Brian Gibbons last saw game action for the Blue Jackets on Dec. 18, and to provide some context as to what’s transpired since, he was playing left wing on a line centered by Nick Foligno.
Gibbons earned an assist on Foligno’s go-ahead goal 52 seconds into the third period that night, but a knee injury forced him to leave the game five minutes later and he did not return. It has been a long, frustrating road in the nearly two months and 24 games missed since then, but Gibbons finally returned to practice last week – a welcome sight for his coaches and teammates.
The speedy and tenacious Gibbons caught the Jackets’ eye during their first-round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring, a postseason performance that was punctuated by a two-goal effort in Game 2. The Blue Jackets signed Gibbons in free agency to a two-way contract with the expectation he could fill a role in their bottom six after the offseason departures of Derek MacKenzie and Blake Comeau.
It hasn’t yet panned out that way - primarily due to injuries - but his return to the practice ice is a positive development for a player that’s yearning to make an impact. The Blue Jackets placed Gibbons on waivers at noon Monday, and if he clears at noon Tuesday, the plan is to assign him to Springfield (AHL) where he can work his way back into form.
“It’s been way too long,” Gibbons told BlueJackets.com. “There’s still a little bit to go, but it felt really good to be out there and skate around in a real practice. Any time you’re out for more than a few days, you start to get frustrated and you’re itching to get back in there, but you have to be patient. I think that’s the hardest part - no, it's definitely the hardest part.
“Sometimes (rehab) doesn’t go as quick you’re told it should go or how quick you think it should go, but you have to stick to the process and keep pushing ahead.”
Gibbons has played only 21 games this season (five assists in those games), but he’s tried to remain upbeat with a positive outlook and be around his teammates as much as possible.
That can be difficult, he said, due to the nature of being an injured player; you’re not around the locker room as often as the healthy players, you’re doing different workouts and on different schedules than your teammates (who are either practicing, watching film or traveling) and it can be hard to feel “part of the team.”
He's felt so close, yet also, so far removed.
“You’re not doing things like going on the road trips, hanging out with the guys whether it’s on the bus or on the plane,” Gibbons said. “You’re not practicing every day. You seem them here and there, but it’s not the same. It’s no fun skating in the rink by yourself, either, and it makes you want to get back quicker.
“At the end of the day, you just want to be back on the ice. It’s still fun to watch games even if you’re injured, especially games like we’ve had recently against St. Louis and Ottawa and Philadelphia when the boys were scoring goals and playing some good hockey and getting results.”
The Blue Jackets are hopeful that Gibbons can return as early as this week, with the team scheduled to play four road games against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal and the New York Rangers. He has yet to receive final medical clearance and be activated off injured reserve, but Gibbons feels as though that moment isn’t far off.
In the meantime, Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards wants Gibbons to use his practice time wisely, and get himself as close to game shape as he can before making a decision on his return.
“It’s speed and timing, and working on conditioning,” Richards said of the challenges facing a player like Gibbons, who has missed significant time. “It’s said all the time by everyone that you can’t imitate game situations on the bike or in practice.
“It’s (about) trying to get as close as you can to that, so when the opportunity presents itself and you’re ready to play, that you’re up to game speed. That’s probably the biggest challenge for him.”