The NHL Trade Deadline is still a few days away, but the Predators may have already made their most important acquisition.
Associate Captain Ryan Ellis could return to the Nashville lineup as early as Friday, when the Preds meet the Blackhawks in Chicago, Predators Head Coach John Hynes said Thursday.
Ellis, who was injured on New Year's Day, has missed the past 20 games due to injury. The defenseman has been skating with the team for the past couple of weeks during practices and morning skates, but he is yet to return to game action.
Ellis participated in Thursday's practice skating alongside Captain Roman Josi, the first time the two have been paired together during a session since Ellis has rejoined full team activities. Ellis also saw time working on the power play, all positive signs that a return to the lineup could be imminent.
"We wanted to push him today in practice and put him on a D-pair and play in the situations he could possibly play in," Hynes said of Ellis following Thursday's practice. "[We gave] him a real good look on the power play, and then we had a little bit of some battle drills in there. We'll see how he responds tomorrow and probably make a decision tomorrow morning."
"[I'm feeling] much better," Ellis said after Thursday's session, the first time he's spoken to the media since Dec. 31. "[It's been a] long road, and I've never really been down that one, so it's nice to be feeling more like myself."
Ellis confirmed it was a concussion he's been dealing with for the past month and a half after Dallas Stars forward Corey Perry caught him with a high hit just minutes into the NHL Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl. Perry was suspended five games for the infraction, and Ellis said Thursday he's "not bitter" about the hit, but is rather just looking forward to getting back to work.
A return from the bearded blueliner would certainly be a welcome addition on the backend, and getting one of the team's top leaders in the lineup once more could go a long way in providing a spark for a Predators team that needs all the points it can get with just 23 games to go in the regular season.
"He's a huge presence," Josi said of Ellis. "He's so solid. I've played with him for so long, and he never makes a mistake. He always does the right things, and he's not just defensively [gifted], but offensively he's is a huge help for us. We're definitely very happy to have him back."
"He's a great player," Hynes, who is yet to coach Ellis in a game, said. "[He's] really smart, plays in all situations… and when he's out of the lineup it's tough to have one or two guys take the minutes that he plays. You have to do it by committee, so I'm really excited to see him come back. Hopefully, it's tomorrow, but if it's not, it's going to be in the near future. We're looking forward to having a leader back there and a guy that helps our team play well in all situations."
Dealing with an injury is never easy, especially for a player like Ellis. It's impossible to make it to the NHL level without an undying passion for the game, but Ellis's fire burns stronger than most. The 29-year-old embodies what it means to be a professional hockey player, and that can make the inability to be on the ice with his teammates excruciating to deal with night after night.
But for Ellis, who also dealt with a long-term injury two seasons ago, this time around felt different - and for the better.
"To be honest, I had a better attitude," Ellis said. "Every day, I kind of expected to wake up feeling better. It kept my mind right, thinking that tomorrow is going to be better, tomorrow's going to be better. Obviously, it was longer than I expected, but there's always that kind of hope that the next day would be [better]. Because it's a concussion, it could be a week, it could be a much longer time, so to be honest, my attitude was pretty positive throughout."
Especially once Hynes arrived in Nashville less than a week after Ellis was injured, it wasn't uncommon to see the defenseman sitting on the bench during practice, taking in every little detail he could on what the new bench boss was implementing with his team.
There will likely be a bit of an adjustment for Ellis, but not necessarily a big one because of his high hockey IQ. Rather, it might simply take a moment to get back up to game speed after being out of the lineup for an extended period, but Hynes doesn't expect Ellis to need much time to find his way again.
"When you've been off as long as he has there is a period of adjustment," Hynes said. "You're going right in the game speed, and then especially this time of year where the intensity level is probably the highest, it gets higher and higher as the season goes on. When he does eventually come back, then we'll try to see how he does right off the bat. I think sometimes for a guy like him who's experienced, you put them in and play them and play in many situations he should be in usually, like all good players, they find their way pretty quick."
Whether it's Friday night in Chicago (at 7:30 p.m. CT; watch on FS-TN, listen on 102.5 The Game), Saturday in Nashville (get tickets) or another puck drop in the near future, Ellis is almost ready to go. And while Predators General Manager David Poile will still be working the phones leading up to Monday's trade deadline, he may not find a deal better than this.
"[I] just [want to] pick up where I left off and help this team," Ellis said. "We've been making a push and guys have been playing really well… [I just want to jump in, catch] a moving train and help them [get to where we're] all trying to get to."