NHL Teams Nervously Watching Their Injury-Prone Players at Sochi 2014

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IFebruary 14, 2014

NHL Teams Nervously Watching Their Injury-Prone Players at Sochi 2014

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    ERIC RISBERG/Associated Press

    The Ottawa Senators won the Stanley Cup in 2006 on the shoulders of Olympic star Dominik Hasek. Whoops, no, they didn't!

    Hasek missed the rest of the season with an injury sustained in Turin, and the Senators made a second-round postseason exit instead. Could a similar injury in Sochi derail one of this year's contenders?

    Olympic injuries are taken very seriously. Hasek's was one of 47 injuries to occur in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Colin Horgan of The Guardian wrote:

    Turin also saw Patrick Elias and Mattius Ohlund suffer rib injuries. Simon Gagne got a bruised knee, Pavol Dimitra injured his eye, and Alexander Frolov damaged his shoulder. Jaromir Jagr suffered a groin injury in the bronze medal game.

    Fortunately there were "only" 22 injuries in 2010, according to the IIHF

    Which teams are at the greatest risk of a significant injury in Sochi? For each NHL team's Olympians, I identified which players have missed the most games over the past three seasons and ranked them by overall significance.

    Though the teams were ranked by likelihood and impact of all their potential injuries, the single accident of the greatest potential significance was chosen from among the top 10 teams for a more detailed look, one that potential impact of that player's prolonged absence.

    While the Senators are once again nervously watching Sweden's Erik Karlsson and the Czech Republic's Milan Michalek, there are at least 10 teams tuning into the games with even more trepidation. Let's begin.

    Injury data is courtesy of Springing Malik. Playoff probabilities come from Sports Club Stats, Hockey Reference and Playoff Status. All other advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Carolina Hurricanes

    Injury-Prone Players: Tuomo Ruutu (Finland), Alexander Semin (Russia), Justin Faulk (USA)

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Injury-Prone Players: James van Riemsdyk (USA), Nikolai Kulemin (Russia)

    New York Rangers

    Injury-Prone Players: Rick Nash (Canada), Ryan Callahan (USA), Carl Hagelin (Sweden)

    New Jersey Devils

    Injury-Prone Players: Damien Brunner (Switzerland), Patrik Elias (Czech Republic), Marek Zidlicky (Czech Republic), Jaromir Jagr (Czech Republic)

10. Los Angeles Kings: Jeff Carter

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Jeff Carter (Canada), Jonathan Quick (USA)

    Most Important Player

    The Los Angeles Kings are tied with the Florida Panthers for the fourth fewest goals in the NHL this year. Imagine how much more ineffective their offence would be without Jeff Carter!

    The problem is Carter's frequent foot and ankle injuries, which have robbed him of 10 games this season and 26 in an injury-plagued 2011-12 season split between Columbus and Los Angeles.

    Carter is one of the few reliable goal scorers the Kings have. He leads the team with 20 goals and is second only to Anze Kopitar with 37 points. They need him to come back from Sochi in one piece.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    The Kings are a great possession team, but they just can't score. Their team shooting percentage of 7.2 percent is even worse than the league-worst 7.5 they posted in their Stanley Cup-winning 2011-12 season.

    That's why they need Carter, one of the biggest shooters in the league. Only five players have taken more shots than Carter over the past five seasons. Not only is he a natural goal scorer, but he's also a big and physical veteran, a responsible defensive player who can win faceoffs and who can also help on the shootout.

    The Kings started off the season strong, but have had a really bad 6-14-2 stretch recently that has dropped their statistical chances of making the postseason to between 81 and 88 percent. They may be able to get by without Jonathan Quick for a while, but not without Carter. 

9. Colorado Avalanche: Matt Duchene

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    Chris Schneider/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Matt Duchene (Canada), Paul Stastny (USA), Gabriel Landeskog (Sweden)

    Most Important Player

    Colorado can ill afford to lose its top offensive weapon Matt Duchene down the stretch.

