The line has blurred between correlation and coincidence, between bad luck and good reason.
Colorado’s injury list reached double-digits after star center Nathan MacKinnon went down last weekend in Philadelphia, leaving the 2022-23 Avalanche looking unrecognizable from last season’s Stanley Cup champion roster. It’s enough to make fans scream into the void: Why is this happening?
Speaking of the Stanley Cup … in the search for answers, one possible explanation that might occur to you is whether the Avs (13-10-2) are bearing the brunt of their shortened offseason. They hoisted the cup June 26 in Tampa. Their title defense started Oct. 12 at Ball Arena.
“I think it can affect (health),” Mikko Rantanen told The Denver Post. “When you have a shorter summer, you don’t have much time to practice and get ready for another 82 games plus the playoffs. So for sure, I think that could be one thing. But it’s hard to tell. It’s hard to say what it is. It’s kind of weird that everything happens at the same time.”
Cale Makar saw it from the other perspective: “If we were all healthy right now, people would be like, ‘Wow, how are they doing this?’ because of the shorter offseason. So it goes both ways. … I don’t think it attributes to that too much. It’s just some bad luck and some unfortunate circumstances.”
That’s the central question: Is the offseason disadvantage in rest time and training time enough to make a Stanley Cup team extra injury-prone?
There have other been cases of teams fresh off a Cup run getting infected by the injury bug – but not consistently enough to call it a surefire trend. We consulted recent history. Take the 18 teams that have made the Stanley Cup Final since the 2012-13 NHL lockout. From those teams, take the top six point producers who remained with the team for the entirety of the next season.
On five of the 18 teams, those six players added up to 80 or more games missed the next season. But on seven teams, the six players missed fewer than 40 games.
The 108 impact players in that sample missed 13.4% of possible games the season after their respective Cup runs. But that’s largely the result of a small number of long-term injuries; 60 of the players (56%) missed five games or fewer all season.
This is an imperfect exercise, but it’s enough to show a Cup run doesn’t guarantee an injury slog. What does seem to be the harsh reality is this: A successful team simply runs into that bad luck every couple of years. After the Dallas Stars lost a COVID-delayed Stanley Cup in September 2020, the ensuing shortened season was marred. Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Roope Hintz all missed chunks of time. The top six returning point producers were out 121 combined games. Dallas finished fifth in its division.
That same year, Nikita Kucherov missed the entire regular season and Steven Stamkos missed 18 games for the Lightning – but it didn’t stop Tampa from surviving until the playoffs then repeating as champions. It can be done.
Vegas’ top six returners missed 100 games in 2018-19. Vladimir Tarasenko needed shoulder surgery two weeks into St. Louis’ 2019 title defense. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist all missed double-digit games in 2016-17 for the Penguins.
Plenty of teams escape unscathed. The Bruins’ core only missed 21 combined games in 2013-14 and 32 combined games in 2019-20. The Capitals’ six missed 25 combined in 2018-19, en route to first place in the division.
As for the Avalanche? The top six in points who are back this season are Rantanen, MacKinnon, Makar, Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews and Valeri Nichushkin. Half of those players (plus a long list of others not accounted for in this experiment) have already sustained fairly significant injuries.
“Once you kind of hit that number — five, six guys (injured) — you’re taxing other guys more than usual,” coach Jared Bednar said. “And injuries seem to pile up. Some of them are unfortunate. Some of them are just plays that happen in the game and injuries are part of it. … You’re wondering exactly why it happens. But we seem to have a handful of guys like that: short training season, long playoffs, some of our injuries are carrying over from last year.”
Nichushkin (ankle) missed 17 games. MacKinnon (upper body) is out for approximately a month, which should span about 15 games. By the time Landeskog is expected back, it will be the midpoint of the season. That’s roughly 75 combined games missed among the top six returners — more than 12 of the 18 teams sampled.
“We’re just looking to make the playoffs. And once we get healthy, we feel like we’re tough to beat and comfortable on the road,” MacKinnon said after a win in Washington. “So if we don’t have home ice, it’s all good.”
Two weeks later, MacKinnon joined the list. He had the foresight to understand the big picture: It’s just a matter of how long a champion can last without championship players.