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Injury questions clouding NHL

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Sidney Crosby’s injury is the most high-profile on the Penguins, who lead the NHL in man-games lost to injury. Yet they’re still winning, which isn’t true of other similarly battered teams. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

It’s back to work for the NHL after a long weekend of All-Star frivolity. But even amidst the laughs, pranks and ridiculous amounts of skill coming out of Ottawa, the cloud of injury — to players’ brains and otherwise — continued to darken the league’s sunny skies.

After more doctors visits, tests and consultations, Sidney Crosby’s injury has now been redefined. He was not merely concussed, but at some point during the last 13 months suffered cracks, breaks, or some sort of abnormality in two of his neck vertebrae. That was the opinion of Dr. Robert S. Bray, a neurological and spine specialist Crosby recently visited in Los Angeles. Dr. Bray’s opinion will now be reviewed by yet another doctor this week in Salt Lake City.

It’s unknown just which of the hits that Crosby sustained — David Steckel’s on New Year Day 2011, Victor Hedman’s later that week, or David Krejci’s on Dec. 5 — did the damage. But lot’s of people, including Bruce Arthur in The National Post, are asking questions about how the army of doctors that has treated Crosby missed his neck condition.

Arthur wonders if it will strain the relationship between Crosby and the Penguins, and that brings to mind the rupture that occurred between Eric Lindros and the Flyers following his concussion in March 2000, his second in three months and the third confirmed during his career.

Lindros subsequently accused team doctors of not diagnosing his concussion and the Flyers of not being concerned about his health when urging him to play when he should have been recuperating. He sought outside medical help, quite unusual for the time and the Flyers were not happy. They eventually stripped him of his captaincy and he was traded to the Rangers in the offseason (and here’s Lindros’ concussion history, including many telling quotes).

No one is suggesting that’s how the Crosby situation will go, although Arthur suggests there might now be friction between the player and the club. Of course, as Bob McKenzie pointed out on TSN Radio 990 in Montreal on Monday morning, Crosby also enlisted some doctors of his own to examine him and they missed the neck injury as well. Still, there could be some uncertainty ahead.

“Everything that happens to Crosby reflects and ripples, cascades down on the rest of the National Hockey League and that is the whole issue of team physicians vs. independent physicians vs. things that aren’t diagnosed properly,” McKenzie said. “It’s going to be very interesting here to see the relationship between Crosby and the Penguins, to see if this has an impact on it and for every player in the National Hockey League who gets an injury, it raises the question of, ‘Is my team doctor good enough?’”

The larger picture of head injuries in the NHL remained a concern during the All-Star break. After the Board of Governors meeting on Saturday, Commissioner Gary Bettman met the media and among the topics he covered was concussions, which he said were up 10 percent. That total is wildly different from the figures reported by Dustin Fink on his Concussion Blog; Fink claims they are up 60 percent — and admits to using a different methodology than the NHL in determining what is and what is not a concussion. Additionally, he believes that teams are not accurately reporting certain injuries as concussions.

“Last year at this time there were 54 concussions reported/found in the NHL….The current total sits at 90,” Fink writes. “Last year the entire regular season produced 98, and including the playoffs, 114.”

The figures may vary substantially, but both Bettman and Fink agree that the increase, whatever it may be, has to do in part with both better awareness and the players taking the situation more seriously than in the past.

When it comes
 to reporting injuries of all sorts, the NHL leaves that to the clubs. One of the most interesting stats the league itself does not formally track is Man Games Lost to Injury. It is not a readily available figure to the general public,  clubs compile and publish their own in game notes that are distributed to the media by their public relations departments prior to each contest. It would be good info for fans to have, if only to gauge which clubs are banged up and which have relatively good health.

It would also be valuable to gain insight into certain trends in the NHL. Since the league does not track this figure league-wide — or at least for public consumption — we’re unable to accurately quantify if NHL’ers are more subject to injury now than in the past. We hear that injuries are on the rise, but it would be helpful to put some numbers to that claim.

A web search does yield some partial information. Here’s an item by John Grigg from The Hockey News website from April 2010 that lists the 10 teams that lost the most man games to injury two seasons ago. It reveals that four had over 300 man games lost two seasons ago. Compare that with this from James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail from late last season, which showed that eight teams lost over 300 man games and a few others were coming pretty close with a couple of weeks left in the schedule. We couldn’t find any end of season figures, but Mirtle’s story points to an escalating problem, and perhaps a motivating factor in why the NHL took steps to make the game safer going into this season.

We’ll have to wait a while to see if the league’s efforts have paid off, but here’s the most recent information, taken from the game notes of each team’s last game prior to the All-Star Break. Boston has lost the fewest man games to injury, the Penguins the most:

30. BOSTON BRUINS – 32
29. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – 49
28. SAN JOSE SHARKS – 66
27. PHOENIX COYOTES — 82
26. NASHVILLE PREDATORS – 93
25. LOS ANGELES KINGS – 94
24. DETROIT RED WINGS – 99
23. DALLAS STARS – 108
22. CAROLINA HURRICANES – 110
21. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – 128
20. ANAHEIM DUCKS  – 144
19. OTTAWA SENATORS – 144
18. NEW JERSEY DEVILS – 145
17. WASHINGTON CAPITALS – 148
16. NEW YORK RANGERS – 151
15. VANCOUVER CANUCKS – 156
14. COLORADO AVALANCHE – 162
13. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – 168
12. EDMONTON OILERS – 175
11. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – 180
10. MINNESOTA WILD – 184
9. FLORIDA PANTHERS – 188
8. ST. LOUIS BLUES  – 196
7. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – 199
6. CALGARY FLAMES – 216
5. WINNIPEG JETS – 219
4. BUFFALO SABRES – 220
3. MONTREAL CANADIENS – 225
2. NEW YORK ISLANDERS – 230
1. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – 244

It’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from this list beyond the obvious. Teams like the Sabres, Canadiens and Islanders have played below expectations this season and can point to injuries as at least a partial excuse. But then you have the Penguins with the most man games lost — and we know who some of these guys are — and it’s obvious that injuries alone can’t be considered the determining factor. You also have to look at a myriad of factors, not all of which apply to each club, such as organizational depth or lack thereof; who is hurt and their place in the team’s scheme of things; coaching; and the character of the healthy personnel. It’s a complicated matter to analyze and the mere existence of injuries may not be a decisive factor.

There are hints, however, that could stand further examination with more data. For one thing, the teams with the fewest injuries seem to be mainly in the Western Conference. Why is that? Many of the top teams are considered more physical; many on the bottom are more skilled. Are these Western clubs (and the Bruins in the east) physically bigger and more able to stand the pounding of NHL play? Could be.

There doesn’t seem to be much correlation between teams that travel the most miles during the season and their injuries. Dirk Hoag, the great Nashville blogger of On The Forecheck, computed all teams’ travel for this season, and the most frequent flyers — Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Florida, Los Angeles and Phoenix — are spread all over our man games lost list. Of course, all the miles have yet to be traveled, but so far, there seems to be little connection. Same thing with back to back games. The Sabres have played the most this season and have a high number of injuries. But the Flames have played the fewest and they’re right up there with Buffalo in man games lost, too.

When you watch the All-Star Game, it’s obvious that there is an important element missing, namely resistance to all that great skill, and especially physical contact. The NHL’s physicality is a big cause of injuries, but physicality is also necessary for the game to be the appealing spectacle that it is. Finding the right balance with safety is certainly an ongoing challenge for the NHL.

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  • Published On Jan 30, 2012
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