NHL 2011-2012: Zach Parise and 20 Players to Watch Coming Back from Injury
You and I have spent the past couple of months looking for things to help fill the void left by the absence of hockey. Watching game re-runs and television specials; reading magazines and articles; or perhaps even skating at a local rink.
However, there are some guys who have been waiting much longer than us to get their hockey fix—the pros themselves.
This past season saw an unfortunate number of players go down with varying injuries. Fortunately, there has never been more talent in the NHL than there is right now. Young stars like Jeff Skinner, Logan Couture and Michael Grabner were born and helped carry the torch.
But now after an offseason of recuperation, work and rehabilitation, the guys who missed time last year are ready to make an impact this year.
So while you ready your fantasy hockey leagues or purchase your season tickets, here are some players to watch in 2011-12 who are coming off injury in 2010-11...
20. Daymond Langkow (Phoenix Coyotes)
Langkow went down late in the 2009-2010 season after a shot broke a vertebra in his neck. He missed 78 games last year before coming back to play in Calgary's final four games, tallying an assist and a plus-3 rating. His long and arduous journey back to the ice earned him a nomination for the Masterton Trophy along with Ray Emery and Ian Laperierre.
Today he was dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes, returning to the place he called home from 2001-2004.
The 34-year-old was a steady presence for the Flames for the past six years. The 5th overall pick in 1995 is expected to be ready and 100 percent for camp. And while his production has gone down in each of the last three seasons, perhaps being back in the desert will help his game warm back up.
19. Steve Sullivan (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Steve Sullivan has been a fan favorite just about everywhere he has been. He's an easy guy to root for; he's small in stature, but he's a leader, a gamer and a producer.
"Sulli" has battled back issues for a long while, missing the entire season in 2007-2008. And with just ten goals and 24 points, 2010-2011 was one of his worst statistical seasons in over a decade. But the former Masterton Memorial Trophy winner now has a new home in the Steel City.
The CONSOL Energy Center was basically a hospital wing last year. If the Pens can stay healthy this year, Pittsburgh could be a perfect spot the 37-year-old Sullivan. Who wouldn't love playing alongside (a healthy) Malkin and Crosby... *cue foreshadowing music*
18. Vinny Prospal (Columbus Blue Jackets)
Scott Howson and the Blue Jackets made some flashy moves, bringing in Jeff Carter and James Wisniewksi in an effort to reach that "next level." It appeared their top six was set, but a major injury to Kristian Huselius created a hole.
Enter Vinny Prospal. The 36-year-old had knee troubles last year and appeared in just 29 games for the Rangers. But he still was able to tally nine goals and 14 assists.
Live Long and Prospal, Vinny.
He'll join Carter, Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and R.J. Umberger up front on a team that could use some consistent offense. The 14-year veteran also brings playoff experienced to a franchise that has made the postseason just once since its inception.
17. Peter Mueller (Colorado Avalanche)
It's pretty safe to say that last year could have gone better for Colorado. Bad fortune began knocking on the Avs' door even before the season started.
Peter Mueller was acquired from the Coyotes 2010, and notched 20 points in his first 15 games for Colorado. But a Rob Blake-induced concussion put a rain cloud over what was Mueller's beautiful change of scenery.
The 2006 8th overall pick came back ready for training camp last year, but was concussed again in his first game back during the preseason.
Those symptoms didn't go away and forced the 23-year-old Musketeer lookalike to miss all of last season. While he didn't miss much, the Avs certainly missed him.
Adrian Dater of The Denver Post gave us an update on Mueller, who appears on the right track to return this fall healthy and with a new helmet.
16. Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche)
The Avalanche paid a hefty price to acquire Semyon Varlamov from the Capitals, especially when you consider the netminder has never started more than 25 games in a season.
He's only 23, but Varlamov hasn't been able to stay healthy in his young career. Groin and knee injuries limited him to just 27 appearances in 2010-2011 for Washington, going 11-9-5 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Varlamov had to work in a committee for the Caps over the past two years with Michal Neuvirth and Jose Theodore, respectively. If he can stay on the ice in Colorado, Varlamov will get a shot to set a career high in starts with Jean-Sebastien Giguere backing him up.
