Big names hit with high rate of injuries this season

Barry Riz,

11/3/2009 3:41:07 PM

Let's pretend for a moment that you're Vladislav Tretiak, general manager of the Russian Olympic team for the Vancouver Games. You look down at your projected roster, and admire the superstars that will unquestionably be the cornerstones of your team about 100 days from now.

Alex Ovechkin - reigning NHL MVP, 56 goals last year and 14 already this season.

Evgeni Malkin - reigning scoring champion, 113 points a season ago.

Ilya Kovalchuk - 43 goals and 91 points in 2008-2009. The trio combined for 134 goals last year.

You check the top names on your defence corps. Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov are both dynamic puck-moving blueliners who can quarterback any power play.

And then you shudder.

The realization dawns on you that all five of those stars has suffered early-season injuries - some significant - and all are currently missing big parts of their NHL campaigns.

Tretiak's players have plenty of elite company on the NHL's injured list. Jason Spezza, Daniel Sedin, Roberto Luongo, Sheldon Souray, Simon Gagne, Daniel Briere, Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Jonathan Toews, and Johan Franzen make up a who's-who of players who have been lost just four weeks into the season.

It's an unlikely trend, as their injuries are entirely unrelated to one another and include familiar ailments like broken bones and concussions. But according to Kevin Allen of USA Today, 110 NHL regulars are currently injured, which accounts for 18 percent of the league's players.

And the unusually high frequency of star players going down means plenty of teams are taking big hits in the standings over the first quarter of the season.

While you can't pinpoint a single reason for the phenomenon, there are several factors that when combined, contribute to the alarming rise in injuries.

"Parity in the league is making the games much more competitive, so players, especially elite ones, are being taxed more than ever," explained NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire. "There are more high-impact collisions due to a faster game, and the game itself is faster because there is no red line. Combined with the league's zero-tolerance policy on obstruction, collisions in the NHL have never been this huge."

And while player conditioning is top-notch, there is an ever-increasing physical toll on skaters and goalies from the moment they step on the ice. The rapid pace of the action has become more and more demanding.

"The game has never been faster and players have to get up to high speed in two or three strides," added McGuire. "It puts a lot of stress on the lower body."

McGuire, who watches dozens of games from between the benches at ice level for the NHL on TSN, also points out the connection between shot velocity and shot-blocking.

"With synthetic material sticks, pucks are being lauched with more velocity then ever before," he explains. "And it used to be that only certain players shot-blocked, now even star players are counted on to block shots."

Some of the star injuries will be healed in two-to-three weeks, others in four-to-six. But Detroit's Franzen and Montreal's Markov are lost for several months, while Chicago's Toews will remain out indefinitely with a concussion.

And none of this addresses the presence of flu bugs, which have sickened many players already.

So how healthy will Team Russia be come February? Tretiak can only wonder and hope for the best, just like Canada's GM, Steve Yzerman. And for the numerous NHL clubs who are missing their big guns, they can only hope that recovery and rehab are quick, because playoff aspirations just might be at stake around the league.