Tuesday October 27th, 2009

This is sick.

Well, actually this isn't about sickness as much as it is about injuries.

In the first month of the NHL season, EMS has replaced GAA in the official league statistics. The red light has been atop the ambulance as often as behind the goal. While there doesn't seem anything alarming about the sheer quantity of the injuries -- hockey is a game of hurt as much as a game of oops -- the quality of the injured players has been staggering. Marquee guys have been dropping like, if you'll pardon the baseball analogy, Nick Swisher's batting average.

The latest to go down was Atlanta captain Ilya Kovalchuk, who is expected to miss about a month with a broken bone in his foot. Good luck with that Thrashers fans, assuming we'll still be talking in the plural by the time the unrestricted-free-agent-to-be rejoins the lineup. And Rangers fans, who tend to stick around, watched on Monday night as brittle Marian Gaborik, who shares the league goal-scoring lead (10), limped out of the game against Phoenix in the third period with an undisclosed, as of this writing, lower body injury.

Because On the Fly has been reliably informed that you folks out in Internet land can't get enough of lists, we hereby rank some of the big early season boo-boos and the impact they have had (or will have) on their respective teams, based on the soon-to-be-patented Band-Aid system.

Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Atlanta: While four weeks is manageable, this could be the mother of all early-season injuries, especially for a fragile team like the Thrashers. Kovalchuk had been encouraged by the addition of some of the new players, including Max Afinogenov and Nik Antropov. He had been embracing his enhanced leadership role as evidenced by the C he proudly wears on his sweater. He was also off to a sizzling start, with nine goals in eight games. If his desire to return to Atlanta next season (and not, say, Russia's KHL) hinges on the Thrashers' ability to win consistently, his injury undercuts his position. Rating: 5 Band-Aids

Johan Franzen, LW, Detroit: His ACL surgery will keep him out until after the Olympics at the earliest, a blow for one of the sturdiest NHL players. Mercifully, the Red Wings are one of the sturdier teams. There has been serious leakage since Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final -- among the losses up front are Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson -- but Detroit is deep even as it goes through a mild transitional phase. The Mule is gone for now, but there are still enough horses to keep the Red Wings near the top of the Central Division if the goaltending firms up. Rating: 2 Band-Aids

Marc Savard, C, and Milan Lucic, LW, Boston: The nifty Savard and the rampaging Lucic are a package deal because they share the top line for the Bruins, who are now without all three pieces of the line that dominated last season. (Phil Kessel, traded to Toronto, is in the later stages of rehab after offseason shoulder surgery.) Without a legitimate No. 1 line, Boston goes from playoff lock in the Eastern Conference to a team that might wind up clawing for a spot late in the seaspm. Rating: 4 Band-Aids

Andrei Markov, D, Montreal: Markov tore a tendon in his foot in the second period on opening night, a freakish injury that will keep him at until (or through) the Olympics. Markov is the Canadiens' best player and most indispensible; he is the one blueliner who can make a great first pass, run the power play and play respectably against top lines. Curiously, getting hurt in the opener instead of, say, a month into the season might have been a blessing. Says first-line winger Mike Cammalleri, "This team underwent so much turnover in the summer, it's like we never had Marky at all." In-season acquisition Marc-André Bergeron, who has a heavy shot from the point, can take some power play time, but the long-term implications for a team with a disastrous record without Markov are serious. Rating: 4 Band-Aids

Sergei Gonchar, D, Pittsburgh: He'll likely be back in a month from a wrist injury, which the Penguins should handle with aplomb. For one thing, they are used to it. Gonchar had a shoulder injury that kept him out much of last season; he played 25 regular season games although the shoulder was healthy enough for him to hoist the Stanley Cup. For another, Kris Letang is growing into his power-play duties. Rookie Alex Goligoski, who spent most of last season growing his game in the minors, also has some offensive flair. Even though Pittsburgh lost free agents Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill -- and now Gonchar -- from the blueline that beat Detroit in Game 7, the team is still loaded. Rating: 1-1/2 Band-Aids.

Paul Martin, D, New Jersey. The Devils defenseman broke his arm blocking a shot, giving him an unscheduled sabbatical of four to six weeks. While the down period is not of the Markov/Franzen variety, certainly losing a No. 1 defenseman will have an impact on a team that makes a living on the back half of the ice. But ever since coach Jacques Lemaire's first stint as the Devils' coach, the team has been about systems as much as it has been about players. If the Devils could overcome goalie Martin Brodeur's long-term arm injury last season, they will muddle through the injuries sustained by Martin and checking winger Jay Pandolfo (shoulder, four to six weeks) last weekend. Rating: 2 Band-Aids.

