You frequently hear the cliché that “age is only a number”, and you may dismiss it. But sometimes that number can represent two separate things entirely.
Both the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes boast teams among the youngest in the National Hockey League, with average ages under 27. But the Hurricanes have challenged for a playoff spot all season, while the Islanders played their way out of the race in November. The two teams are ten points apart in the standings at the moment, but only one is still playing for a playoff spot, following the Islanders’ official elimination from playoff contention last night.
One statistic is as blatant a reason as any: man games lost to injury. And the numbers are staggering. The Islanders, no stranger to the injury bug, have racked up 512 man games lost (through Friday). The Hurricanes? 56.
One of the old sports clichés frequently thrown around is that “injuries are not an excuse”. They’re not the only factor for that ten-point gap. The Hurricanes have one of the best goaltenders in the league (Cam Ward), while the Islanders have started six different players in net this season. The Hurricanes didn’t lose every game they played over an entire month, either.
But having the most man games lost to injury isn’t a new thing for the Islanders, either. They were ninth last year, but they topped the league in 2007-08 and 2008-09. It brings an important concern to the forefront as claims of the Isles’ pending ascent to the elite of the NHL are starting to float around; you can have all the talent in the world, but if it doesn’t stay healthy, it’s a moot point.
Some of those “man games lost to injury” numbers for this year’s team are inflated. Mark Streit hasn’t played a game all year (and won’t). Mike Mottau and Doug Weight haven’t been heard from since November, and won’t be around when this team’s “rapid ascent” occurs. Trent Hunter’s been out since November, too.
There are players, however, whose injury troubles could be crucial. Andrew MacDonald’s torn labrum is the latest in a string of injuries for a player who’s expected to be a part of this team’s defensive core when it starts to win. Kevin Poulin, perhaps the team’s goalie of the future, already has two serious knee injuries under his belt, and he’s only 21. Kyle Okposo missed more than half of this season with a shoulder injury, while Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan both suffered serious shoulder injuries while in juniors.
And let’s not forget Rick DiPietro, whose numerous knee, hip, and head injuries almost serve as a metaphor for the team’s injury bug in recent years. DiPietro, whose 15-year deal will be in year six next year, looks like a player whose injury trouble stripped him of his natural talent (that is, when his injuries aren’t keeping him off the ice). He’s an Islander for better or worse, though, unless he walks away.
It’s tough to pinpoint a reason for the Isles’ injury problems. It’s always difficult to prepare for injuries, and bad luck frequently plays a part. (Streit’s injury was a freak accident, for example.) You don’t necessarily blame the team’s training staff, either; their job is to treat the team’s injuries and get them back to health. Perhaps a better job can be done in conditioning. Many people pointed to the “overspeed” style employed by Scott Gordon as a reason for increases in groin pulls, so the team’s simpler philosophy under Jack Capuano might help.
One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that a team can’t win when its top talent is hurt. Injuries in the past few years, particularly on defense, forced the Islanders to play several players in roles that their ability didn’t suit them for. Think about how many minutes Bruno Gervais was forced to take on last year. Think about the rotating defense in recent years that’s seen names like Allan Rourke, Thomas Pock, Rob Davison, Aaron Johnson, Brett Skinner, Dylan Reese, and Jamie Fraser, to name a few. Things got so bad last year that the Islanders brought up Anton Klementyev last year after drafting him in the sixth round of that year’s draft. When you’re using that many players, let alone guys who shouldn’t be holding down NHL roster spots, you’re not going to be able to grow as a team.
The Islanders were one of the best teams this season after the All-Star break, in large part because they stayed healthy (for the most part) and were able to grow as a team. The team’s lines stayed consistent once Okposo came back into the lineup, and that stability translated into better results. But now DiPietro is back, MacDonald is out, Ty Wishart is up in his place, and not surprisingly, the Islanders are staggering to the finish line. They have to hope they draw more from their winning ways if they want to contend next year.
The Islanders and the Hurricanes both appear to have promising futures. The core of each team is well under 30. One has a franchise center coming into his prime (Eric Staal), while the other has a franchise center starting to live up to that tag (John Tavares). Both have Calder candidates (Jeff Skinner and Michael Grabner).
The Hurricanes, however, are more durable. And that should help them find their success faster. The Islanders will need to heal if they want to find success at all.