DETROIT -- Mike Modano huffed and puffed, trying to catch his breath.
He'd just come off the ice at Joe Louis Arena after a post-practice workout this past Saturday and scanned the Detroit Red Wings locker room. The 40-year old Modano eventually locked onto his target and asked 23-year old forward Justin Abdelkader a light-hearted question.
"Where'd you go?" Modano said, smiling. "Huh? Where'd you go?"
Abdelkader laughed and lofted a couple of barbs at Modano, who told reporters he's eyeing a possible return from surgery to repair severed tendons in his right wrist during a road trip at the end of the month. His play in practice this past weekend suggests that's more probability than possibility.
Modano, who has been out since late November, has looked good during drills. He took one-timers, fired crisp passes, flicked wrist shots with ease and handled everything he was asked to do. He even got in some contact, which was a welcomed addition to his practice routine.
Modano has been skating and doing light practice work for a couple of weeks, but now he appears to be making sizable strides toward returning to game action.
"It's starting to get good," said Modano, who hasn't played since getting hurt in a Nov. 26 game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. "The hand's really feeling good, as far as pushing and shoving and getting a little bit more involved in the traffic and some other contact things. Strength-wise, it's really close."
The question is how much physical conditioning has been lost.
Modano, a Detroit-area product who signed a one-year contract with his home-town Red Wings last summer, played just 20 games before the injury. He has 2 goals and 8 points with a minus-3 rating while centering the third line -- attributing a lot of his on-ice struggles to conditioning.
Earlier this season, Modano spent extra time working on his cardiovascular and strength training thanks to the schedule often providing a few days between games. About a week before getting hurt, Modano said his improved fitness eventually would pay off.
He also got a better feel for what Detroit General Manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock expected from him.
"I was feeling good," Modano said. "I had a lot of opportunities to work off-ice and get some conditioning that way, and I really felt positive and good with things that were happening."
Then he got hurt. Now, whenever he returns, there's likely to be some amount of drop-off to make up.
"That's probably expected," Modano said. "We're still looking at two (more) weeks, possibly. That's a lot of skating and a lot of contact in practices until I get released to play. That's probably good for me -- to get me to a level where, hopefully, when I get playing it won't be that difficult."
But, Holland isn't too worrieed about a major drop off.
"He has really trained hard in January and now February and met up with a fitness guy in Birmingham, Mich.," Holland told NHL.com. "He went to Mexico for four days during the All Star break and he even took the fitness trainer with him. He has trained incredibly hard this season. He's worked as hard as he's had in his career on his off-ice conditioning, because of the injury."
Modano isn't the only Red Wing in this situation -- just the first to go down with a significant injury this season. While rehabbing his wrist, Modano has watched a number of teammates get hurt. Most are starting to trickle back now -- whether in practices or games -- but Modano wants to hit fast forward on the season until it's his turn to play again.
"It's been tough," Modano said. "It just seems like the bottom fell out when everybody went down there for a while, but they were still finding ways to win -- still collecting points and kind of weathering the storm until guys got back. Now guys are getting back and kind of getting their game legs under them and getting in shape."
Modano originally targeted a Feb. 24 return date -- a home game against the Dallas Stars, the franchise that drafted him and watched him become a star for 20 seasons. However, it's more likely he'll return sometime during Detroit's five-game road trip that starts Feb. 26 against the Buffalo Sabres.
Either way, Modano is counting down the days as the regular season winds down and the Stanley Cup Playoffs enter the horizon.
"The potential is there," Modano said. "When we get our full lineup back and we get a good month under our belt, it could be fun."
Fun enough to consider returning next season?
"It depends on how I feel and how things go when I get back," Modano said. "I'd love to come back again, have another crack at it and try to get a good, full year out of them. It's been fun. The guys have been great. The city's been great. Kenny and Mike have been fabulous. It just depends on how I feel, how I play and probably how the teams does, too."
It is a discussion that Holland is likely willing to have, as well.
"If you look at my history, I'm very comfortable with an older part of the team," Holland told NHL.com. "The bggest thing with veteran guys that I find is, 'Do you still have the passion to go to the gym every day in July and August?' When you’re 25 or 26, it's no problem. But when you’re 40 and your career is basically complete, you've got to be able to get up in the morning and go to the gym. Do you still have the energy and passion and desire?
"When you're 40 years of age ... it’s a big commitment. I will certainly sit down with him at the end of the year to see if he still has the desire and passion that it takes, and if so, we will definitely be open to the possibility of him returning."