The breakout star of the first month has been the NHL's favorite piñata, Edmonton's Dustin Penner, who throughout his career has been whipped more often than a claimer in the third race at Aqueduct. Penner, the ex-Group II free agent who killed a friendship between then-Anaheim GM Brian Burke and then-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, has eight goals and 15 points in the first 11 games, a roaring start for a power forward who scored just 17 times last season. Penner has been more tenacious on the puck and is playing with more confidence.

"I'm a lot happier," he told On the Fly, "and that can help you play better."

Penner, who had a toxic relationship with former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, now has a terrific one with Pat Quinn, which should hardly be a surprise.

This is Quinn's gift as a coach. With the odd exception, his players like him. Obviously this isn't a prerequisite for success -- entering this year, Quinn had coached a record 1,318 regular-season games without winning the Stanley Cup -- but it has helped him extricate talent in players who had done little more than scratch the surface. As uncomfortable as he can make the referees, linesmen and the NHL hockey operations department -- no one is quite as tough on them -- he is a player's coach, generally rolling four lines and letting the players win and lose the game. As Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said of Quinn last summer, he is always mindful of the big picture.

The by-product of the comfortable work environment on Quinn's teams is goals. Although not blessed with an abundance of natural scorers beyond Mats Sundin when Quinn coached Toronto between 1998 and 2005, his teams led the Eastern Conference in goals twice and finished in the top three another three times.

Clearly the Oilers, a team whose patrimony is based on turning the red light on, needed a scoring upgrade. (No one had more than 23 goals last season, including Ales Hemsky, often considered an elite player even though he entered the season with 93 in 428 games.) With youngsters such as Sam Gagner seemingly stagnating, the Oilers averaged 3.1 goals per games last season under MacTavish. Although the sample size is small, Edmonton is up by slightly more than a quarter of a goal per game.

"He's been around the game 40-plus years, he's played it and nothing can rattle him," Penner said of Quinn. "He makes you feel comfortable. You're re not looking over your shoulder every time you make a mistake. He really understands the mental part of the game -- how to coach it. Everyone respects him, and everyone listens. For some players, less is more."

In a league where more might be enough -- Toronto has four coaches behind the bench, the most men you'll see in suits outside of a Chase Bank board meeting -- there might be a benefit in -- how to put this -- a little under-coaching.

You don't have to read between the lines in Montreal, just the pipes. For the fourth straight game (and victory) on Monday, a 3-2 overtime win against the New York Islanders, Jaroslav Halak was in goal. Without proclaiming a new No. 1 goalie or even formally enunciating a win-and-you're-in policy, new coach Jacques Martin (who started a little down the track from Quinn, with 1,098 games without a Cup) keeps going to Halak over Montreal's heretofore favorite son, Carey Price. A sign in the stands last week read "The Price is Wrong" -- boy, you can't make up stuff that clever -- and a city that embraces the sport like few others seems content to have the nominal backup minding the store.

Taking his non-demotion demotion in stride, Price, the No. 1 since GM Bob Gainey moved Cristobal Huet for a draft pick at the 2008 trading deadline, has been a model teammate. Given his superior upside to Halak -- Price is taller, a better puck-handler and more athletic -- there is every reason to believe he will win his way back into a job to which he has been groomed since the Canadiens made him the fifth overall draft pick in 2005. Patience.

If there is a problem with Montreal's goaltending, it is not so much the ability of the two puck-stoppers but the dynamic. While all the "1 and 1A" stuff sounds swell, teams generally prefer defined roles -- a clear-cut top guy and a reliable backup who can fill in competently or at times spectacularly as Craig Anderson (now with Colorado) did in Florida and Ty Conklin (now in St. Louis) did in Detroit last season.

But Halak is 24 and Price is 22, hardly the age in which either would care to play Sancho Panza to the other's Don Quixote. And as they are similar in age, they are not all that dissimilar in ability even though Price, the 2009 All-Star game starter, has more renown. The situation should work fine in the short term, but if this construct doesn't eventually change, some creative friction might arise that would not be as healthy.

Curtis Sanford, a veteran, now tends goal in AHL Hamilton. (Marc Denis, who filled that role last year, played a mere 20 minutes in Montreal.) In the long term, Montreal might be better off with a Price-Sanford tandem, but in the short-term for a team under immense pressure to make the playoffs, Halak has been an important part of a turnaround after a losing streak of five games.

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