How injuries are impacting the early part of the NHL season
Let’s talk about injuries and goaltending because injuries and goaltending were the twin storylines that dominated the first week or so of the new NHL season. Injuries always, always, always undermine the best-laid plans of any hopeful NHL team.
Last week, I was asked, on a podcast, previewing the NHL season to make a prediction for the Stanley Cup Final because that’s what you do in this business — make educated guesses to create fodder for conversation.
But I always issue the same caveat too: That a championship contender in April will often look a lot different than the team that started the season in October, and it’s not just because of moves a team may make during the season or at the trade deadline.
Let’s face it, even the most aggressive trade deadline moves maybe net a team one or two additional pieces.
You win championships based on your core — and how your core performs when playoffs start. And if your core is missing a key piece or two, too bad, so sad — but your chances just evaporated like the morning fog.
The problem with injuries is, they are just such a random factor in the game that you really have no control over. Smart managers and coaches know that the answer is always the same if you lose a Patrik Laine, an Aaron Ekblad or a Gabriel Landeskog for any extended period of time. So-and-so can’t be replaced, but someone else will get the opportunity to step up.
The Athletic: Opening night bummer | #CBJ lose winger Patrik Laine to arm injury, fall 4-1 to Hurricanes in Raleigh.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) October 13, 2022
But you know deep down, they’re just reading from a prepared script that they honestly don’t believe what they’re saying and they go to bed at night, cursing at the darkness, hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. Truth be told, NHL general managers are mostly pessimists at heart. They know that however well they may plan and build a roster, the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful year can sometimes come down to pure luck — and who stays healthy, when it matters the most.
GMs can also do math — the salary cap forced them to learn. It also brought a new appreciation and understanding of the odds. In the second year of the Seattle Kraken’s existence, the chances of actually celebrating with the Stanley Cup are now one-in-32. Or on average, three championships per franchise per century.
The reason they don’t say any of that out loud is because they’re convinced — incorrectly, I believe — that their fan bases can’t handle the truth. Sometimes, the only people who can reasonably point out the impact of injuries are the home team broadcasters. So, for example, there was a compelling graphic displayed during the telecast of the Vegas-Calgary game on Tuesday, which assessed not just overall man-games lost to injury, which is a scratch-the-surface stat, but also man-games lost to top-six forwards, top-four defencemen and goalies. That’s far more meaningful and gives a truer reading of how injuries can impact and undermine a team.
Now, defining exactly who fits those categories can be tricky, because sometimes, you might think a middle-of-the-lineup player fits in the top half of a roster and I might place him in the bottom half.
But realistically, whenever the likes of a Jack Eichel, a Mark Stone, a Max Pacioretty are missing from the lineup for an extended period, as they were for Vegas last year, most can agree: That negatively undermines what you’re trying to accomplish as a team. So this week, Florida lost the other half of their top defensive pairing, Aaron Ekblad, to an undisclosed injury, suffered in the game versus the Boston Bruins Monday night.
Ekblad’s partner last year, Mackenzie Weegar, is playing in Calgary, alongside Jonathan Huberdeau, both of whom were traded there last summer in the deal for Matthew Tkachuk. Florida went all in at the trade deadline last season, primarily for Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot, both of whom moved on once the season ended with a disappointing second-round loss. Salary cap constraints priced Mason Marchment out of the market. Anthony Duclair got hurt during preseason training and isn’t ready to play either.
So the current 2022-23 Panthers have only a faint resemblance to the 2021-22 version of the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy. Not only do they need to develop fresh chemistry, similar to what they had a year ago, but they’ll need to do it with a far less talented supporting cast. It’ll be worth monitoring how they fare. That defence is really thin. Ekblad’s timeline to return is vague — though putting him on LTIR means it’s a minimum of 10 games on the sidelines, possibly more.
But you know what they say? It’s an opportunity for someone else to step up. Let’s see if anyone does.
Sixty-two goaltenders had made at least one appearance through the end of the first full week of the season, but you get the sense that some teams will ride their starters harder than others. Dallas, for one, was 3-0 out of the gate with 13 goals for, only three against and Jake Oettinger followed up last year’s brilliant playoff against Calgary, by giving up just three goals in that span. This earned him one of three of the league’s first player-of-the-week awards (the others in that group were Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid).
Carolina also matched that start — only three goals against in three games — before the Oilers lit up Freddie Andersen for five on Thursday night (the sixth goal went into the empty net). It stands to reason that the Hurricanes will balance the workload between Andersen and Antti Raanta more evenly, in the hopes of mitigating the injury risk that both are susceptible to.
The Oilers loss notwithstanding, Carolina was last year’s Jennings Trophy winners, and look as if they’ll be one of the stingiest teams in the NHL again this year … Maybe the most heartening early-season goalie stories, though, are being played out in Vegas and Buffalo respectively. For the Golden Knights, Logan Thompson is stepping in for the injured Robin Lehner and showing a great battle level. He kept them in a game, Tuesday night against Calgary, they had no business being in. Overall, he’s 2-1. Thompson’s long and winding journey to the NHL circled through junior (Brandon), Canadian college (Brock University), the low minors (Adirondack Thunder, South Carolina Stingers) and then to Henderson, the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate and now as the de facto starter in Vegas.
