NHL Players Getting Big Opportunities Due to Injuries Early in 2015-16
In professional sports, one man's setback is another man's opportunity. Injuries are part of every game, and an uptempo, hard-hitting sport like hockey certainly gets its fair share.
Fans hate to see their teams' key players sidelined for any period of time, but those open roster spots can lead to a world of opportunity for a teammate who's looking to prove his worth.
Here's a look at some of the most significant injuries affecting teams around the NHL early in the 2015-16 season and how effectively the replacement players are filling the voids.
Players are listed chronologically in the order that the injuries occurred.
Adam McQuaid (Boston Bruins)
Who's Injured? Dennis Seidenberg
What's the Prognosis? Seidenberg had surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back during training camp in September and is expected to be out of action for six-to-eight weeks, according to Matt Kalman of NHL.com.
What's the Opportunity? Seidenberg played all 82 games for the Boston Bruins last season and averaged 22:06 minutes a game—just over a minute less than team leader Zdeno Chara. The 34-year-old German has been a mainstay of the Boston blue line since he was acquired at the 2010 trade deadline. He finished up last season on a second pairing with Torey Krug.
Another longtime Bruin, Adam McQuaid, has been matched up primarily with Krug during Seidenberg's absence. After he signed a four-year contract extension in the offseason, McQuaid told NHL.com, "I want to try and bring more to the table, hopefully play a little bit more in a top-four role." Now he's getting his chance.
How's It Going So Far? Boston coach Claude Julien has chosen to put rookie blueliners Colin Miller and Tommy Cross together on a third pairing, then mix and match Chara, Krug, McQuaid and Kevan Miller in his top four as circumstances dictate.
The plan seems to be coming into focus. After giving up 16 goals in their first three games, the Bruins then limited the damage to an average of 2.5 goals a game in wins over the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes.
McQuaid's average ice time of 18:23 a game is about the same as the 18:26 he logged last year, but he's being used in tougher circumstances and has seen his role as a penalty-killer increase.
For a guy who has only cracked double digits offensively twice in his six previous seasons with the Bruins, even one assist in his first five games is pretty solid output for McQuaid.
Chad Johnson (Buffalo Sabres)
Who's Injured? Robin Lehner
What's the Prognosis? Expected to be the Buffalo Sabres' No. 1 goalie this season, Lehner suffered a high ankle sprain on opening night and is expected to be sidelined for six-to-eight weeks, according to Amy Moritz of the Buffalo News.
What's the Opportunity? Nathan Lieuwen was recalled from the AHL Rochester Americans, but backup Chad Johnson has carried the full load for the Sabres since Lehner was injured. The 29-year-old is with his fifth NHL organization in five years after spending time with the New York Islanders, Boston Bruins, Arizona Coyotes and New York Rangers.
How's It Going So Far? The new-look Sabres have opened the season with a 1-4 record, but Johnson has impressed.
"I think he’s given us a chance to win every game he’s played," head coach Dan Bylsma told Moritz. "I don’t know if you can ask for much more from him. Going over each game that he has played, he’s made some strong saves; he’s been solid."
Johnson has posted an .896 save percentage and 2.70 goals-against average in 267 minutes of action so far this season. As an unrestricted free agent next summer, Johnson can use a strong performance while Lehner is sidelined to build a case for his next job, whether it's in Buffalo or elsewhere.
Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings)
Who's Injured? Johan Franzen
What's the Prognosis? After missing the second half of last season due to a concussion, Franzen played just two regular-season games before his post-concussion syndrome symptoms began to resurface, according to Dana Wakiji of the Detroit Red Wings website. Franzen's now on injured reserve.
What's the Opportunity? Franzen started the season playing on Detroit's top line with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader. That spot has been bequeathed, for the moment, to 19-year-old phenom Dylan Larkin.
How's It Going So Far? Brilliantly. Larkin has points in all five of his NHL games so far. His six points rank him second behind Zetterberg in Red Wings scoring and tied for second among all rookies behind Chicago's Artemi Panarin.
Even more impressively for an offense-minded rookie, Larkin's plus-seven ranking is tops on the Wings and makes him the only non-Montreal Canadien among the top five in plus-minus rankings for the entire NHL though games completed on October 19.
