Can an NHL team be too healthy?
While injuries can devastate a team and completely derail a season (witness the Flyers right now and the Oilers all season), they can also strengthen a team, teaching players to step up and form a cohesive bond around the healthy players.
Injuries teach the remaining players to play through adversity, forcing teams to play above their previously-thought limitations.
The Rangers have not had to deal with the adversity of injuries very much the past two seasons. The Rangers have lost just 61 man-games to injury this year, the lowest in the NHL . Just to frame how low that number is, the Oilers have lost 457 man-games to injury this year, the highest in the NHL. And last year, the Rangers lost just 31 man-games to injury .
One could say the only thing the Rangers have done right the past two seasons is stay healthy. But what if that's been the problem?
For instance, the signing of Marian Gaborik was followed by qualifications that Gaborik would need to stay healthy for his signing to be worthwhile. And for the most part, Gaborik has stayed healthy this season, missing just six games this season (in addition to ostensibly playing six or so games semi-injured after the Olympic break).
But Gaborik's long-term health has allowed the Rangers to defer to him, counting on Gaborik to come up when they need a big goal. One can say Gaborik has been the Rangers' only pure goal-scorer all season, which is true, but you can also make the case his continued presence has meant no one has needed to consistently step up and score goals.
Injuries allow players to emerge. Look at the Rangers' Erik Christensen, arguably one of the few bright spots of this season.
Christensen was a waiver-claim spending most of his time as a healthy scratch until Brandon Dubinsky hurt his hand in November, missing some time. Christensen got the nod from coach John Tortorella and has worked himself into a top-six forward position (the ascension is as much a comment on the Rangers lack of depth as it is on Christensen's drive).
When Dubinsky returned, the Rangers suddenly had an extra forward to work with. So while Dubinsky's injury temporarily hurt the Rangers, in the long run, they actually got an extra player out of it.
These sorts of serendipitous things happen all the time around injuries. Injuries force coaches to look at their teams in a new way and to put trust in players they wouldn't normally trust.
So how do the Rangers work around being too healthy?
Sean Avery and Ryan Callahan are doing their part to help things, what with Callahan nursing a leg injury and Avery leaving Saturday night's game with an undisclosed lower-body issue.
But beyond that, how should the Rangers have dealt with being healthy?
Tortorella could have pretended players were injured, giving them days off to see what other players could do.
AHL call-up P.A. Parenteau scored a goal in Saturday night's game against Toronto, Parenteau getting the opportunity due to injuries to Callahan and Brian Boyle.
What if Tortorella had given Parenteau a chance earlier? Parenteau was up for 14 games at the start of the season, with his ice time eventually dwindling to less than eight minutes a game. But was he ready to return to the NHL sooner than Saturday night?
Tortorella probably wouldn't have used Parenteau if Boyle and Callahan were healthy, but without many options, Tortorella took a chance and it paid off. Perhaps the Rangers would have been better served if Tortorella had taken more chances during the season.
Obviously, it's easy to look at this season and second-guess Tortorella's choices. It's not fair to use hindsight to say Tortorella should have known to do X, Y, and Z to earn wins. What I'm suggesting is that when his lineup was failing him, Tortorella should have mixed up the personnel a little more, putting new players in different positions for extended periods.
Rather than giving guys like Enver Lisin and Artem Anisimov a few shifts with the top line and declaring the experiment a failure, why not give them some time to see what happens, pretending he has no choice?
Why did Tortorella stick with players who weren't effective while simultaneously juggling those same player amongst different lines? Why not give different players an extended chance to succeed, as what happened with Christensen, when Tortorella had no choice but to give him a long look?
The health of the Rangers this season might have impeded the development of the team. Tortorella was never forced to get creative and role players were never forced to expand upon their role.
A few more injuries earlier in the season might have put the Rangers firmly into the playoff picture.
Sometimes (and the Oilers might disagree with this), teams can be too healthy.
The Rangers might have been better off with a few more injuries this season.
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