15. Marek Zidlicky (Minnesota Wild)
With Brent Burns no longer on the blueline in Minnesota, Marek Zidlicky will be called upon to be the Wild's top defenseman.
Last year was a struggle for Zidlicky, who was hampered by hamstring and shoulder injuries throughout the season. He played 46 games, scoring seven goals and 24 points—all career lows for the 34-year-old.
The Czech is a force on the man advantage: 157 of his 284 career points have come on the power play. If healthy, he'll likely be around the 40-point plateau, a level he has reached in five of his seven seasons in the league.
14. Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers)
Taylor Hall had ten minutes of ice time on March 3. He had a goal, an assist, and a fight that would make Gordie Howe proud. Unfortunately what happened at the end of the bout also ended his 2010-2011 season.
Before suffering the season-ending ankle injury, Hall was looking like a special player in his rookie season. He displayed the speed and play-making skills that made him the first overall selection in last year's draft.
42 points in 65 games is very respectable for a first-year player. The Calgary native should come back for his sophomore campaign with a clean bill of health, and will look to lead a young Oilers team in its slow, arduous U-turn.
The kid looks like he could be in "Twilight" for crying out loud—he's the real deal.
13. Ales Hemsky (Edmonton Oilers)
Ales Hemsky is one of those guys fans have a love/hate relationship with. As they say, he's never around for a long time, just for a good one.
He has great hands and has hovered around a point-per-game average over the past four seasons. It's too bad you only see him for half of every season... if you're lucky.
Edmonton's first-round pick in 2001 (13th overall), the Czech winger has yet to play a full year in the NHL and has played a combined 69 games over the past two seasons. In 2010-2011, he only saw 47 games of action before going down with a shoulder injury in March. This time it was his right shoulder, the year before it was his left.
He's so good and so talented, but perhaps we just have to accept the fact that he's a porcelain doll.
12. Ryan Whitney (Edmonton Oilers)
Just when it looked like Ryan Whitney was settling in Edmonton and returning to 2006-2007 form, he went down with a foot and ankle injury that required surgery.
Up to that point in December, the Bostonian was having a highly productive 2010-2011. 27 points in 35 games for the Oilers with a plus-13 rating, which is pretty good for a guy with turnover issues playing on a struggling team.
The 5th overall pick in the 2002 draft, Whitney never saw the ice after the new year. So it would seem the long layoff would have given him plenty of time to heal. But the latest quotes from Tom Renney suggest that Whitney may not be 100 percent, though he does say it could be just scar tissue breaking down.
The 6'4" defenseman has had injury issues in the past, which only adds concern. I'm not concerned about his Twitter, however. He appears to be running that at full strength.
11. Mark Streit (New York Islanders)
Last year, the Islanders took another step in the rebuilding process. They won some games and showed off some young talent, including standout rookie Michael Grabner. The only thing missing was a No. 1 defenseman. It's not that they didn't have one on the roster, it's that he wasn't able to play.
Mark Streit's 2010-2011 was over before it started. He suffered a severe shoulder injury during a preseason scrimmage and never played a regular season game.
The Swiss blueliner has averaged almost 43 points per season since coming into the league. And he is important on the power play, having scored 19 goals and 32 assists on the man advantage since coming to the Isles.
Garth Snow's Islanders haven't made the playoffs in four years, but some think that streak could end this year. Mark Streit coming back is one of the reasons why.
10. Daniel Alfredsson (Ottawa Senators)
2010-2011 wasn't a good year for the Ottawa Senators. They missed the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons and finished below .500 for the first time since 1996-1997. Ottawa looked more like the Sens of the 90's than the ones we've seen in the past decade.
The season was also miserable for captain Daniel Alfredsson, who posted career lows in games played (54), assists (17) and points (31). His minus-19 rating was the worst since his rookie season. It was also the first time since 2000-01 that the Swede failed to reach the 70-point mark.
