Guys get hurt in hockey. Obviously.
It's a tough sport and like the National Football League the injury rate in the NHL has to be pretty damn close to 100 percent. Even if you play all 82, you don't get through a whole season of checks and blocked shots and slashes and errant high sticks and crashing into the boards without picking up a knock or two along the way.
It happens. A lot.
But it seems that this year, it happens far more often than it should, at least in terms of impacting guys who are — or were — going to be able to make a big difference for their teams in these playoffs. There are a number of “name” players who are going to miss all or at least part of their teams' early playoff runs, and some more who are straight-up done for the year.
The St. Louis Blues were never a particularly great team, for example, but they're also not the catastrophic failure of the last few weeks. Missing guys like TJ Oshie and David Backes and Vladimir Tarasenko and Vladimir Sobotka, and, yes, even Brenden Morrow, is going to hurt a team's chances to compete. Some of those guys were ready for Game 1, others were not, and the result was that St. Louis's bottom six looked really ugly on paper. You looked at the line chart and said, “Who are these guys?” By my count, a little more than three dozen guys from the 16 teams in these playoffs are questionable, doubtful, or ruled out with various injuries. And it's too bad.
Part of the reason this is bad for hockey is that you want to see the best players play. The Blues without Backes or Oshie, for example, are a shadow of themselves, and therefore barely worth watching. No one pays money or tunes in on television to see Jaden Schwartz, good young player though he may be, get significant minutes. Not that the Blackhawks would be unhappy with that turn of events, of course, since that kind of lineup is what led the Blues to get decked for two straight 3-0 losses in Games Nos. 81 and 82.
It's not just the Blues. The Bruins' defense is makeshift and reliant on a number of guys who wouldn't normally be trusted to play in games of this gravity. The Penguins' already-thin third and fourth lines have to make do. The Avs are without Matt Duchene. Henrik Zetterberg will only play in this postseason if the Red Wings advance. Columbus is without Nathan Horton, New York sans Chris Kreider, Dallas missing Rich Peverley. The Wild are on their third-string goalie, the Lightning are absent a potential Vezina candidate, and the Flyers are resorting to Ray Emery. The list goes on and on.
The other problem with this is that having all those players out missing makes for convenient excuses when teams lose. Not that anyone will ever outright say the absence of Zetterberg, for example, was what led the Bruins to crush the Red Wings in this first round — and believe me, they're going to — but there will be a lot of “what if” scenarios thrown around. Steve Mason's inability to play all of this first-round series against the Rangers will 100 percent become a storyline if the Flyers falter early, even if Emery's goaltending isn't the problem in and of itself. The Wild aren't a very good team, but if they had their real goalies instead of Ilya Bryzgalov and John Curry, etc. etc. etc.
But the bigger problem with these playoffs, and this too is unavoidable, is how awful the format is, and how painfully clear the gimmick behind it was. The NHL spent the last several days making sure that everyone knew they could fill out their playoff brackets and isn't it so much fun to fill out your playoff brackets and you only have a few hours left to fill out your playoff brackets before you won't be able to fill out your playoff brackets any more.
Would you like to see how some “celebs” (and when you're counting the Minnesota Wild's color analyst among them, you're stretching the definition of the word “celebrity” to its logical breaking point) filled out their playoff brackets?
And yeah I guess having the ability to fill out a bracket is a thing some sports fans (see also: Not necessarily hockey fans) like, but in no longer re-seeding after each round, and committing to this ludicrous divisional playoff format, the league all but insured that there's likely to be some bad teams still playing while good ones are told to pack their things and hit the golf course. The only place you're going to get a strong case in point is out west, because there are a maximum of two or perhaps three good teams in the Eastern Conference, and only Boston is the clear favorite.
Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the fact that Los Angeles and San Jose have to play each other in the first round is absolutely ludicrous.
These are two of the four best teams in the league, and it's not like this is one of those situations like two years ago, in which the Kings underperformed for most of the season and stormed into the playoffs as an unbeatable No. 8 seed. It just so happens that the two best teams in the Western Conference got a little bit unlucky and did not finish ahead of the Ducks, who got an extraordinarily large number of favorable bounces for most of the season. That first-round Sharks/Kings series is going to be a war, and whoever limps out of it is going to be in tough. Meanwhile, in the other first-round matchup, one of the two teams which are demonstrably the worst (Minnesota and Colorado) are guaranteed a trip to the next round while the moribund Blues and reigning champion Blackhawks duke it out.
This is a system that essentially assures the best teams will not play each other in the most meaningful games, which is counterintuitive to what we think of the playoffs as being, in general. It's no longer the Great Arbiter which separates out the great teams from the merely good ones.
By this definition, the Wild or Avalanche teams which advance to the second round will have been better than the Sharks or Kings, which is a ludicrous thing to think about.
Failure to advance out of the first round is a thing that often gets coaches fired if their teams had greater aspirations than that, and therefore anyone who, a few years from now, points to Mike Yeo or Patrick Roy's coaching record and says, “Well he got the team out of the first round, so...” as a means of defending him — and you know it'll happen; people in Toronto defend Randy Carlyle's awful coaching job with “He won a Stanley Cup” nearly a decade on — then all will have been rendered critically devalued.
The league can't avoid injuries to anyone, even top-level players, and if they occasionally pile up like this, well that's just part of the bargain. But it could very easily have avoided this awful postseason system, which remains impossible to succinctly explain, by the way, and ensured that the Stanley Cup Playoffs were as good as they possibly could be.
Instead it didn't, and the competition over the next few weeks will be poorer for it.