Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said that the team’s rookie defenseman, who was expected to miss three-to-four weeks with a shoulder injury suffered in Washington March 11, may play in one of the upcoming back-to-back games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Friday's game will occur just two weeks after in the injury, putting him well ahead of schedule in his recovery.
“Every day gets a little stronger and a little better, but he’s pretty close,” said Maurice, who added that he did not yet want McBain to play on consecutive days.
It wasn’t until this past Sunday that McBain, who had previously not missed an NHL game due to injury, handled a puck for the first time since the hit that knocked him out of that game against the Capitals. Since then, he’s progressed quickly to the point that he was cleared for contact on Tuesday and resumed practicing normally with the team thereafter.
However, he’s likely to get hit harder in game action that he would amongst teammates, which could be the biggest hurdle yet to clear.
“It’s player confidence with this kind of injury that he feels good and strong with it,” said Maurice. “We’ll check on our other guys and see how our other injuries are, and then make a decision on that.”
McBain’s return, whenever it happens, will present a significant lineup decision. Derek Joslin, who went from healthy scratch to playing as many as 20 minutes per game in all situations, has a plus-7 plus/minus rating since joining the team in February and is not an obvious choice to sit out.
One possible solution would be to dress all seven defensemen currently on the roster, which Maurice said was unlikely for the home leg of the Lightning series on Saturday but did not rule out for the first game on Friday. Such a move would involve scratching a forward, likely one of Drayson Bowman or Jerome Samson, in addition to Troy Bodie, who has not played since March 12.
Potentially weighing against that decision is the health of Eric Staal, who will play against Tampa Bay as expected but may see his minutes decreased in order to ease him back in.
“The penalty kill is the first thing we may have to consider cutting him back on,” said Maurice. “We added that to him this year when our penalty kill was really struggling early on, then he came on it with Cole and our penalty kill has been (darn) good. We may have to make an adjustment there first.”
Staal plays an average of 22:06 per game, which trails only New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk for the league lead among forwards.
With Staal coming back in, McBain’s return would give the team a clean bill of health. Chad LaRose and Jussi Jokinen, who missed Wednesday’s practice for maintenance, skated during Thursday’s session and should be fine moving forward.