Welcome to the first "Under The Blade" column, the hockey flavor of my award-winning injury analysis columns that run regularly at Baseball Prospectus. The same principles apply in hockey as they do in football, baseball, or soccer, despite hockey's reputation for secrecy. Simply put, we use journalistic techniques to gain information, then apply the knowledge and tools of sports medicine to analyze the effects of injuries on the game. Each week, I'll be using my sources to dig up information on the ten injuries with the most impact on the game. Yes, we'll have a bias to the big names, but it goes beyond that - interesting injuries that can teach us something or give us new insight into the game might happen to a guy who's name you haven't learned to pronounce yet. While I'm better known for baseball, my roots in hockey run deep. I saw Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull play and remember the name of the last maskless goalie (do you?) I was at Wayne Gretzky's first professional game, but I'll be honest - I don't remember that Messier kid who came a couple weeks later, though I understand he had quite the career. So let's go - powered by those memories of the WHA, on to the injuries:
How do we not start with the game's biggest star? (I didn't say best player. I said biggest star.) The moderate groin strain is really holding him back and points to the importance of the groin in the hockey stride. Unlike running sports where the hamstrings and quads are the motor, the hockey stride's need to put pressure on the edge of the blade puts both the abductors and adductors more in the mix. Crosby has had a lot of small injuries like this, along with last year's more serious ankle injuries, that have held him back slightly. It's always difficult to get a read on star players for teams. It's impossible to replace a player like Crosby, so is it better to rush him back and have a percentage of that star on ice with a slightly increased risk or to wait and miss a few more games and know he's healthy? The Pens will have to deal with this throughout Crosby's career, since these type of injuries are all that's holding him back from living up to his reputation. Having the team go four straight wins without him is pretty interesting.
A lot of people wonder how I cover several sports. Sometimes it's a problem and other times, not so much. On Tuesday, the Yankees announced that Alex Rodriguez would visit Dr. Marc Phillipon to check his hip. That's the same doctor that repaired a mild anatomical problem inside of Marion Gaborik's hip back in January. Gaborik is on schedule in his recovery, though he's headed toward hitting the middle of the expected 10-14 week estimate rather than the front. The surgery was relatively simple and should allow him to not only come back, but to avoid future problems with the hip/groin as Gaborik has had throughout his career. Once back, there's some worry about weakness or the inevitable traumas any hockey player takes, but as things go, this one should be straightforward and aside from conditioning, I'd expect him to hit the ice at a high level.
I had a great writeup done on Hossa, then he re-injured himself in a scary looking injury. Early word is that Hossa has no loss of feeling and never lost consciousness, but there's a fine line in bringing back an athlete. I'm sure no one is more worried than the Detroit medical staff, wondering if they made the right choice, though it's impossible to know. Hossa's recurrent neck problems are something that has to be taken with the utmost of seriousness and will certainly color the way the team brings him back. That said, the Wings attack will be deeply affected if Hossa has to miss an extended period of time. The original neck injury is no guide as to how he'll come back, making it one of those tough "wait and see" injuries.
There's no truth to the rumor that goalies around the league are scheduling elbow surgery, but maybe they should. Brodeur hasn't just come back, he's come back at an elite level, showing no deficit and certainly no rust. He's only allowed two goals since returning and one FOT (front office type) I spoke with said that Brodeur "looks re-energized somehow. It's crazy!" He's certainly well rested as the Devils head towards the playoffs, which can't make any opposition happy. The torn biceps has had no visible affect on his play, though shooters are still testing his glove side. They're just not finding a hole.
"Upper body injury." Sure, you guys probably know what happened to Milan Lucic since you're the kind of fan that reads Puck Prospectus, but to the casual fan, what must they think? Is it an injured shoulder or a chest contusion? Is it a broken finger or a broken neck? All of these are "upper body injuries" but none of them tells you anything ... which gives me a job. Lucic suffered a concussion in a fight and was brought along slowly, given the dangers of recurrence. He's been cleared to play, but remains out of the lineup for the Bruins. He should be back in the very near future and should keep his gloves on for a while. His helmet too. While he'll be back soon, so will the stupid designation of upper and lower body injuries. It's my mission to prove to teams that secrecy isn't helping them win games. You know what does? A good medical staff.
A bruised hand doesn't sound like much, especially to a hockey player, but the type of injury that Daymond Langkow suffered is precisely the type that makes it difficult to play effectively. Without sounding too simplistic, if a player can't hold the stick properly, he can't do much on the ice besides skate and if that's the case, as Badger Bob Johnson once said "if all you can do is skate, Peggy Fleming can do that and look a lot better than you." Langkow's production is already trending downward, so the swollen, painful hand is even more of a problem. Sources tell me he should be back on the ice soon, but that for some reason, the swelling continues to be the major factor that's keeping him off the ice.
With Sidney Crosby, I told you how important the groin is to the hockey stride. For a goalie, it's even more important. The lateral quickness and "kick save" moves necessary for success can't make it past a strained groin, which means too many goals make it past the goalie who's injured. Nikolai Khabibulin has been day to day for almost a month. The Blackhawks have some options between the pipes, so rushing him back isn't the problem, but figuring out how to manage him and figure out how to get the most out of him will be a challenge for Joel Quenneville.
At the point I'm writing this on Wednesday morning, Afinogenov is still a Sabre. He's also still injured, dealing with a groin strain that's been healed for a week and a coach in Lindy Ruff that's had a reputation for intolerance about injuries. It's hard to understand why Ruff has held him out an extra couple weeks after complaining that he wasn't available for the six weeks it took Afinogenov to heal, though a lot of teams are holding out players that they might trade. With the trading deadline fast approaching, the winger is being mentioned in a lot of rumors, with scouts knowing that the trade physical should be no problem for him. The downside is that the return to physical play we've seen in the past couple seasons has been a problem for the Russian scorer.
That a player would be criticized for a "slow" comeback after taking a slap shot off his face just stuns me. Tomas Vanek had that happen, suffered through having his jaw wired shut while it healed, and now is getting the stinkeye from his coach and the media as he gets closer to a comeback. Look, the dude very literally had his face broken and that he could be back as soon as Wednesday night should be considered pretty special. Vanek has lost weight and conditioning, but looks to be headed back to the first line once he gets back for the Sabres.
The more I talk to people about young players, the more often I hear about David Booth. It always starts with a qualifier like "He's not great, but he's great for the Panthers." There's not really a consensus on whether that says more about the team or the player, but missing time with a ribcage injury after missing time with the flu isn't helping him build a case. Booth's the best goal scorer the Panthers have, so missing him even for a short time is a big hole to fill without anyone able to adequately fill in. The good part is that he shouldn't miss much more ice time.