Survival of the fittest in short season
Pierre LeBrun [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
January 24, 2013
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The action has already been breathtaking with so many games every night.

When you're trying to squeeze 48 games into 99 days, that's what you're going to get. And hockey fans are in for a treat right to the finish.

What you're also going to get is a lot of injuries. With less time to recover between games and not much time to prepare before the season started, it's a strong possibility.

And let's not start pointing fingers here. Both owners and players were on board with this framework of a schedule, well aware of the pros and cons. But in the end, the need to maximize hockey-related revenue, which both sides share equally, won out.

Nobody is getting caught off guard here. Injuries are part of the game in any season, and certainly everyone involved knew that would be the case cramming these games in. But with such a compacted schedule and likely very little separating teams in the standings over a shortened season, the dominant storyline all season long, without question, will be injuries and teams' ability to survive them.

Depth will be the key word of the season. Teams with it will outlast teams without it.

"The teams that have depth of skill more than anything," Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com on Thursday.

His Flyers are already being tested. At 0-3 to start the season heading into a huge game against the Rangers on Thursday night, Holmgren's squad was going to be without Scott Hartnell (foot), Danny Briere (wrist), Zac Rinaldo (lacerated right leg) and Brayden Schenn (one-game suspension).

"We've got eight guys out in the AHL too; I was on the phone this morning trying to find two guys just to fill in down there," he said with a faint chuckle. "We don't have enough players."

That too will bear monitoring, the attrition on AHL clubs as the NHL comes calling for reinforcements.

The injury news has come fast and furious. Toronto first-line winger Joffrey Lupul suffered a fractured forearm Wednesday night, a huge blow for the Maple Leafs. On the same night, last spring's playoff stud Mike Smith left his goalie crease in Phoenix (although his injury is not considered serious). The Stanley Cup champions in Los Angeles are on the phone looking for help on defense after losing Matt Greene long term and while waiting for Willie Mitchell's return from knee surgery. The Colorado Avalanche lost an important player for the season in Steve Downie. The Vancouver Canucks opened the season without two-thirds of their second line (David Booth, Ryan Kesler). The Florida Panthers are without Kris Versteeg, Erik Gudbranson, Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim and Michael Caruso.

There's more, but you get the point.

"We're going to have to rely on first-year pros to fill the holes and that's tough, especially early in the year," Panthers GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com on Thursday.

"But I think it's going to be cyclical around the league, different teams will go through this at different times. There's no excuses, you just try to get through it."

No team has the right to complain more than Detroit, where Red Wings have fallen like flies.

Brian Lashoff and Kent Huskins are slated to play defense again for Detroit on Friday night, the Nos. 8 and 9 blueliners on the organization's depth chart. I repeat, the Wings have already gone through nine defensemen one week into the NHL season.

To wit, Detroit's injury list:

Jakub Kindl -- groin

Carlo Colaiacovo -- shoulder

Joey MacDonald -- back

Mikael Samuelsson -- groin

Jan Mursak -- shoulder

Todd Bertuzzi -- flu

Darren Helm -- back

Jonas Gustavsson -- groin

Jonathan Ericsson -- upper body

Ian White -- laceration on left leg

Detroit had nine players in suits on the bench for their home opener Tuesday night. Quite the sight, indeed.

The Wings do hope to have Kindl, Bertuzzi and Helm back as early as Friday against Minnesota, if the hockey gods show enough mercy.

Some of it is bad luck, of course, and would happen in any other season. On the other hand, a five-day camp with no preseason games doesn't help the situation. At least in normal years, when there are seven or eight preseason games, players have time to work themselves into game shape and recover from minor ailments before the real hockey starts.

"Five days to prepare training-camp-wise and then we started with three games in four nights ... she's jammed together," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com on Thursday.

"Normally what we do is we play eight preseason games. Now we don't have any preseason games to get started, which means our players haven't been run over before it starts. Guys are pushing it and trying to go and they've prepared real hard, but it's not the same. So you get the groin pulls. Your depth gets tested, for sure."

So be it, Babcock said; it's going to be like that for everyone.

"This is how I look at it from a coaching perspective: opportunity," Babcock said. "Lashoff? I would never [have] believed he would have played for us this year, but he's played great for us in two games. Listen, we're a work in progress, but we'll figure this out. This is what we've got. Let's find a way to win games. That's the way I look at it."

Teams are already trying to bulk up on defense. Several NHL GMs I spoke with over the past week are scouring the market looking for more depth on the blue line. Akin to pitching in baseball, defense never seems deep enough for NHL teams. But in a year with a compacted schedule, that carries even more weight.

And without a doubt, when a team hoists the Stanley Cup come late June, the story will not just be how well that club played to reach its glory, but how many players were healthy enough to get there.

"It is what it is and it's all predictable," Kings GM Dean Lombardi told ESPN.com Thursday. "We all knew there would be injuries. You look at NFL teams and how they manage their rosters and injuries, they do it all the time. It's part of being a good team, how you deal with injuries and adversity. That's reality."

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