RALEIGH — Jeff Skinner can't say definitively when he'll be back in the Carolina Hurricanes' lineup, back to playing in games.
But he took a big step closer Monday.
The Hurricanes' second-year forward, sidelined almost a month following a concussion, returned to practice at the RBC Center. While not yet cleared for contact, Skinner was back on the ice with his teammates, skating, smiling and pushing himself.
"It was good," Skinner said. "I've been out a little (skating) by myself, and it gets boring pretty quick. It was fun to get out there with everyone.
"I haven't been out there with that many bodies, that much noise, kind of moving around. I wasn't sure how I was going to react with all that noise, that emotion. It was good."
Skinner, 19, has not played since the Canes' Dec. 7 game in Edmonton, when he absorbed an open-ice hit from the Oilers' Andy Sutton. He was held out of games against the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of the Canes' Canadian road trip and was diagnosed with a concussion once back in Raleigh.
While Skinner has taken a number of hard hits as a player who often works around the net, he said the concussion was his first. He said he did not feel well the day after the Edmonton game, or after participating in the team's morning skate Dec. 9 in Winnipeg.
"I just felt weird. I felt a little off," he said. "I talked to the doctor on the phone, and he decided to keep me out of the lineup, and things went from there."
Skinner said he was not allowed to do anything the first 10 days of his recovery and was cleared for light work on a stationary bike only about a week-and-a-half ago. Then came more strenuous workouts on the bike, weight training and light skating on his own.
While the Hurricanes, who face the New York Islanders tonight, are 4-4-2 in the 10 games Skinner has been sidelined, they clearly miss a dynamic player who won the Calder Trophy last season as the NHL's top rookie. Skinner, who had 31 goals last season, was the Canes' leading scorer with 12 goals and 12 assists before the concussion.
"He's an important piece to our team," Canes captain Eric Staal said Monday. "He's a guy who has the ability to make a difference night-in and night-out. Any time you're missing a player like that, it affects your team."
Skinner said there is no set timetable for his return to games. He must first go through contact work in practice, then be evaluated by doctors again.
"It's a tough thing to sort of put a finger on because of the uncertainty," he said. "Everyone wants to play. Everyone is competitive and wants to get back as soon as possible, but with this injury you've got to be careful.
"They differ for every person. Every person is affected differently. The symptoms are different, and their recovery time is different."
Carolina defenseman Jay Harrison recently missed 10 games with a concussion. Skinner said he talked with Harrison about his therapy, and about staying patient.
"The most frustrating part is mentally you feel good one day, and you sort of want to go on the ice and start playing," Skinner said. "You can't do it that way.
"Another frustrating part is waking up and thinking, 'Am I feeling good today?' ... I wake up and sort of have that mind game. That part's annoying."
While Skinner is closer to returning, Canes coach Kirk Muller did not sound as encouraging Monday in discussing Joni Pitkanen. The Carolina defenseman suffered a concussion in the Dec. 6 game against the Calgary Flames and is not as far along in his recovery, Muller said.
Forward Patrick Dwyer has missed the last three games with an upper-body injury but is improving, Muller said.
Muller said he expected to see Skinner again trolling the "dirty areas" where the contact is heavy but where goals are scored.
"That's his game," Muller said. "It's a contact game and all that, but you can't change your style if you want to be the same type of player."