    Duchene lost 24 games in 2011-12 to knee and ankle injuries in a season that he struggled to score just 28 points in 58 games. He has otherwise scored 215 points in 263 games, or the equivalent of 47 points in 58 games.

    Duchene has missed only four games since then, including three games this year with an oblique injury, and a single game to a groin injury last year. It's important that this newfound resilience continues.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    The Colorado Avalanche shocked pundits with a 14-2-0 start to their season. Though the year has had its ups and downs since then, they've established themselves as a legitimate playoff team, with statistically a 3 to 7 percent chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

    The Avalanche need perfect health to continue their Cinderella story, and that especially includes Matt Duchene.

    Not only is the 23-year-old leading the team in scoring for the third time in four seasons, but he's also a sound defensive player, a disciplined speedster who can draw penalties and is a combined 8-of-14 in the shootout over the past three seasons.

    Colorado has defied the odds so far, and the loss of a top-line player like Duchene could derail a lot of its hard-fought success.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets: Fedor Tyutin

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Nikita Nikitin (Russia), Fedor Tyutin (Russia), Artem Anisimov (Russia), Sergei Bobrovsky (Russia)

    Most Important Player

    Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen may be Finnish, but it's the Russian team he'll be watching most carefully in Sochi.

    Four of his most important and injury-prone players will be competing for the host nation, including his key top-line defenseman Fedor Tyutin.

    It's already been a bumpy season for Tyutin. He started off missing the first three games with a lower-body injury, took a high stick in December, took a nasty hit from behind by Chris Kreider in January and missed another couple of games later that month with an unspecified illness.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    Columbus has already been stung by injuries, losing its star Marian Gaborik twice, and only recently welcomed back Nathan Horton from offseason surgery.

    The Blue Jackets have nevertheless been playing extremely well and are only a single point out of the final playoff position. Statistically they have a 49 to 57 percent chance of making the postseason for only the second time in their 13-year history, something they missed last season on a tiebreaker.

    Even marginally significant players can make the difference in the tight Eastern Conference race, and Tyutin is much more than that. He is one of the league's most underrated top-pairing defensemen, playing alongside one of the most overrated, possession-wise at least, in Jack Johnson.

    Tyutin can effectively work both the power play and the penalty kill, and can take on top opponents at even strength while maintaining good possession numbers. There's arguably no one else on the Columbus blue line who can do the same.

    Columbus is actually a great bet for landing a playoff spot this season, but only if its entire roster returns from Sochi intact. Especially Fedor Tyutin. 

7. St. Louis Blues: Alexander Steen

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Alexander Steen (Sweden), Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia), T.J. Oshie (USA), Vladimir Tarasenko (Russia)

    Most Important Player

    Alexander Steen leads the Blues with 28 goals and 46 points, despite already missing 11 games this season to a concussion and a fractured toe.

    Concussions are certainly the biggest injury concern here for Steen since they caused a 39-game absence in 2011-12. In all, Steen has missed 58 games to injuries over the past three seasons, which is fourth among Olympians.


    Potential Impact of Injury

    The season is humming along nicely for the Blues, who have the highest winning percentage in the league, are tied for second in goals for and third in goals against.

    This would be a terrible time to be derailed by injuries, especially to their leading scorer. Always a dependable two-way player, Steen has had an offensive breakthrough this season. He's also a solid possession-based player, a good secondary penalty-killer, can draw penalties (except last season) and is 11-of-22 on the shootout over the past four seasons.

    Statistically they have a 15 to 21 percent chance of winning the Stanley Cup and ending the longest such drought in the NHL (tied with Toronto). Losing Steen could easily cut those chances in half.

6. Montreal Canadiens: Andrei Markov

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Andrei Markov (Russia), Alexei Emelin (Russia), Max Pacioretty (USA)

    Most Important Player

    With 69 games missed for knee surgery in 2011-12, Andrei Markov is the second-most injured player in this year's Olympics.

