SUN Hockey Pool

NHL limps to quarter mark

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

In the thoroughbred horse race known as the 2009-10 NHL season, more than a handful of competitors have come up lame by the quarter pole.

Indeed, there is no shortage of NHL teams that have limped through the opening quarter thanks to a rash of injuries to star players, a league-wide trend that Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland calls "freakish."

"That's the best way to describe it," Holland said yesterday. "I've never seen it like this before."

Consider the list of big names who have been -- or still are -- out of action for at least two weeks, if not longer.

Alexander Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Ilya Kovalchuk. Brian Gionta. Ryan Smyth. Marc Savard. Milan Lucic. Jonathan Toews. Johan Franzen. Daniel Sedin. Roberto Luongo. Cam Ward. Eric Staal. Rob Blake. Sergei Gonchar. Thomas Vanek. Sheldon Souray. Just to identify a few.

For a league thirsting for star power, the assembly line of sidelined marquee performers truly is a punch right in the NHL's P.R. gut. That's especially true south of the border, where, in the absence of a true national television contract (sorry, Versus, but you are no ESPN), big names are crucial in the wooing of fans.

While the messes in both Phoenix and at the NHLPA are of concern to the league, the glut of superstars stuffed in the trainers room should be the NHL's most pressing issue at the quarter pole. As injury lists go, this one has been unprecedented.

Holland sees two reasons for the trend.

"First off, it's a freak occurrence," Holland said. "To have so many top line guys go down, what else can you say?

"Secondly, it shows that those who claim the regular season doesn't mean anything are wrong. There are so many teams so close to each other in this age of parity, every game means something. Guys are going that extra mile, blocking shots, sacrificing their bodies, because they know every point matters.

"In a cap world, with the majority of teams within five points of a playoff spot, guys who are bigger and stronger than ever before are playing very intense hockey."

Equipment remains an issue, with the league examining prototypes that might soften the impact of items such as shoulder pads and elbow pads, which can be used as devastating weapons.

Meanwhile, all these injuries have left the head honchos of the respective Olympic teams fretting endlessly. With most squads being picked by the first week of January, which players will be in top form by then, let alone by the start of the Games in February?

For example, every member of Russia's potential top line -- Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalchuk -- already has spent significant time sidelined because of injury.

As for Team Canada, how will Staal rebound when he gets back? Ward too? It certainly doesn't make life easier for Steve Yzerman heading into the release of his roster Dec. 31.

As Sun Media takes a look at the NHL at the quarter pole, remember this: In the past few days alone, it was announced that Gionta and Smyth both will miss significant time.

Let's hope this is nothing more than, as Holland says, a "freakish" thing. Those marketing the NHL certainly do.

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Say what?

- "In the old days (Jarome Iginla) would have got hit over the head with a stick right after ..." -- Oilers coach Pat Quinn, on what he thought was a dirty hit by Iginla on Sheldon Souray. Maybe that was the case in your day, Pat, but not in this new politically correct NHL. Hence your $10,000 fine.

- "I don't want to be known as a loser" -- Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson. Note to Wilson: As of yesterday, your record as Leaf bench boss was 37-46-18. If you want to be known as a winner here, start winning!

- "(He called me) the biggest fattest (expletive) pig he'd ever seen." -- Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, referring to comments aimed at him by Sean Avery. Hey Bruce, just consider the source.

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Surprise, Surprise!

- Phoenix Coyotes: Kudos to the players for an admirable start in circus-like conditions.

- Colorado Avalanche: There is life -- and wins -- after Joe Sakic.

- Los Angeles Kings: Weren't the Ducks supposed to be the class of La-La-Land?

- Buffalo Sabres: Every night is Miller time.

Coming Up Short

- St. Louis Blues: Too much offensive talent not to be scoring.

- Toronto Maple Leafs: No excuses for worst start in team history.

- Anaheim Ducks: Surely the loss of Chris Pronger isn't the sole reason for this collapse.

- Carolina Hurricanes: Biggest free fall in league.

Disappearing Acts

- Christopher Higgins (Rangers): It's easy to get lost in the bright lights of the Big Apple but not like this.

- Pavol Demitra (Canucks): Is this guy ALWAYS hurt?

- Alexei Kovalev (Senators): Habs fans are painfully aware of this "now you see him, now you don't" act.

- Martin Havlat (Wild): Five years, $24 million US, two goals.

Enough Already

- NHLPA Mess: Just bring back Glenn Healy, please.

- Empty Seats In Phoenix/Florida: This is news?

- Sean Avery: The Act That Never Ends.

- A Second Team For Southern Ontario: There already is one -- the Buffalo Sabres. We like Quebec City where they sell out for peewee games.

Early frontrunners

- Hart Trophy (MVP): G Ryan Miller (Sabres), G Craig Anderson (Avs), F Anze Kopitar (Kings), F Alex Ovechkin (Capitals), F Marian Gaborik (Rangers), F Rick Nash (Blue Jackets).

- Norris Trophy (Top Defenceman): Dan Boyle (Sharks), Drew Doughty (Kings), Chris Pronger (Flyers), Duncan Keith (Hawks), Mike Green (Caps), Nicklas Lidstrom (Red Wings).

- Vezina Trophy (Top Goalie): Ryan Miller (Sabres), Craig Anderson (Avs), Martin Brodeur (Devils), Marc-Andre Fleury (Penguins), Miikka Kiprusoff (Flames).

- Calder Trophy (Top Rookie): F John Tavares (Islanders), D Tyler Myers (Sabres), D Michael Del Zotto (Rangers), F Ryan O'Reilly (Avs), F James van Riemsdyk (Flyers), F Niclas Bergfors (Devils), F Jamie Benn (Stars).


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