MONTREAL – Kyle Wellwood and Mark Bell can’t wait to get into the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup.
Wellwood, who has yet to play this season due to a sports hernia, skated with his teammates at the Bell Centre but wasn’t quite ready to suit up for a game Saturday night against the Canadiens.
The playmaking forward may be ready for the third stop on the Leafs’ four-game road trip on Tuesday in Ottawa.
“I’m really close,” said Wellwood. “It’s just a matter of getting into a practice and seeing how I do there.
“Next week I’ll be going for sure.”
The game in Ottawa will mark the Leafs debut for Bell, whose 15-game suspension for a drunk-driving conviction ends after the game in Montreal.
Bell was acquired in June along with goaltender Vesa Toskala from San Jose for a package of draft picks.
“I never thought the day would come,” said Bell, who spent an extra half-hour on the ice with Wellwood and back-up goalie Andrew Raycroft at the team’s game-day skate.
“The date’s been circled for a while. I can’t wait to contribute.”
Wellwood had surgery in January and thought the problem was solved until it flared up again in training camp, requiring a second operation.
The Leafs have struggled without the 24-year-old, particularly on the power play, where they went into Saturday’s game ranked 27th in the league.
“It changes our power play quite a bit because he’s so good down low, it allows Mats (Sundin) to do different things – drive the net and find holes,” said coach Paul Maurice.
“And he was underappreciated as a 5-on-5 player. He’s very smart. He’s one of those centre-icemen that all the wingers want to play with because you’re going to get the puck in some strange places.”
Maurice is anxious to get players back, particularly with forward Darcy Tucker and defencemen Bryan McCabe and Carlo Colaiacovo still out with injuries.
“Kyle’s not playing (Saturday), but I think he’d like to,” added Maurice. “He’s almost ready.
“Keep in mind he still hasn’t had a full, actual practice yet. For the first time he’s put a string of days together where he’s felt strong. We’re more optimistic now for a return sometime next week, whether it’s Ottawa or later in the week.”
Maurice added that he may put the returning players on a line together at first.
Wellwood was projected to be the club’s second-line centre, but Nik Antropov has blossomed in that role playing between Chad Kilger and Boyd Devereaux.
Wellwood had 42 points, including 12 goals, in only 48 games last season. He’s relieved that the injury looks to be fully healed.
“The major areas are done,” he said. “There’ll be some maintenance work to make sure I don’t hurt it again and that’s what we’re doing now – just skating and taking it day by day.
“Last year, I came back and played as hard as I could at the end of the year and it kept inflaming. In the summer, I’d feel a lot better but trying to come back and get into the whole swing of things became too hard and I had to get it fixed.”
Accompanying the team on a trip that took them to New Jersey for a 3-2 loss on Friday night before the stop in Montreal has made him even more eager to return to the action.
“But that will make it more interesting when I come back because we have some tough games we need to win,” he said.
The Leafs have yet to see Bell play a real game, although he was in camp and has made all the road trips with the club.
The 27-year-old had seasons of 21 and 25 goals with Chicago, but slumped to 11 in 71 games last season with the Sharks.
“We’ll work him in slowly,” said Maurice.
Bell pleaded no contest to a charge of criminal drunk driving in September. He is to serve a six-month sentence in a California county jail after the season.
He said watching games from the pressbox was “really hard, especially when you’re this close to playing.”
When the players return, Simon Gamache is the likely candidate to be returned to the AHL Toronto Marlies. After posting four points in his first three games with the Leafs, Gamache has not been on the scoresheet and has seen his ice time drop dramatically.
Maurice said the fine play of newcomer Jiri Tlusty has pushed Gamache down the depth chart.