Gaborik on verge of return
And the influx of healthy bodies could not come at a better time; beginning Thursday in New Jersey, the Blue Jackets play their final 24 regular-season games in a span of 48 days that includes six back-to-backs and eight divisional games. In other words, they're going to need all hands on deck to successfully execute their postseason plans.
Todd Richards, back from the Olympics in Sochi, put the team through an uptempo hour-plus practice that he deemed "one of the best he's seen" out of his team. What some may see as a glut of forwards, Richards and Blue Jackets management see as an opportunity for players to step up and give their best to a team that needs everyone on board.
One of those players is Marian Gaborik, who has been itching to get back into game action since he was medically cleared for contact last week. The team has not yet confirmed that Gaborik, who has missed 22 games due to a broken collarbone, will be in the lineup Thursday but he's preparing as if he will be.
He has been practicing since the NHL's schedule resumed on Feb. 19, and said he's felt better with each day on the ice.
"Obviously games are totally different than practice, and it's hard to mimic a lot of things in practice," Gaborik said. "But I feel good enough to jump back in and have a good practice tomorrow, then we'll go from there."
Richards is looking forward to the day when Gaborik is able to rejoin the lineup, in large part because he doesn't truly know where he fits with this group. Gaborik has only played 18 of the team's 58 games this season, and since his return to practice has been brief, Richards said he only has "an idea" of where Gaborik might fit in the lineup.
Regardless, there's always room for an elite player like Gaborik - it's just a matter of finding the right fit and Richards is determined to do so.
"Lines were similar (today) but there are still a couple of guys out there who could be able to go in," Richards said after practice. "I have an idea (of where Gaborik could play) but I like the way we were playing prior to him (returning). We played well in Anaheim, we were playing well in LA...I was happy with the way the group was playing."
With the stretch run to the playoffs also comes the so-called "silly season" surrounding the NHL trade deadline, set for March 5 at 3 p.m. ET. Whether the Blue Jackets make a move remains to be seen, but Richards said that getting a player of Gaborik's ilk back in time for the upcoming 24-game blitz is as good as acquiring a significant piece.
And given the fact that Gaborik has done more watching and rehabbing than playing, it's a safe assumption that he wants to be an instant impact player for the Blue Jackets - much like he was a year ago.
"I worked hard over the (Olympic break) to get back, and hopefully it's not going to take me too long to get into game shape," Gaborik said. "I feel pretty good out there; I'm looking forward to this...it's been a while. It's going to be a tough stretch, but every team is in the same situation.
"We're right on the bubble, and we want to make sure we have a good start and even better finish. This group has done a lot since the start of the year, we're playing more consistent and hopefully it graduates to us playing even better (down the stretch)."