Red Wings, Rangers, Lightning must deal with early injury issues

The Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning have significant injury issues to address before the start of the NHL season on October 8.
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An MRI on Wednesday revealed that Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk suffered a second degree separation of his right shoulder as a result of a hard collision in Monday's game against the Penguins. The grim diagnosis: He'll miss 4-5 weeks.

That's bad, certainly much worse than the early expectation that he'd be back in one week. But the timing of the injury should help the Wings work around it. Preseason will take up the first two weeks of his recovery and Detroit plays just six games over the first two weeks of the regular season.

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That's manageable, but it'll require some of his teammates to step up in his absence.

Henrik Zetterberg likely will slide into Datsyuk's role, centering the first line and doing the heavy lifting on the power play.

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Stephen Weiss can be expected to pick up some of Zetterberg's slack by assuming heavier minutes on the second line. This is a huge opportunity for the veteran center who needs to put his disastrous first season in Detroit—just four points in 26 games—behind him. He's looked comfortable so far in camp, showing chemistry with Gustav Nyquist, so there's reason to believe that he's up for the task.

It also makes it likely that Tomas Jurco, the team's only waiver-exempt forward, will open the season in Detroit rather than serve as a salary-cap sacrifice. Jurco proved he was NHL-ready last season, tallying eight goals and 15 points in 36 games after a mid-season call-up. That secondary offense will be critical for the Wings to get past the losses of Datsyuk and unsigned free agent Daniel Alfredsson.

Rangers center Derek Stepan out 4-6 weeks with fractured fibula

With that kind of support, the Wings should be able to weather Datsyuk's short-term absence, but the short-term might not be their biggest concern. At this point, Detroit has to be wondering whether it can count on the 35-year-old Datsyuk to remain healthy. After establishing himself over the first eight years of his career as one of the league's most durable players, he's starting to show signs of wearing down. He missed a total of 39 games between 2010-12, and then was limited to just 45 games last season by knee problems.

Datsyuk still has three seasons to play, including this one, on a contract worth more than $22 million, and because it was signed when he was 35, the full amount counts against the cap. His ability to remain healthy and in the lineup becomes a major issue for this team moving forward.

Broadway Bruiseshirts

The New York Rangers are facing a similar challenge after learning that their top center, Derek Stepan, could be lost for at least the first month of the season after breaking his left fibula in practice on Wednesday.

While they don't have the luxury of a Zetterberg to fill the gap, Derick Brassard is a decent option to replace Stepan on the first line. It's when they try to fill in the blanks behind him that the questions start piling up.

Dominic Moore had a few nice moments after being pressed into second-line duty by Stepan's jaw injury last spring, but he's really better suited for a depth role. With AHL vet Chris Mueller likely to slot in on the fourth line, that leaves the third for Moore and opens the door to a top-six opportunity for free agent addition Matthew Lombardi, college star Kevin Hayes, and prospects J.T. Miller and Oscar Lindberg.

While one of the kids could surprise in camp and seize the job, concerns about their ability to handle the defensive load make Lombardi and his 500-game NHL resume the safest bet for coach Alain Vignault. The 32-year-old played in Switzerland last season after failing to land an NHL gig, but he made the most of his time in the Alps, tallying 20 goals and 50 points for Geneve Servette to lead the circuit in scoring. With his speed and smarts he could be a serviceable short-term understudy.

Bolt from the black and blue

The Lightning learned this week that they'll be without Jonathan Drouin for up to a month after the Calder Trophy favorite suffered a fractured thumb. Tough break for the team, which was counting on utilizing the playmaking winger alongside Steven Stamkos, but a tougher one for the player. Drouin was looking to build up momentum in camp after being a surprise early cut last season. Now he faces playing his first NHL game without the benefit of preseason action to get him up to speed. Not an ideal situation for any rookie, but a particularly rough road for one facing such high expectations after dominating junior hockey the past two seasons.

The Bolts are likely to pair Stamkos with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, two of his most frequent linemates in 2013-14, to start the season.