His down year was due in large part to back problems. The 15-year veteran was shut down in February, and after rest wasn't able to fix the problem, he underwent surgery in June. It's now August and Alfredsson is back skating.
Soon to be 39, he may not have too much left, and the Sens are a young group. But they will need the Alfredsson of old to get back into playoff contention.
9. Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks)
2010-2011 was going along quite nicely for Jonas Hiller. Then it took a terrible turn, ironically during All-Star weekend, where he was making his first appearance.
At the break, Hiller was one of the league's top goalies, with 25 wins and a .925 save percentage. Then the Swiss star began suffering from dizziness and fatigue, eventually forcing the Ducks to place him on IR in early February.
Anaheim's netminder was diagnosed with vertigo. He tried playing again in March, but gave up three goals in twelve minutes before being pulled. Hiller never saw the ice again, missing Anaheim's run toward home-ice advantage.
Last week, the man behind the gunmetal mask proclaimed himself symptom-free and ready for training camp. This is great news for the Ducks, who gave Hiller a four-year extension before last year. After letting Ray Emery walk, Anaheim will need the 29-year-old to bounce back in a big way. Once thing is for sure, when his head is on right and he is seeing things clearly, Hiller is as good a goalie as you will find.
8. Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens)
Andrei Markov has spent every year of his career in Montreal, but has seemingly spent more time on IR over the past two seasons.
In 2010-2011, the defenseman played in just seven games, managing a goal and two assists. You don't need to look at his player card to know his numbers are usually much better than that. Just two seasons ago, the Russian tallied 64 points in 78 games, 39 of which came with a man up.
This offseason, Montreal lost James Wisniewski, who was a steady producer in his brief time with the Habs. And a lot is riding on P.K. Subban's continued development. But Andrei Markov's health is of paramount importance, especially on the power play.
7. Derek Roy (Buffalo Sabres)
Christmas Eve is generally a pretty exciting day. That wasn't the case last year, at least not in Buffalo, because the Sabres found out their Christmas present was a Derek Roy torn quad tendon. They would have rather gotten coal.
Up to that point, Roy had registered 35 points in 35 games. Buffalo's second round pick in 2001, Roy is Lindy Ruff's most reliable and consistent source of offense. Surgery forced the Ontario native to miss the remainder of Buffalo's 7th-place regular season. He did return for Game 7 of a first-round playoff matchup with the Flyers, and true to form he tallied a point. But it wasn't enough to continue the Sabres' year.
How important are Roy's contributions? He had 10 goals and 25 assists when he went down. Despite missing more than half the season, his 35 points were still tied for 7th best on the team.
Based on the money he spent in the offseason, owner Terry Pegula wants to win and win now. He's going to need Derek Roy at 100 percent to do that.
6. Mike Green (Washington Capitals)
Mike Green was the highest-scoring defenseman for two years before struggling in 2010-2011. After posting more than 73 points in back-to-back campaigns, the Caps' No. 1 blueliner only managed 24 points in 49 games.
Washington's first-round pick in 2004, Green was dinged up last year with concussion issues and other ailments. General manager George McPhee did some heavy lifting in D.C. this offseason and has the Caps ready to contend for a title. A big part of the team's moves were to strengthen the defense, which helps take some pressure off Green's shoulders in 2011-2012.
With John Carlson and Karl Alzner developing nicely, and Roman Hamrlik and Dennis Wideman coming to town, Washington's defensive corps are both deep and talented. So as long as Green stays healthy, he'll avoid a credit downgrade from a AAA offensive defenseman.
5. Chris Pronger (Philadelphia Flyers)
Chris Pronger was more of a medical case study in 2010-2011 than he was a No. 1 defenseman. The former 2nd overall pick suffered from a myriad of injuries, playing in 50 games and managing just 25 points, his lowest output since 2002-2003—a year in which he played just five games.
Hand. Back. Knee. Foot. You name it, Prongs likely hurt it. Over the course of the season and into this summer, Pronger has gone under the knife four times. That is a lot of surgery and rehabilitation for a big, physical defenseman inching closer to a 37th birthday.
