While the headlines follow teams missing multiple major contributors to injury – case in point the resilient 2016-17 Montreal Canadiens, whose injury issues have been well-documented – there’s an argument to be made that losing a greater amount of depth players is in fact more detrimental to a team’s success, even if it doesn’t garner as much attention. ESPN’s Matthew Coller examined the amount of ice time, in man-game minutes, lost this season due to injury and the resulting success or failure of the most injured and most healthy teams. Despite the story line, the Canadiens only rank tenth right now in missed minutes, perhaps providing some explanation to how they have maintained their winning ways despite being banged up. Other teams have not been so lucky.
Of the five most injured teams in the first half of 2016-17, four have drastically underachieved, even though you might not suspect that they have had such bad injury struggles. At the top of the list is the Detroit Red Wings, whose historic playoff streak is in extreme jeopardy as they sit in the basement of the Atlantic Division through 40 games. Two of their season’s biggest bright spots have also been two of their largest injury concerns, as 11 games were missed by leading scorer Thomas Vanek, signed to a one-year “show me” deal this summer, and resurgent goalie Jimmy Howard is on the shelf for the second time already and expected to be out until February. Add in a long, ongoing absence of Darren Helm and off-and-on issues with defenseman Brendan Smith among other injuries, and the Red Wings lead the league with 3,122 minutes missed. Few have pointed to injuries as the main reason for Detroit’s dismal showing, but there’s evidence to express that it may be the primary influence. Backing up the claim are the struggles of the Buffalo Sabres, Dallas Stars, and Winnipeg Jets as well, all of whom have suffered noteworthy injuries, but also an excess of depth injuries as well. These four teams are all performing below what was expected of them in 2016-17, and injuries may be the prime source of blame. Only the Edmonton Oilers have bucked the trend, as they have been able to survive numerous serious injuries to their defenseman and are having their best season in recent memory with the second most man-games missed in the entire league.
Aside from the Washington Capitals (who have been impossibly healthy with just 10 games and about 170 minutes missed) and San Jose Sharks at #1 and #2, two teams who seemingly have not had issues with major injuries in recent years, a lack of man-games missed can certainly make a case as a vital ingredient to the success of overachieving teams this season. Rounding out the top five are the Ottawa Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes, all of whom have lost less than 1,000 minutes to injury and all of whom are surely big surprises thus far in 2016-17. No one could have expected the Blue Jackets to hold the NHL’s best record at this point, nobody guessed that the Senators would be contenders in the Atlantic, and many picked the Hurricanes to be the worst team in the league. Even though Ottawa has seen Bobby Ryan, Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone all miss time and Carolina just got Jordan Staal and Elias Lindholm back from injury, the overall roster-wide health is what has kept these teams afloat. All three rosters could easily be exposed by a string of long-term injuries, but they have been able to make it this far without encountering such loss and it has boosted them to the positions they are currently in.
Many teams have had recent success with top-heavy lineups containing a handful of stars and relative no-names as filler (read: Chicago Blackhawks), and there’s no reason to believe that doesn’t work. However, these injury trends seem to show that missing time as a whole due to injury instead of injuries to individual top players is what can derail a team. A team built with depth in mind can combat the loss of two, three, or four starters, but a top-heavy team can struggle to replace one star, nevertheless multiple full-time contributors. The man-games missed to success correlation is an interesting concept for team builders to follow and understand. It’s a risk-reward scenario, and several teams this season are showing the extremes of success and failure as a function of injury.