The last time Ben Bishop participated in an NHL game was Aug. 31, 2020. That's 465 days ago.
Bishop had missed the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoff bubble at that point, so it was a bit of a shock. He played in one period before allowing four straight goals, with Anton Khudobin getting called upon to resume goalie duties - and, eventually, take Dallas to the Stanley Cup final.
Bishop had just returned from knee surgery, but he just didn't look comfortable at the time. He played two other playoff games that year, losing all of them. The Stars hoped Bishop getting knee surgery during the COVID-19 stoppage would allow him time to lead Dallas on a long playoff run. But instead, it started a spiral down a challenging role for one of the best goaltenders in the NHL at the time.
So with Bishop ready to begin his conditioning stint with the Texas Stars on Thursday, Bishop finally makes his long-awaited return to hockey. It wasn't expected to take this long: after that first surgery, it was announced that Bishop would miss five months due to meniscus tear surgery for his right knee but never hit the ice.
For a 6-foot-7, 35-year-old goaltender, getting back to anywhere near his old playing days will be a challenge. But Bishop has the skills to get it done, and he told reporters earlier this week that "I feel like my goalie skills are sharper now than they were then."
Is it realistic to expect him to return close to the form that made him a Vezina Candidate during the past five years? His age suggests no, and his surgeries definitely lessen that possibility.
When healthy, Bishop was one of the best goalies in the world. The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist was always a leader in wins-above-replacement among goalies and despite having some good talent around him in Dallas and Tampa Bay, Bishop is no stranger to stealing victories.
But will he even come close to that when he eventually returns? That's the challenge.
But if he's as ready as he's ever been like he suggests, maybe the team can make things work out. Bishop would be joining a crowded crease once he eventually gets called up, with Anton Khudobin, Braden Holtby and Jake Oettinger already around. Khudobin has struggled and would likely be the one shipped out, while Holtby continues to be a positive presence for the club. Oettinger has been good and is part of Dallas' future, but he's waiver exempt and is the easy option to send down.
The Stars have been patient with him, and Bishop's last two years have been a bit of an enigma. But if the team, and Bishop, believe it's time for him to return to AHL game action, they must think he's not too far along.
And that should be exciting for the Dallas Stars. Hey, he's rested! The Stars currently find themselves in sixth place in the Central Division, but only two points behind Colorado for second. It's an ultra-tight race, and if Bishop can come in in the near future and start shutting the door, the Stars might be looking towards another playoff run after missing the post-season altogether last year.
The conditioning stint can last up to three games before the Stars will need to re-evaluate what they're going to do with Bishop. Perhaps he's not fully ready and needs extra time to heal. Or maybe he'll roaring to go because of all that time off. Getting him into action against the Chicago Wolves on Thursday is a good first step to seeing where Bishop's game is at and, hopefully, making a successful return to the game after years of misery.