Given the six years and nearly $30 million still left on his contract, neither Pronger nor the Flyers should be rushing anything. All eyes will remain set on October 6, when Philly opens the new season in the same place the last one ended—at the TD Garden against the Stanley Cup champion Bruins.
The team will be sporting a vastly different look from last year heading into 2011-12. Having Pronger 100 percent would be a different, but welcome change.
4. Martin Brodeur (New Jersey Devils)
In 18 seasons, Martin Brodeur has the most regular season wins (625), the most shutouts (116), a Calder Trophy, two Olympic Gold Medals, three Stanley Cups and four Vezinas. But despite all the numbers and awards already on his resume, Brodeur did something in 2010-2011 that he had never done before: finish with a losing record.
Hampered by injuries and uncharacteristic struggles, Brodeur had one of the worst seasons of his Hall of Fame career. He posted his third-lowest win total (23-26-3), and his second-worst goals against average (2.45) and save percentage (.903).
It's the second time in the past three seasons Marty has missed extensive time due to injury. In 2008-2009, he missed 51 games with a torn biceps tendon.
Johan Hedberg was as solid as one could expect filling in, but New Jersey wants to avoid another poor first half in 2011-2012, and Brodeur is the X-factor.
3. Zach Parise (New Jersey Devils)
Having Martin Brodeur dinged up for most of last year hurt the Devils. Losing Zach Parise in October basically killed them.
Going into last year, the Minnesota product had scored at least 31 goals every year except his rookie season, including 45 in 2008-09. He hurt his knee while skating last August and the injury got progressively more bothersome until he shut things down in October. Surgery and rehabilitation kept him off the ice until the very last game of the season.
The injury further clouded Parise's already uncertain future in New Jersey. 2010-2011 was a contract year, but because he was only able to play 13 games, negotiations on a long-term extension were complicated. So the Devils and the 17th overall pick in the 2003 draft bought some more time, avoiding arbitration with a one-year contract worth $6 million.
So 2011-2012 gives a healthy Parise a chance to re-establish his long-term value. And heaven knows the Devils can't wait.
2. Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Geno was seemingly one of about 500 Penguins players to go down at some point last year. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but Dan Bylsma definitely earned the heck out of that Jack Adams Trophy with all the lineup shuffling he had to do.
Malkin went down during a game in February with torn knee ligaments and eventually had surgery to repair them. His numbers in 2010-2011 weren't good—15 goals, 37 points—of course having only played in 43 games.
Keep in mind, the 2004 draft's 2nd overall pick is just a couple of years removed from leading the league in scoring. And reports indicate the former Conn Smythe Winner is indeed on track to return to that level.
Don't believe me? See for yourself.
But when it comes to the Pittsburgh's preparation for 2011-2012, the focus is on the big Penguin on campus...
1. Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins)
TMZ could have a "Sidney Crosby Page" given all the rumors and stories that have been flying around regarding the superstar. First he's retiring, then not retiring. Then he's training, then he's not training due to symptoms. Then that report is deemed false by his agent. And the latest says Crosby is seeing concussion specialists.
It was two hits in January—one by Dave Steckel during the Winter Classic and another from Victor Hedman against Tampa —that put Sid on the shelf. The concussion caused him to miss 41 games from a season that, up to the moment he went out, looked like it could have been his best yet. In the half season he did play, Crosby had 32 goals, 34 assists, and was rocking a plus-20 rating.
Given everything that has been reported and refuted, only a handful of people truly know what is happening with the Kid. But it is imperative that he comes back fully healthy. Whether it's on October 6 in Vancouver or January 6 against the Rangers, no good would come from a rushed return.
Crosby is a household name and a prodigious talent. People can debate between him and Ovechkin as to who is the better player, but there is no debating who has the better face to represent the NHL and who has won more.
Sidney Crosby's health is important not only to the Penguins success in 2011-12, but to hockey's success for the years beyond.
Follow Stephen Nelson on Twitter: @Stephen__Nelson