What I like most about Thompson is that compete level. He never gives up on a puck and his focus is outstanding. There’s a little bit of Grant Fuhr there, where winning seems to be the only thing that matters.
Eric Comrie, meanwhile, was bounced around the NHL waiver wire so much in 2020-21, he must have gotten vertigo. Eventually, he landed where he started — the Winnipeg Jets’ organization — and last year, became a reliable backup to Connor Hellybuyck, which earned him a free-agent contract with Buffalo, where he’s paired with the veteran Craig Anderson in an unlikely partnership that’s looked good so far.
Comrie may have recorded the biggest win of his career Tuesday, when the Sabres went into Edmonton and knocked off McDavid and the Oilers, but then he backed it up with another strong outing two nights later, handing Calgary its first loss of the season. No organization needs the positivity to continue more than Buffalo does. If the goaltending truly holds up, and Rasmus Dahlin continues to score goals at a record pace, then the Sabres could make life interesting in the Atlantic Division.
Among current NHL coaches, Darryl Sutter — who this week, coached his 1,400th NHL game — really likes to designate a defined No. 1, though he’s stated he’ll try to get Dan Vladar a start a week to take some of the workload off of Jacob Markstrom. Vladar signed a two-year contract extension on Thursday, which likely means that the team’s top goaltending prospect Dustin Wolf is further away from landing a full-time NHL job than his strong rookie season in the AHL last year suggested.
Markstrom, who got pulled versus the Sabres, ranked fifth in minutes played last year. The leader was Juuse Saros of Nashville. Markstrom was otherworldly at times during 2021-22, but his start (.867 save percentage and a 3.43 goals-against average) mirrors his play in the second round of last year’s playoffs — average at best. He needs to be better.
The Kings also need to see progress from goaltender Cal Petersen, who only lasted 20 minutes before getting yanked against the Penguins Thursday night. Maybe Petersen needs a Jake Allen-type reset soon. They can’t rely on Jonathan Quick forever … On the plus side, Gabe Vilardi played 25 games for Los Angeles last year and scored seven points. After the first five games this year, Vilardi also had seven points (he was shut out in Game 6, Thursday night).
Maybe the biggest early-season story from the Kings is that they are seeing growth from their third line, which also includes center Quinton Byfield. That was always going to be the key to any turnaround in L.A. Adding Philip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala gave them three top-six reinforcements via free agency and trade, but real improvement only happens when the kids start to figure it out.
Salary cap’s impact
The most revealing stat of the week? Arguably, it came out of Monday’s board of governors meeting in New York, when commissioner Gary Bettman revealed that the players’ escrow debt — which arose during the pandemic years — could be paid off by the end of this season, thanks to robust revenues. If so, that means the salary cap for the 2023-24 season could rise between $4 and $5 million, though likely a little less.
Of course, many teams have spent that already. For example, if you’re Calgary and you split the difference between the two estimates, a $4.6 million bump in the cap would completely pay for Huberdeau’s raise which kicks in next year, from $5.9 million to $10.5 million
Taking stock of Lindy Ruff and the Devils
In the first period of Tuesday’s game versus Anaheim, Devils coach Lindy Ruff was serenaded with “Fire Lindy” chants from the crowd, after falling behind 2-0. Then the Devils came back and won, which was career victory No. 783 for Ruff, passing the Hall of Famer, Al Arbour, for fifth place on the all time coaches wins list. Eight games into the season? Yikes, that’s harsh. The Devils then turned in their finest performance so far this year, two nights later, against an Islanders team that was badly outplayed and outchanced by New Jersey.
Comebacks this season
#NHLstats produced this little nugget from earlier this week. On Tuesday night, six of the eight games saw teams come from behind to erase multi-goal leads. Only four times in NHL history has that ever happened more often on a single night. It didn’t mean teams necessarily completed the comeback either. Boston for example, got it close with their comeback, but eventually lost to Ottawa, in the Senators’ home opener. But it is a welcome change from a decade ago when teams were far more successful at getting out in front early and then locking it down. Now, at least, there’s a reason to stay in your seats, even in the event of a slow start.
How’s Philly doing under John Tortorella?
Philadelphia won only five times last season, after giving up the first goal of the game. This year? Under new coach John Tortorella, they were 3-0 in those situations, before losing a close one against Florida on Wednesday. You like to see some positive vibes in Philadelphia.
There’s plenty of time for the Flyers to revert to the norm. A little chaos in the Metropolitan Division is a good thing.
Checking in on the schedule
This is an annual pet peeve. As of Friday morning, three teams had already played six games — two that started the year in Europe (San Jose and Nashville) plus the Kings. Meanwhile, St. Louis had played just twice. I get that building the NHL schedule is a complicated puzzle, but that games-played imbalance just doesn’t seem right. One mostly unnoticed part of the 2022-23 schedule is the return of the bye weeks for the first time since 2019-20. All teams will get a bye wrapped around the NHL All-Star weekend (Feb. 2-5) — 23 have their byes leading into the break and nine have their byes coming out of the All-Star break.
(Top photo of Aaron Ekblad: Brian Fluharty / USA Today)