eichel's efforts to try and play.
"We're trying to ease him back into things," Housley said.
He continued, "I just feel that his progression is all that matters to us. He's got to feel comfortable. We'll continue to evaluate it every day."
That progress is key because should Eichel return before the end of the season only to reinjure his ankle, questions would immediately flood in about whether he was put back into the lineup too soon. The coaching staff needs to make sure that Eichel truly is ready to go rather than at just 80-to-90 percent, and, based on his comments, Eichel understands that.
"I'm just going to try and take the right steps forward to get back as soon as I can but I don't obviously want to rush it," Eichel said. "I want to get back at a point in my ankle, in my body at where it feels good and where I'm at the point I feel I can contribute the way I want to."
When Eichel left the lineup on February 10, he led the team in scoring with 53 points in 55 games. Fourteen games later, Eichel remains the team leader in scoring, though fellow center Ryan O'Reilly sits just three points behind with 50 in 68 games.
With 13 games remaining entering play on March 15, it's not unlikely that Eichel returns and finishes at the top of the team in scoring for the second year in a row.
**NOTE: All quotes gathered via the Buffalo Sabres**