NHL Handicapping: Injury Woes
by Trevor Whenham - 11/5/2009
A team made up of the currently injured players in the NHL could beat pretty much any team in the league. Handily. And I'm not even kidding. Just look at the starting lineup - Ovechkin, Malkin, and Kovalchuk up front, Gonchar and Souray on defense, and Roberto Luongo on defense. It's not just the starting lineup that's impressive, either - the depth of injured stars would make an Olympic team drool - Spezza, Sedin, Gagne, Briere, Savard, Lucic, Toews, Franzen, Markov, Lehtonen. It goes on and on and on. Injuries are always a big part of hockey, but it's hard to remember a time when so many big name stars have been sidelined at the same time - and especially this early in the season.
So, is there a reason why so many injuries to key players have happened this year - far more than normal? Of course it can't be that simple. It would be nice if several of the players had the same kinds of injuries, and that those injuries could be linked to a rise in a particular style of play or type of penalty. Unfortunately, the injuries run a full gamut of types, and all are typical of hockey - knees, shoulders, back, ribs, concussion and so on. I've seen arguments made that this phenomenon is because of an increased speed of play, a trend towards officials letting teams play a more wide open style of game, or an emphasis on a more offensive style of play. All could be contributing factors, but I'm not buying into any of them as an explanation.
This may be a frustrating trend, but it seems to also be a coincidental one. Instead of worrying about why these injuries are happening with such frequency, then, the important thing is to figure out how to deal with it in your NHL handicapping. Here's a look at five factors to consider when figuring out how to deal with NHL injuries:
Don't automatically assume the worst - It can be very easy to assume Armageddon when a marquee player goes down. Sometimes that is the case - the player is the heart and soul of the team, and the team just can't function without him. More often, though, that's not the case. If you go about assuming that the loss of a star is going to be impossible for a team to overcome then what's really going to get hurt is your bankroll. Assumptions don't have any place in handicapping, and this is no exception to that rule.
Analyze the actual importance of a player, not the perceived one - There are many examples where a player isn't actually nearly as good as the media or the public think him to be. A good example is with my hometown Calgary Flames. Outside of Calgary Dion Phaneuf is perceived as a star defenseman - among the elite in the league. In Calgary, many hockey fans would welcome the news of a long-term injury to him with open arms. Personally, I'd throw a party. When you are trying to assess the impact of an injury you need to do the statistical homework to be sure that your perceptions of a player's role are backed in reality. Another good example this year is Roberto Luongo. Based on his play over the last few years you would assume that the Canucks would be lost if they had to play without their star goalie. When you look at how he has actually been playing this year, though, you'd realize that the loss of Luongo for a while wouldn't be that hard to overcome. That has indeed been the case - they have won three of four without him.
Examine roster depth - It's easier to deal with the loss of a player when there is a suitable replacement for him. The Canucks invested in a decent backup goalie this offseason, so the loss of Luongo wasn't that much of a concern. On the other hand, the Bruins took the risk of letting offensive force Phil Kessel go in a trade, so they were already only questionably able to provide the offense they needed. That means that the loss of Milan Lucic and Marc Savard - their two best offensive players - would be devastating. It has been - the Bruins have just three goals in their last four games and have been shut out in their last two.
Learn from history - You can learn a lot about what might happen based on what happened in a similar situation in the past. When Luongo was hurt last year, for example, Vancouver went out and won their first three without him. By looking at how the team and the coach have been able to handle big losses in the past you might be able to gain the insight to avoid a costly leap of logic.
Think like the public to avoid betting like them - The public has a tendency to overreact to the loss of key players - quarterbacks, goalies, power forwards, and so on. In some cases they are right to panic, but at least as often they overcompensate. That means that betting lines are affected more than they should be by the loss of the player, and that can create real value for an astute bettor who isn't jumping off a bridge just because everyone else is.
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