    The 35-year-old Russian defenseman has frequently missed action with leg injuries. Markov had an ankle injury early in 2009-10, a leg injury in the 2010 playoffs and a serious knee injury the next season.

    The good news for Montreal is that Markov hasn't missed a single game over the past two seasons. This would be a lousy time to break that streak.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    Whether it's commonly acknowledged or not, blue line depth is one of Montreal's greatest weaknesses.

    While Markov forms one of the league's best defensive pairings with P.K. Subban, the Habs are generally outplayed with any other unit on the ice. The team has gone on some bad stretches, and their possession numbers have been dropping all season.

    Markov is one of the league's best power-play quarterbacks, is underrated defensively and is critical to their success. Statistically there's only a 9 to 14 percent chance of the Habs missing the postseason, but it could very well happen without Markov. 

5. Phoenix Coyotes: Zbynek Michalek

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Zbynek Michalek (Czech Republic), Martin Hanzal (Czech Republic), Lauri Korpikoski (Finland), Mike Smith (Canada)

    Most Important Player

    He may not be an offensive juggernaut, and in fact just broke an 83-game scoring slump recently, but Zbynek Michalek is a critical player for the Coyotes.

    The outstanding shutdown defenseman is not only vital to Phoenix, but also to the Czech Republic. The nation could consequently heap big minutes on Michalek, increasing the risk of injury to a player that has already been out twice this year for a total of 22 games.

    The biggest risk to Michalek would be another hip and/or lower injury, potentially one leading to more surgery. The secondary risk is another broken foot for one of the world's best shot-blockers. All together, Michalek has missed 56 games to injury over the past three seasons.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    The Coyotes are currently tied for the final Western Conference playoff position, with a 37 to 42 percent chance of securing it by season's end.

    Michalek's stellar defensive play will be key down the stretch, even relative to the other possible Olympic injuries. Not only is he invaluable in shutting down top lines at even strength, Michalek is potentially the league's best penalty-killing defenseman and always among the league leaders in short-handed ice time.

    The Coyotes need everybody if they are going to make the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons under coach Dave Tippett, especially their key shutdown defenseman.  

4. Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Michal Rozsival (Czech Republic), Patrick Sharp (Canada), Jonathan Toews (Canada), Michal Handzus (Slovakia), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Sweden), Marian Hossa (Slovakia), Marcus Kruger (Sweden)

    Most Important Player

    Even a team as deep and complete as Chicago can be affected by the absence of player of Jonathan Toews' incredible talents. Of the team's league-leading 10 Olympians, no one's safe return from Sochi is more important than his.

    If Toews is hurt in the Olympics, it wouldn't be the first scare of the season. Their captain opened the season with a lower-body injury in training camp and gave the team another fright as recently as February 1 against San Jose.

    Remember his near-injury in game five of last year's Stanley Cup? It could only be a matter of time before one of these hits prove more serious, and potentially as serious as the 23 games (and all-star game) that he missed in 2011-12 with a hand injury.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    Chicago is already in the playoffs, with a 4 to 10 percent chance of winning the Stanley Cup, but how realistic are its odds of a third championship in five seasons without Toews?

    Captain Serious is one of the league's top defensive forwards and was finally recognized with the Selke award last year. He takes on top opponents, kills penalties, has great possession numbers, draws penalties and is arguably the best faceoff and shootout artist in the entire league.

    Chicago's been on the wrong side of a lot of close games lately. It's been tied at the end of regulation time on nine occasions in their last 20 games and have emerged victorious but once. The NHL is a tight, competitive league, and the margin for error on any given night is a lot smaller than what Toews provides.

3. Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Kesler

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Raphael Diaz (Switzerland), Ryan Kesler (USA), Yannick Weber (Switzerland), Alexander Edler (Sweden), Roberto Luongo (Canada), Daniel Sedin (Sweden)

    Most Important Player

    Ryan Kesler missed only seven games in five seasons before it was discovered that he played the balance of the 2011-12 season with a serious shoulder injury.

    After recovering from that, Kesler missed most of the abridged 2012-13 season with a fractured wrist and then a broken foot. No one will deny his toughness, but there are some injuries that simply can't be played through.

    The Vancouver Canucks have been absolutely body-slammed by injuries recently. Superstar Henrik Sedin, value forward Mike Santorelli and five defensemen have been knocked out of the lineup recently. They can't afford another blow, especially to their top two-way forward.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    Injuries have knocked the Canucks down to fifth place in the Pacific Division, one point out of the playoff picture, with just a 22 to 26 percent chance of making the postseason. They entered the Olympic break with seven straight losses and have gone 4-12-2 so far in 2014.

    Losing one of the game's best defensive forwards would be fatal to their playoff chances. Kesler really is that good. He won the Selke in 2011 after two seasons as the runner-up. He currently leads the Canucks with 20 goals and is third in scoring behind the Sedins.

    Kesler takes on top competition, has great possession numbers, is a physical player who is fantastic at faceoffs and works both the power play and the penalty kill. Given their current situation, it is almost unimaginable how Vancouver could hope to qualify for their 12th postseason in 14 years without Kesler down the stretch.

2. Detroit Red Wings: Pavel Datsyuk

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Jonathan Ericsson (Sweden), Jonas Gustavsson (Sweden), Pavel Datsyuk (Russia), Jimmy Howard (USA), Daniel Alfredsson (Sweden), Jan Mursak (Slovenia), Henrik Zetterberg (Sweden)

    Most Important Player

    While Detroit's front office staff will understandably be watching all of Sweden's games with great trepidation, they will also keep one monitor on Russia's.

    Detroit's top-line center has already been injured twice this season, with a concussion and a lower-body injury, for a total of 15 games. He also missed a dozen games in 2011-12 with a knee injury.

    While there are quite a few potential Olympic injuries that could sting the Wings, losing "Pasha" would undoubtedly be the worst.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    Pavel Datsyuk is perhaps this generation's greatest two-way forward and in virtually every facet of the game.

    He's consistently among the league leaders in possession numbers, setup passes, power-play scoring rate, faceoff winning percentage, penalty-drawing, quality of competition and the shootout. Other than the penalty kill, where he is only a secondary option, there's virtually no aspect of Detroit's game that would be unaffected by his absence.

    We have already seen Detroit struggle this year, as it also did when he was last injured in 2011-12. Statistically Detroit has between a 35 and 40 percent chance of making the playoffs right now, and it can't afford injuries to any of their Olympians, least of all "Pasha."

1. Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby

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    Nathan Denette/Associated Press

    Injury-Prone Players

    Sidney Crosby (Canada), Paul Martin (USA), Evgeni Malkin (Russia), Brooks Orpik (USA)

    Most Important Player

    Opponents will be keying in on Sidney Crosby, but can he take the punishment? Crosby has missed 72 games over the past three seasons—more than any other Olympian.

    "Sid the Kid" has been on the receiving end of multiple concussions, neck injuries and serious facial injuries over the past three seasons, and another could be only a matter of time, especially with his almost unmatched intensity.

    Crosby is the captain, the heart and the soul of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He takes on top opponents and plays in both zones, often with more secondary linemates. He's also quite likely the world's best hockey player.

    Potential Impact of Injury

    Take away Crosby, and the Pittsburgh Penguins aren't that dominant of a team. They don't have great possession numbers, relying instead on his almost incomparable ability to drive the play and create offence.

    Without him, opponents could key in on and at least partially neutralize Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins have enough of a lead to guarantee a home playoff seed, but they would eventually run into a team like Boston, against whom they had trouble last year even with Crosby.

    Don't expect a deep playoff run without him. 

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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