EDMONTON - Nine Oilers, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder), Eric Belanger (foot), Ryan Jones (eye), Ben Eager (concussion) and Mark Fistric (back) participated in an optional, hour-long practice Thursday at the Russ Barnes Arena.
Nugent-Hopkins was cross-checked by Henrik Sedin in Monday's overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks and missed last night's game with a sore shoulder. The 19-year-old is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday afternoon in Detroit.
As a result, Mark Arcobello has been reassigned to the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons.
Ben Eager has also been cleared to play and could make his return versus the Red Wings. Belanger's retroactive addition to the IR means he needed to wait a week in between games, so he's not permitted to suit up until Sunday when the Oilers face the Blue Jackets.
Head Coach Ralph Krueger said that Nugent-Hopkins could have played Wednesday against the Stars if necessary, but it wasn't worth the risk. Instead, by missing one game and enduring some short-term pain (excuse the pun), Nugent-Hopkins was able to regenerate by having four consecutive days of off-ice training.
"I felt good out there today," he said. "It's day-to-day right now and hopefully I'll be ready for Saturday. It was more precautionary than anything and I didn't want to hurt it any further."
Nugent-Hopkins has struggled to produce this season. Through nine games this year he's yet to score and hasn't tallied in 20 games dating back to last season. Still, the sophomore is staying positive and believes he's close to getting on a roll.
"I feel good out there," he said. "We've been getting some great chances and it's a situation that if we keep working on it, (goals) will come. We want to start scoring more 5-on-5, but if we keep bearing down, it will come.
"I can't get too down about it."
Considering the Oilers' centres are dropping like flies (Anton Lander will undergo and MRI later this afternoon after blocking a Nick Schultz shot last night), Krueger is pleased to be getting one or more back in the lineup. For the past two games, the Oilers have been without their ace in the faceoff circle. For a team that sits 29th in the League with a 45.2 percent success rate in the dot, Belanger's 52.7 percent mark will be a welcomed re-addition.
"Losing faceoffs and being in a retrieval mode the game very difficult," Krueger said. "You're spending a lot of energy to do your retrievals and it's hard work to get the puck back in the NHL. Your really respect the fact that with Belanger and Horcoff in the lineup, it's a game-altering feeling."
Head Equipment Manager Jeff Lang outfitted Belanger with a specially designed, custom-made guard on his right toe that should help protect his foot even further when he returns to the lineup.
"The main thing was being able to wear my skate," said Belanger, who's been dealing with a considerable amount of swelling over the past week. "I skated yesterday by myself and today is another step, so it's going in the right direction.
"You always feel pressure to come back. Right now I think it's about managing the pain. I know when I come back it's going to be sore, but I have to deal with it."
FISTRIC ON THE MEND
Mark Fistric was another Oiler injured in Monday's loss to the Canucks when he attempted to catch Canucks rookie Jordan Schroeder with a hip check at his own blue line. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound defenceman missed and crashed into the boards along the Oilers bench instead.
"Any Edmontonian would know that when you slip on the ice and fall on your tailbone, it hurts," laughed Fistric. "That's basically what this felt like, but a lot worse. Not only did I hit the tailbone, but it was the way I hit the boards. I jammed my back and it went into a spasm. Right now I'm assessing it each day as it loosens up and I'll go from there. Today I felt really good.
"I knew right away that something was wrong because my breath went away and I couldn't stand straight up. Anytime you have something in your back go wrong, you get a little nervous, so I'm glad it was just a spasm and nothing too serious."
JONES GETTING CLOSER
Ryan Jones has ditched the full-face shield (also known as "the bubble") and is now practicing with a regular half visor.
The 28-year-old still doesn't have a timeline on when he may return to the lineup, but says each day on the ice is a step in the right direction.
"That's a question for the doctors," laughed Jones. "It's a question that I haven't really asked. I know that it was scheduled to be about six weeks of healing and after that, you go from there. We're coming up on that timeline.
"I have to see the specialist one more time.
"The feet are coming along great. The hands are about what they were before. So, not great."
Jones has vowed to wear a visor for the rest of his career. While there was once a time when there was a stigma against role players wearing them, he isn't bothered by it by longer after nearly losing an eye.
"It's not uncomfortable by any means," he said. "It's like anything else. You don't really notice it when you're playing. I don't know why the League has gone so anti-visor as opposed to the past, but you're seeing the change now that the young guys have to wear them and there are a lot of young guys in the League."
Veteran defenceman Ryan Whitney was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career on Monday vs. Vancouver. He returned to the lineup last night, but didn't show much improvement and could be back in the press box this weekend.
"We need competition. We need players to be pushed," Krueger said. "When you look at the Ryan Whitney situation, we're working hard with him to have it clear the kind of game we want to play here. The game has changed. We're a high-speed team that wants to maintain that speed. There's a lot more work for the defencemen to do right now than in the past with our pressure forecheck and with the pressure we want to put on teams."
Whitney played a little more than 16 minutes Wednesday. On the game-winning goal 1:46 into overtime, it was Whitney's man (Jaromir Jagr) that danced around him before picking the corner on Devan Dubnyk.
"All we can do to help players when they're scratched is to understand why, to work on these things and continue to get better," Krueger said. "The competition is big and it's tough to stay in this lineup if you don't play the game that we want to play."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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