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Chicken or egg: Injury bug versus losing streak

January 30, 2012

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins attempts to dart through a barrier of Canucks.

There’s an interesting but all too common phenomenon in the NHL: injured teams often having losing streaks. And teams with losing streaks find themselves with many injured players. Think of the St Louis Blues or the Islanders last year. Or the Oilers last year…and this year.

So, let’s take the Edmonton Oilers, shall we? As a case study? They sit 14th in the Western Conference. 29th in the NHL overall. Only the train wreck that is Columbus prevents them from sinking lower. After a stellar start, one which convinced some of the burgeoning youngsters may have playoff hope, the Oil fumbled and tumbled. Now they could be considered in the running for Nail Yakupov.

Their woes are multiple. Injuries have played a role. I intend to argue that it is neither chicken nor egg, but rather, these troubles are intertwined, and truly impossible to stem.

One idea that should probably be cleared out the way is questions about the competency and effectiveness of medical staff and trainers. I assume every NHL trainer and doctor is top-notch–the most qualified in his or her field or area.

Right now, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tom Gilbert and Cam Barker are on IR. The team has lost 182 man-games to injuries. For the sake of comparison, a team seemingly beset with injury but firmly in the playoffs is the Flyers. They’ve lost 166 man-games. Still, these numbers aren’t astronomical. Other teams have suffered worse. The Oilers have had a couple of long-term injuries, like that of Whitney, Barker, but they’ve had spades of shorter six-seven game injuries that have really added up.

Question is, why do the Oilers struggle mightily, and keep getting hurt doing so?

First off, the lack of depth seems to be to blame. Players who are healthy may be getting loaded with more ice-time than they are prepared to or capable of handling. When a rookie forward like RNH is eating up in excess of 19 minutes ice-time routinely, there are certain risks involved. Tyler Seguin was saddled with a meager 12 minutes through his rookie season, owing to the depth of the Bruins. RNH is fully able to take NHL hits and NHL ice-time, but it might not be the best thing. While his shoulder injury was largely a fluke, the clumsiness of fatigue has its way of catching up with folks.

Going hand in hand with this is the fact players are in positions they aren’t normally in–whether they’re switched from wing to center or vice-versa, or change out their D-pairings. The absence of chemistry, spatial disruption, being up against much harder lines or defensemen, these factors all must take their toll and lead to increased rates of injury. And, accordingly, when players can’t step up, more points in the L column. When players slot into roles they’re not accustomed to, like Corey Potter taking top minutes, one must wonder if they’re going to try too hard, and put themselves at risk.

Finally, frustration. The woes of losing, the bad bounces, surely NHL players, Oilers, will throw their bodies on the line in the hopes of a single chance, single goal. Playing recklessly is playing dangerously. Sometimes it’s worth it. The converse may be true, too. When faced with a blow-out, when the score is out of reach, I imagine players loosen up too much, and put themselves at risk.

A touch of bad luck seems to sneak into the conversation as well. The skate blade that struck Taylor Hall in warm-ups? Save for wearing a helmet, the incident had little to do with game strategy or wins/losses. It’s bad luck. Every team gets it. Dustin Penner throwing out his back eating pancakes, Sami Salo playing floorball and getting hurt: these are things that you can’t avoid. Bad luck also comes in the form of players with repetitive injuries, like those of Ales Hemsky’s shoulders.

In sum, it’s a question that’s long frustrated me–why injuries and losing streaks become tangled up and drive a team to the lottery. At this point in the season, this critical juncture, when teams begin deciding whether the playoffs are a worthy goal, it’s important for the Oilers to plan accordingly. Do they sell off depreciating assets in the hopes of more picks? Or do they find players, ideally, less injury prone players, to firm up their core? Time will tell. But if this snowball effect is to be believed, they should perhaps wait it out.

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