At the start of the 2008-2009 season I attended training camp with the Hershey Bears of the AHL. The Islanders had invited me back to attend my second main camp after spending the 2007-08 season in their farm system, but I had turned the offer down. I knew I didn’t put in the proper amount of work that summer, and I didn’t want to tarnish my family’s last name with the organization by embarrassing myself.
But to be clear, I wasn’t in bad shape. I was in fine shape, really. But I wasn’t good enough to play in the NHL, so anything less than insanely great shape was going to be a problem, and possibly dangerous. So, off to AHL camp I went, planning on making a good impression, starting with an ECHL team, and hopefully getting called up fairly early and sticking (Hershey was stacked, so I knew starting there would’ve taken a small miracle).
During a three-on-three low battle drill, I put together my best 40 seconds of camp. I spun off and beat my guy out of the corner, created two scoring chances, and made one particularly slick pass. But by the end of that effort, I was cooked. I passed the puck as someone came to hit me, and had I been in great shape, I would have side-stepped the hit and moved on. I was too tired to get out of the way, so I took the contact. My skate blade caught, my knee popped, and me and my torn MCL were done for camp.
That’s how a lot of injuries happen: at the end of shifts, to tired players, to guys who don’t have that extra bit of oomph to adjust before hitting the wall or ice.
Heading into this NHL season, I think we’re going to see a lot of exactly what I experience in Hershey. You’ll have players who didn’t think there was going to be a season, so they decided not to kill themselves in the gym. You’ll have guys who were so frustrated by the lockout they couldn’t bring themselves to “give ‘er” with no end in sight. And, you’ll have guys playing in the Kontinental Hockey League, competiting hard and staying in game shape who are in mid-season form.
The varying levels of fitness I expect to see are likely going to cause problems. As all hockey players know, there’s no shape like game shape. Skate all the lines you like, nothing compares to all the small muscles and stabilizers that get worn down and built up when you’re trying to stay with an opponent who’s trying to juke you. I think sluggish players will be occasionally caught off-gaurd by guys who are full of piss and vinegar, and will be unprepared to brace themselves before some sort of damage can be done. And that’s not even to mention the pulled groins and other slow-to-heal nagging injuries that will come with a condensed schedule.
The worst part about all this, for teams anyway, is that injuries are going to have a huge effect on which clubs succeed and which fail over a 48-game schedule. A standard tweak of a limb can keep a guy out for two or three weeks, which could mean missing as much as a dozen games. Which is a quarter of the season.
If you’re a team without a key piece of your roster for that length of time – maybe a guy like Ryan Kesler – it could greatly affect not just your playoff seed, but even your chance of making playoffs. (Not that I’m worried about the Canucks making playoffs, just using him as an example.)
And in that regard, it’s exactly like fantasy football, where you can draft Adrian Peterson in a year he gets hurt and get zero points, or draft him this past season and ride him to a league victory. Your fortune can be somewhat of a crapshoot in this regard. So much of fantasy sports comes down to luck – “Yay, I got Crosby first overall!” “Crap, he’s hurt forever :( ” – and I think some teams are going to find this NHL season plays out that way too.
If you’re the team that lucks out and stays healthy – even if that’s the Blue Jackets, Islanders, Leafs or whoever – you’ve got a legit shot at cracking the post-season. There’ll be a lot of pressure on medical staffs in the coming months, and coaches will be hard-pressed to make sure they strike the perfect balance between keeping the team conditioning up, and not wearing their players down.
We just saw Robert Griffin III get hurt after playing in a situation he maybe shouldn’t have been playing in (that’s football, for you super-one-dimensional hockey fans), and that’s something coaches will need to be wary of. “Player X is sort of hurt, he’s sort of tweaked, let’s give him one game off so we don’t risk losing him for ten.”
This hockey season could have that fantasy football type luck when it comes to injuries and team success. Those that stay healthy will have a massive advantage.