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Hurricanes veteran winger Stillman eyes mid-December return

"I've been skating every day for the last 3-4 weeks," said the 32-year-old winger. "Every day is better, puck handling, shooting. Right now I'm working on strength and motion and when I get that back I'll be cleared to play in a game."

His absence has left a huge void up front for Carolina. The native of Peterborough, Ont., had 76 points (21-55) in 72 games last season and added another 26 points (9-17) in 25 playoff games, second in playoff scoring, en route to capturing the Stanley Cup.

Stillman hasn't worn the Hurricanes uniform since sipping champagne out of the Cup following Carolina's Game 7 win over Edmonton last June.

"June 19, a date you'll never forget," he said. "But it'll be nice to get back."

The next critical step in his recovery is dropping the blue, non-contact jersey he wears in practice. A checkup next week could clear him for contact.

"I'll see the doctor probably Tuesday and hopefully I can get rid of my blue shirt," said Stillman. "Then I think we want to wait a week or two to see how I respond, day by day. We want to see how I do in a more physical practice and how I feel the next day."

Stillman says the shoulder wasn't bothering him much in the playoffs.

"No, it wasn't bad, but then in the summer I went to pick a hockey bag out of the truck and I could feel my shoulder drop," he said. "Then I knew there were problems and it ended up being worse than I thought it was going to be."

He had minor surgery in early July but then realized in August he needed a more serious procedure done.

"People always ask why I waited so long, until August, to have it done," said Stillman. "Well, I waited because I had surgery July 7 as well.

"I was hoping the minor surgery July 7 would get me through the year but I had to have a major one done."

It's been a frustrating couple of months. It's tough feeling like you're part of the team when you're an injured player. Some of that camaraderie just isn't there.

"We started out 0-3-1 and you're like, 'I wish I was there to help,"' said Stillman. "We've played much better as of late. The biggest thing is just being there and being part of the team, winning or losing, just being with the guys in the middle of it. You miss that."

At the same time, he doesn't want to rush it.

"Obviously you want to play as soon as you can, it's not fun coming to the rink every day and watching games. But I want to be able to come back so that when I play I'm going to be as close as I'm going to be to 100 per cent and I don't have any lingering effects for the rest of the season."

Stillman, in the second season of a three-year deal that pays him US$1.75 million per, believes he'll be returning to a team that remains a contender.

"I think we're a very good team again," he said. "Obviously we lost some key players and we added some guys that are starting to fit into their roles. I think for our team, yes Eric Staal became a big player, but I think we're still a team that relies on all of our lines to score if not the top three.

"And if we can do that, it makes us a very successful team."


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