It's sad to see Franzen's hockey future in jeopardy, but Larkin's dazzling debut gives Detroit fans cause for great optimism going forward.
Tomas Hertl: San Jose Sharks
Who's Injured? Logan Couture
What's the Prognosis? Couture suffered a broken right fibula during the San Jose Sharks' practice at the Prudential Center in New Jersey on October 15. After undergoing surgery, he's expected to be out for four-to-six weeks, according to Dan Rosen at NHL.com.
What's the Opportunity? Couture's second-line center spot has been assigned to 21-year-old Tomas Hertl. After starting his NHL career on the wing, coach Todd McLellan moved Hertl to his natural position down the middle midway through last season. New bench boss Peter DeBoer followed suit this season, slotting Hertl into the role of third-line pivot, so he moves up now that Couture's out.
Though Couture had just one assist before he was injured, the Sharks started the season with a 3-0-0 record. Couture was showing good chemistry with linemates Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward.
How's It Going So Far? Since Couture's injury, San Jose has gone 1-2, beating New Jersey before losing to the New York Islanders and being shut out by the Rangers.
Hertl's ice time has jumped from the 14-minute range up to 16, then 17 minutes a game in his new role. He recorded one assist against New Jersey.
Three games in four nights in the Tri-State Area is a tough assignment for any team, so Hertl shouldn't be judged too harshly for the Sharks' losses against the Islanders and Rangers. Still, DeBoer has some options available if he's not confident in Hertl's ability to carry the load down the middle—experienced centers Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are both currently skating on the wing.
Jori Lehtera (St. Louis Blues)
Who's Injured? Paul Stastny
What's the Prognosis? Stastny suffered a lower-body injury from blocking a shot late in the second period of the St. Louis Blues' 4-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks on October 16. According to the Blues' website, Stastny returned directly to St. Louis after he was hurt, missing the last two games of the team's road trip. He'll be re-evaluated upon the Blues' return home.
What's the Opportunity? With five points in five games to start the season, Stastny was looking every bit like the top-end center the Blues hoped they were getting when they signed him as an unrestricted free agent during the summer of 2014.
Last year, Stastny never got completely back on track after suffering an October shoulder injury, so Blues fans are hoping that history doesn't repeat itself.
While Stastny is sidelined, Ken Hitchcock has shuffled all his centers up one line, reuniting Jori Lehtera with Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen on the "STL Line."
How's It Going So Far? It's off to a good start. The 27-year-old sophomore Lehtera picked up his sixth point of the season and was a plus-two in a season-high 18:33 of ice time as the Blues extended their road winning streak to four games with a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets in Stastny's first game out of action.
The Chicago Blackhawks Defense
Who's Injured? Duncan Keith
What's the Prognosis? Keith is expected to be sidelined for four-to-six weeks after surgery to repair a meniscal tear in his knee, according to the Chicago Blackhawks website.
What's the Opportunity? Keith is averaging 24:21 of ice time so far this season according to NHL.com, nearly four minutes a game more than his next-busiest teammates, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
David Rundblad will fill Keith's roster spot, but the entire Blackhawks blue line will need to step up while Keith is sidelined.
As Dan Rosen wrote at NHL.com, "The Blackhawks can't replace Keith with anybody in the organization or, frankly, with anybody they might consider acquiring in a trade. ... What the Blackhawks can do instead is go patchwork-style and hope it works so they can stay afloat in the Western Conference race until Keith returns and starts dominating again."
Rosen suggests that less experienced blueliners Viktor Svedberg and Rundblad will be paired with Seabrook and Hjalmarsson, respectively, to help shelter them as much as possible from high-risk situations. The Trevors—Daley and Van Riemsdyk—will need to take on significantly more responsibility during Keith's absence.
How's It Going So Far? Keith played in all six Chicago games before undergoing the surgery, and the Blackhawks don't play again until they face the Florida Panthers on October 22. Coach Joel Quenneville said via Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune that "the injury had been bothering Keith for a while, but (he) did not know for how long."
Missing Keith for any period of time is uncharted territory for the Blackhawks. Though the team successfully regrouped after Patrick Kane broke his clavicle last February and survived when Jonathan Toews dealt with concussion issues at the end of the 2011-12 season, Keith had missed just 22 games in his 10-year NHL career before this season.