So what happens when the injured heal?
One hundred and ninety three man-games lost to injury this year. By the end of the year, that number will likely climb high enough that it will be more than the past three seasons combined. My wife (whose fandom is more than casual but less than intense) has even noticed that there are significantly more injuries this year than in the past. OK, what she’s actually noticed is that there are a lot of rookies playing in their first NHL games and getting their first NHL points (things she gets really excited about). But when even my wife notices, there are a lot of injuries.
Fortunately, many of the injured players will be returning soon. Barring any setbacks, Ryan Callahan is expected to make his return to active status on Feb. 1 against the Penguins. Likewise for Dan Girardi. Figuring out who will sit for those two is pretty simple: Evgeni Grachev and Michael Del Zotto don’t come back to New York after the All-Star break. Problem solved… for now.
In their last game against the Florida Panthers, the Rangers had 8(!) players out hurt. One of those players is Alexander Frolov, who is done for the season (and as a Blue Shirt). As for Derek Boogaard, you just can never tell with a head injury, although, you have to think he would have a hard time finding the lineup over any of the guys currently there, let alone over the guys who will be returning. But that’s still 6 (7 with Boogaard) potential players who could come back. The original timetables for Brandon Dubinsky, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Erik Christensen all line up for an expected return by the end of February. Also, even though Vinny Prospal hasn’t skated in a game all season, I believe he would still be eligible for the playoffs if he isn’t active by the trade deadline. That isn’t to say there is still a very strong possibility that he might shut it down for the season and possibly call it a career. That’s 4 potential starters returning to the lineup at the same time.
You can’t go back to what the lines were at the beginning of the season, not only because I don’t think anyone can honestly remember what they were or because we started with a couple of guys already hurt (Prospal hasn’t been in a game all season), but because of what we have learned throughout the course of the season about some of the guys already on the roster. Derek Stepan is for real. Brandon Prust doesn’t just fight. Dubinsky is the MVP. Chris Drury has clearly lost his way (and his pants). And as Carp frequently says, “[Brian] Boyle = Monster.” So you have to start making decisions of who you pare down, and from where.
Obviously, some of the guys who are in the lineup will be Whaled. Chad Kolarik and Kris Newbury have been good stopgaps, but I don’t think you can argue with a straight face that either of them are superior to the returning four. And while Newbury brings some more “jam” to the game than Christensen or Prospal, it’s not anything that can’t be replaced by Fedotenko or even by demoting Sean Avery back to the 4th line. And speaking of the 4th line, you have to think that Drury starts watching games from the press box (maybe he can sew his pants while he’s in there). Even his “intangibles” are readily replaceable at this point by a majority of the team, a true credit to John Tortorella and the rest of the coaching staff, both in New York and in Connecticut. The tough part is that Drury is the captain, and by sitting him, you are functionally stripping him of the captaincy.
After that though, things get pretty tricky. You have to sit a legitimate player at that point. The only guys who would be considered, in my opinion, are Sean Avery and Mats Zuccarello. Zuccarello has been very good since being called up and is lethal in the shootout. Imagine a shootout lineup of Zucarrello, Christensen, and Wojtek Wolski! Avery, however, is better suited for a 4th line role than any of the returning players and could find himself there with Zuccarello getting temporarily Whaled. He could always be recalled if they needed him. If Prospal doesn’t return, I think Zuccarello is here to stay.
There is also another very large X-factor: Glen Sather. Sather is hardly one to sit idly by in the month ahead of the trade deadline. With our incredibly inexperienced defense corps, I have a hard time imagining Sather doesn’t pull the trigger on a trade to bring in a veteran player. What he trades in exchange is a mystery, but I’m very confident that there will be a trade. Tortorella has frequently expressed his pleasure at the youth on the team and how happy he is that they have retained this young core group. I think part of the reason he says it so much is to not-so-silently hint at Sather that he doesn’t want any of the pieces traded away.
As for predictions: I don’t believe Prospal returns. As a result, only Newbury and Kolarik get Whaled, and Drury watches from the pressbox. I would be OK with this. If Prospal does return, I think unfortunately it is Zuccarello that finds himself riding the buses again. However, I’d much rather it be Zuccarello playing and Avery finding himself watching games with Drury.
Now, I put it to you:
1) Do you think Prospal returns?
2) Which players do you think will sit/be Whaled when Fedotenko, Dubinsky, and Christensen return?
3) If Prospal also returns, who do you think sits for him?
And please, PLEASE, can the discussion not be focused entirely on Sean Avery?