The Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins keep winning. The Colorado Avalanche keep surprising. But the storyline that has everybody shaking their heads in the first 38 days of the regular season has been the number of serious injuries.
There is no hard data available that supports the notion that the number of player injuries has gone up five-plus weeks into the season, but all you need to do is glance at the long list of star players who have missed time with ailments to know why there is plenty of chatter about the wounded in the NHL.
Between 200 and 300 man-games lost to injury is considered the norm for most NHL teams in a season. The Los Angeles Kings have the dubious distinction of recording the highest total at 629, set in 2003-04. Here were the numbers entering play Saturday.
"I'm certainly aware that there has been a lot of injuries and that you can probably put together a Stanley Cup-calibre championship team just by the players on the injured reserve list," Detroit general manager Ken Holland said.
Holland and the Red Wings have been hit hard with long-term ailments to top-six forwards Johan Franzen (knee surgery) and Valtteri Flippula (wrist).
They have been joined in the league-wide infirmary at different times this season by stars Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Roberto Luongo, Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Eric Staal, David Booth, Simon Gagne, Eric Cole, Andrei Markov, Jason Arnott, Danny Briere, Andy McDonald, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Paul Martin, Shea Weber, Rob Blake and many more.
There has been an assortment of injuries from concussions (Booth) to strains (Ovechkin) to groin (Gagne) to upper body (Staal) to shoulder (Malkin) to rib micro fracture (Luongo) to broken foot (Kovalchuk) to sliced ankle tendon (Markov).
"It certainly feels that there are more higher-profile guys being injured," Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said. "I will be interested to see what the other GMs have to say on this next week. I think it's worth discussing."
But has the number of injuries this season alarmed enough people in the NHL's power positions to spawn a committee to study the reasons behind the injuries? Holland, who supports a ban on blindside headshots, doesn't think so.
He said he doesn't need a study to explain why a player takes a shot off his foot and has a broken foot. Nor does he need a study on why Flippula broke his wrist when Edmonton's Gilbert Brule finished a check on the Detroit forward, who didn't have time to protect himself as he slammed into the sideboards.
"I think it's the nature of the game," Holland said. "These things tend to go in cycles. "If there were 85 people out with the same injury, then I would say let's study it. But a lot of these injuries are the result of this being a physical game. That's the nature of the game, so you're going to have collisions."
There are a number of theories as to why the spate of injuries being tossed around:
- Players are bigger, stronger, faster and are in better condition.
- The league's desire a few years ago to get rid of clutch-and-grab interference has made players susceptible to unimpeded body checks.
- Parity. Every game has playoff-like intensity.
- The condensed schedule to accommodate the Olympics, and the amped-up play by players trying to make their country's national team.
- Equipment protects players better than ever and this makes them fearless to dish out more ferocious hits.
- The style of play demanded by coaches.
- Teams play too many preseason games too early in training camp instead of beginning with short scrimmages to ease into game shape.
- Fatigue builds from back-to-back games and three-in-four-night stretches.
The Canucks are an interesting study because they will lose their home to the Olympics for a marathon 14-game road trip bisected by the Winter Games that no doubt will be an exhausting one. But they also just finished an arduous stretch of 13 games in 22 nights.
"There are number of factors that are contributing and the condensed schedule for the Olympics doesn't help," Vancouver GM Mike Gillis said. "It's a difficult situation when you're playing as many games as we have in a short period. Players get fatigued in such a challenging year.
"To win in this league you need great goaltending and play hard every night. It's always been like that, but the number of teams surrounding .500 right now, either at just above or just below, has made for a very tight league. You have to play every game and every shift meaningful intense."