Another day, another NHL superstar joins the ranks of the walking wounded. After leaving Sunday's 5-4 overtime loss to Columbus in the second period, Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin is now listed as week-to-week with an undisclosed upper-body injury. The NHL's points leader joins an ever-lengthening list of key players out of commission, particularly among teams seen as strong contenders for the Stanley Cup.
The Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Capitals all came into the season with aspirations of winning the league's most coveted trophy, but early on those hopes seem to have taken some heavy hits because of injuries. With Ovie's absence from the ice, we thought it would be a good time to see exactly how badly each team has been bitten by the injury bug. Can these clubs overcome the losses of key players to make the 2010 postseason? We consulted the impact on each team's VUKOTA projections to find out.
The result? Fans of squads with stars among the walking wounded can rest easy. Although the results vary in each instance, even extended absences by top players aren't enough to bring these teams back to the pack. Several factors keep these injuries from being true catastrophes, but the most important is that even stars don't contribute enough to truly matter on a game-by-game basis.
Puck Prospectus measures player value with a metric called GVT (goals versus threshold), which evaluates a given player's contribution to his team during the season relative to those of a minor league replacement player. A team's GVT is the sum of its players' GVT marks, making it pretty simple to see how much a player's absence impacts his squad's fortunes. For example, Evgeni Malkin, one of the league's best players, carries a projected GVT of 26.8.
That's an impressive figure throughout the course of a season. But broken down over the short term (an eighth of the season at worst), Malkin's expected absence drops the Penguins' team GVT only from 32.0 to 28.7. Overall, that equates to one point in the standings. Even adding Sergei Gonchar's absence drops the team only to a projected 101 points in the standings.
Together, Gonchar and Malkin contribute an average of .65 goals per game. That seems like a lot, but their lost production is being picked up by additional minutes for the likes of Jordan Staal and Alex Goligoski, not replacement-level minor leaguers. Staal and Goligoski help mitigate the lost production by nearly half with their increased ice time. It's still a hit, but a drop of .24 goals per game is easier to swallow.
This pattern holds in Washington, Detroit and Boston. The Capitals could lose Ovechkin and his projected 27.6 GVT for several weeks, with Brooks Laich (projected 8.4 GVT) being the likeliest beneficiary of additional time on the ice. This would mean a loss of just .22 goals per game, not the .7 he's averaged during the course of his career.
The Red Wings have lost Johan Franzen (VUKOTA-projected 13.0 GVT) for two-thirds of the year, but with Jason Williams filling the minutes, Detroit projects to lose only .18 goals per game during his absence. Likewise, the Bruins' loss of Marc Savard and Milan Lucic results in a drop of only .59 goals per game and two points in the standings.
The second factor prohibiting a falloff for these teams is the massive gap between the top five teams and the sixth-best projected team, the Vancouver Canucks. Three of the top five teams (Detroit, Chicago, Boston) all have a great amount of depth on their roster, with at least 12 players projected by VUKOTA to post a GVT of 5 or greater and five players projected to post GVTs of at least 10. Meanwhile, the remaining two top-five projected squads possess extraordinary players, such as the Capitals with Ovechkin (27.6) and the Penguins with Sidney Crosby (24.3) and Malkin (26.8). Even then, the duration of their absence shouldn't affect their teams' standings.
Obviously, the Red Wings and Bruins haven't played up to expectations thus far, but this has more to do with non-injury factors. Detroit is stumbling because its two goaltenders are among the 25 worst players in the NHL by our metrics through October, with Chris Osgood sporting a -2.3 GVT and backup Jimmy Howard, who has started in five of the 14 games, posting a -1.6 GVT. Combined with the losses of Jiri Hudler (10.9 GVT in 2008-09), Mikael Samuelsson (4.4) and Marian Hossa (19.7) on offense, the Red Wings suddenly find themselves struggling in the Central Division. Meanwhile, Boston netminder Tim Thomas, who posted an amazing 35.8 GVT last season, has fallen back to reality with a 1.7 GVT through the first month. Also, last season's second-best offense in the eyes of GVT (25.3) is now in the bottom third of the league (-4.2) because Michael Ryder (0.1 GVT through October) and David Krejci (0.8) are severely underperforming their VUKOTA projections of 9.0 and 13.9, respectively.
Although injuries to key players on contending squads might have fans nervous about their teams in the future, they can relax knowing that even star players are replaceable in the short term. Anyone who counts out these teams because of injuries to star players should reconsider their position. All of these teams should be fine without their best players until they come back, so don't expect Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh or Detroit to collapse in November.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Andrew Rothstein is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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