TORONTO - Tyler Bozak isn't yet on the cusp of returning.
But when he's eligible to come off long-term injured reserve Dec. 29, the Toronto Maple Leafs centre figures his torn oblique will be healed up enough to get back into the lineup.
"It's still getting better every day. It feels pretty good now," Bozak said Thursday. "If there's a problem, maybe, but right now it looks like I'll be back right when IR ends."
Bozak has been out since Dec. 5 and missed Toronto's home game Thursday night against Phoenix. And with the Leafs having placed him on the long-term list, Bozak must also miss upcoming games against Detroit, the New York Rangers and Buffalo before being free to return against Carolina three days before the Winter Classic.
The 27-year-old skated with teammates Thursday at the Air Canada Centre but he's obviously on his own track while the Leafs seek to reverse their fortunes. After missing 12 games earlier this year with a hamstring injury, Bozak is dealing with another difficult problem with his oblique.
"Kind of like the same thing last year but a lot worse this year," he said. "I don't know what it is, to be honest.
"I kind of stressed it a lot on faceoffs. I think it might've happened on that. I think it's just pretty unlucky and nothing you can get too down on yourself about."
Bozak's injury came with the Leafs already missing centre Dave Bolland, who still hasn't resumed skating after having a tendon in the back of his ankle severed in late October. The latest injury down the middle came Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers when impressive journeyman callup Trevor Smith broke a bone in his right hand blocking a shot.
"I don't know what's going on with us," Bozak said of Toronto's injury woes. "I think it's all been pretty unfortunate stuff with Smitty and Bolly, things that you never want to see happen and they can't really control by any means."
Bozak can't control much right now other than his rehab. Being forced to watch the Leafs go 3-5-0 without him certainly hasn't helped matters.
"It's not fun to watch, it's never fun to watch," Bozak said. "It's not fun to watch if you're winning or if you're losing.
"Obviously you want to be out there helping the guys and stuff like that."
Bozak is used to being able to help, typically as the No. 1 centre alongside roommate and friend Phil Kessel, who had two goals in the eight games prior to Thursday's contest with Phoenix. Bozak hasn't had any season like this before and is trying to stay positive.
"I've not really been injured at all, knock on wood, except for college I had surgery on my one knee the one year," he said. "My first years here I missed a handful of games each year, but nothing too serious.
"Obviously it's been tough, but I hope I can come back stronger and help the team."
??? Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.