The long-term injury toll of a Stanley Cup run

The boundary has blurred between correlation and coincidence, between bad luck and good reason.

Colorado’s injured list hit double digits after star center Nathan MacKinnon fell last weekend in Philadelphia, leaving the 2022-23 Avalanche unrecognizable from last season’s Stanley Cup champion roster. That’s enough to have fans screaming into the void: Why is this happening?

Speaking of the Stanley Cup… in the search for answers, one possible explanation that might come to mind is whether the Avs (13-10-2) are paying the price for their shortened offseason. They hoisted the cup on June 26 in Tampa. Their title defense began on October 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 a lot of time to practice and prepare for another 82 games plus the playoffs. So, of course, I think that could be a thing. But it’s hard to say. It’s hard to say what it is. It’s a little weird that everything happens at the same time.

Cale Makar saw it from another perspective: “If we were all healthy right now, people would be like, ‘Wow, how are they doing that?’ due to the shorter off-season. So it goes both ways. … I don’t think he attributes too much to it. It’s just bad luck and unfortunate circumstances.

That’s the central question: Is the offseason disadvantage in rest and practice time enough to make a Stanley Cup team more injury-prone?

There have been other cases of teams fresh out of a Cup race infected with the injury bug – but not regularly enough to call it a surefire trend. We looked at recent history. Take the 18 teams that have reached the Stanley Cup Final since the NHL was locked out in 2012-13. Of those teams, take the top six point producers who stayed with the team for the entire following season.

Of five of the 18 teams, those six players missed 80 or more games the following season. But out of seven teams, all six players have missed less than 40 games.

The 108 impact players in this sample have missed 13.4% of the season’s possible matches after their respective Cup runs. But that’s largely the result of a small number of long-term injuries; 60 of the players (56%) have missed five or fewer games all season.

It’s an imperfect drill, but it’s enough to show that a Cup run doesn’t guarantee injury. What seems to be the stark reality is this: a successful team just encounters this bad luck every couple of years. After the Dallas Stars lost a COVID-delayed Stanley Cup in September 2020, the shortened season that followed was bungled. Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Roope Hintz all missed chunks of time. The top six return point producers were in 121 games combined. 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 that didn’t stop Tampa from surviving to the playoffs and then repeating themselves as champions. It can be done.

Vegas’ top six returning players missed 100 games in 2018-19. Vladimir Tarasenko required shoulder surgery two weeks into St. Louis’ title defense in 2019. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist all missed double-digit games in 2016-17 for the Penguins .

Many teams come out unscathed. The core Bruins missed just 21 games combined in 2013-14 and 32 games combined in 2019-20. The Capitals’ six missed 25 games combined in 2018-19, en route to first place in the division.

As for the Avalanche? The top six in points who are returning this season are Rantanen, MacKinnon, Makar, Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews and Valeri Nichushkin. Half of these players (plus a long list of others not taken into account in this experiment) have already suffered quite significant injuries.

“Once you kind of get to that number – five, six guys (injured) – you tax the other guys more than usual,” coach Jared Bednar said. “And the injuries seem to be piling up. Some of them are unhappy. Some of them are just games that happen in the game and injuries are one of them. … You wonder exactly why this is happening. But we seem to have a handful of guys like that: short practice season, long playoffs, some of our injuries go back to last year.

Nichushkin (ankle) has missed 17 games. MacKinnon (upper body) is out for about a month, which should span about 15 games. By the time Landeskog is expected to return, it will be the middle of the season. That’s roughly 75 combined games missed among the top six returning players – more than 12 of the 18 teams sampled.

“We’re just looking to make the playoffs. And once we’re 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 fine.”

Two weeks later, MacKinnon joined the roster. He had the foresight to understand the big picture: it’s just a matter of how long a champion can last without championship players.


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