So far this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers have seen their teams brutalized by injury, leaving their rosters devoid of valuable superstars and fill-in types alike. Yet somehow, they still sit in a tie for second and sole possession of seventh in the Eastern Conference, respectively. Which is pretty darn good.
This seems to happen every season -- a team suffers crippling injury totals, they rally together and maintain their pre-injury pace and the inevitable Jack Adams calls begin for the coach that navigated the ship through the storm.
It's a fair argument, as it certainly can't be easy to win in the NHL with a patchwork crew of minor leaguers; but really, there are other reasons teams so often survive the loss of so many regular skaters.
When opportunity knocks, you damn well better sprint to answer the door.
When a team goes through those injury woes, call-ups from the bottom rungs of the depth ladder get the chance to climb their way into real minutes, and they know that chance isn't coming again anytime soon, and that it likely won't last long. As soon as a few players return from injury, they know they'll be sent right back to the SPHL (or wherever it is Pittsburgh has been resigned to mining their humans from at this point).
I'm sure nobody in the Pens locker room is outwardly rooting for Sidney Crosby's(notes) symptoms to persist, but you know there's some forward praying he gets the chance to play just a few more games -- the continued chance to get noticed in the show for roughly ‘three G' a day?
Because of that, these guys go balls-to-the-wall. They're playing for next year's contract, to stay a part of the organizations' plans, and to prove not just that they can compete, but that they can contribute at the NHL level.
When your roster looks like a "who's who" of "who's that?" the coaches get put in a situation where they're forced to preach simplicity. Since your "real" team isn't getting the chance to get reps together, it's near-impossible to advance your systems, so you stick with the standard stuff everybody knows from the beginning of the season.
And while other teams tinker and fine-tune the more complex systems, your team is left to play its simple game ... which actually helps. Of course, it's beneficial in the short term, but in the long-term (see: playoffs), it catches up to you.
Another reason teams can thrive while under the oppressive thumb of the injury gods is that it forces players to think. You find yourself being asked to switch to center from wing for a few games, and suddenly you don't get to play on mental auto-pilot for a few games. Over the course of the long hockey season, it can be easy to "shut off" for a few mid-season games and just hope you get a bounce or two. When you really have to think and prepare, as short rosters so often force you to do, you end up more alert, and more into the game. Even your regular players are forced to feel this way, given that they tend to see an increase in minutes.
And for prospects, those minutes are gold at this time of the year Jerry, gold. Call-ups will almost certainly lie out their ass to get more ice time (or at least I did when I got a crack at the AHL).
Yes, I've played center in the past, I can do that. Yes, they use me as a penalty killer all the time down there. Yup, I often run the power play from the point despite the fact that I'm a defensive forward who's only on the team to block shots, I swear.
It adds up to an increase in mental preparation, increased motivation, and a whole sack of factors that don't take place in the dressing room where it's just another day at the office. Teams that get comfortable and let off the throttle when they see their opponent's ravaged roster rarely see the pack of hungry wolves coming.
Melding together a mixture of call-ups and regulars is no easy task for these coaches, and many of them around the league have done a terrific job keeping their heads above water this season. You know they're worried about mental errors, you know they're worried about young guys getting exposed, and you know they're worried about having good enough personnel to create offense.
But you can also be sure that the one thing they're not worried about is motivation.