Once again the Oilers lead the NHL with man games lost due to injury (MGL). The current count for the Oilers, according to their website, is 96 MGL in 16 games played. If projected out to a full 82 game season it equates to 492 MGL. That is only 38 games shy of the team and NHL record of 530 MGL in 2009-10 AKA the "Fall for Hall" season. As of this writing the next closest team to the Oilers in MGL are the Montreal Canadiens with 79/15 or 432/82 if projected out for the season. Granted fifteen games is a small sample size and things could turn around but none the less with the Oilers once again leading the league in this category there may be a need for concern.
History shows that since the 2009-10 season the Oilers have been middle of the league when it comes to MGL and have improved year over year.
The 2012-13 season is skewed because of the shortened season. If the Oilers had played an entire 82 that season Taylor Hall would have been on the IR until the middle of November but then again Ryan Nugent-Hopkins probably wouldn't have played in the WJC and injured himself. Anyway it was starting to look like a move in the right direction.
So What Happened This Time?
The table below breaks MGL into 4 distinct categories Tier 1 (First Line, Second Line and Top Pairing D), Tier 2 (Third Line and Second Pairing D), Tier 3 (Fourth Line and Bottom Pairing D), Tier 4 (13th forward, 7th D or AHL) and Goalies.
As I mentioned earlier the Oilers current MGL for the 2013-14 season is 96/16, it is almost a split right down the middle of the top two tiers + goalie and the bottom two tiers. Tyler Pitlick, Steve MacIntyre, Ryan Hamilton and Corey Potter have combined for 3 NHL games so far this season but take up 33% of MGL for the Oilers. On the other hand Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner, David Perron and Taylor Hall take up 26% of MGL, we have yet to see all four in action together in the same game. That is 2/3 of the Oilers top two lines and it has definitely hurt the team. Along with those players missing, losing Devan Dubnyk, Justin Schultz and Ryan Smyth for any length of time (9 games and counting) also adds to the hurt.
The fallout from these injuries has ended up in multiple experiments gone wrong:
- Taylor Hall at centre, yes he's a great left winger but that is the issue, he is not a centre.
- Ryan Jones in the top 6 and the power play, need I say more.
- Ryan Smyth in the top 6. I love this guy but he is a 3rd line guy now and just can't keep up.
- Nail Yakupov press boxed for not having better line mates.
- Anton Lander yo-yoing between Edmonton and OKC.
- Changing line mates, after game 4 the top 2 lines have been switched up almost every second game
I know there are more examples but as anyone can see a team cannot compete with this kind of disarray.
Have the Oilers Rushed Players Back?
Rushing players back from injury was the calling card of the Steve Tambellini era. For whatever reason it would seem that the team would rush players back from injury or hide injuries that would come back to bite them later on. Just look at the list of players that were on IR at some point in the season, come back and go right back onto the IR. The lists are available here, and here, and here, and here.
This season players have returned earlier than anticipated but it doesn't seem to be a case of rushing them back into the line-up. Key players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner returned to the line-up before their expected return date but in both cases the players didn't seem rushed. In Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' case he returned to the line-up 3 weeks earlier than projected but had been skating with the team during the pre-season and was cleared to play by his surgeon. Since returning to the line-up he hasn't looked out of place and plays the same style he's played for the past 2 seasons. Sam Gagner returned a week earlier than anticipated and even though he's had some weak defensive zone play he hasn't looked out of place either. The only player that appeared to be rushed back into the line-up was Jesse Joensuu but it was for 1 game and I'm not sure what the circumstances were. Back problems can be tough to diagnose depending on what is strained and it may have been a case of "I feel ok, let me play" for him. I still feel the jury is out on this season as to whether or not players are being rushed back from injury but I'll guess we'll know better in the weeks and months to come.
So what are the Oilers options? Beyond wrapping the players in bubble wrap for each game, what can the Oilers do to fix this situation?
First off let me emphasize there is only so much a team can do about preventing injuries during the season. Hockey is physical game and injuries are bound to happen. What the Oilers need to focus on is dealing with recovery and bringing the right personnel during that time. Bringing in enforcers that can't play hockey will not help the team win, and as we've already observed, they don't prevent injuries. Moving third line players, like Ryan Jones, up the depth chart doesn't make sense either. Instead there are some steps the Oilers can use to address the issues.
- Make the fourth line functional, by functional I don't mean "functional toughness", just remove the dead weight. Its a trickle effect, when you have actual NHL players on the fourth line the other three lines don't have to do all of the heavy lifting all the time.
- Use players from the farm team to fill the holes properly. Example: Mark Arcobello performed well in a top 6 role because that was what he did in the AHL.
- Stop moving players out of their roles. Example: Ryan Jones is a fringe 3rd line player, moving him up to a top 6 role does not work.
- Give AHL players performing well a chance to play NHL hockey. Linus Omark is 8-4-12 12GP, give him a chance to fill out the top 6. (Update: Linus Omark has been recalled this morning)
As fans we've been here before. We can't say for certain that this trend will continue for the whole season or not. This may be a blip or it could be a repeat of the 2009-10 season but it is too early in the season to know for sure. As fans all we can really do is hope that this is just a blip and we can watch a healthy Oilers team again.