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Injuries, Man-games, and the Long Haul

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With Justin Fontaine and Tyler Graovac out for extended periods of time, the Wild's depth and defensive structure are about to get much-needed tests as they head into November. What do the stats on man-games lost suggest about performance over the 82-game NHL season?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, the world got a little less hype as Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Tire Fires Oilers became a part of a human raft and slid shoulder first into the boards. McDavid's clavicle, like the development of many first overall draft picks in recent years, was damaged by his play for the Oilers. It's an injury that essentially resets the clock on his development, and worse yet, sets the Oilers where they were a year ago. Here's video of the injury via NHL.com, which doesn't look so bad at first, and McDavid even gets up, proving beyond all doubt that he's the strongest human ever or that pain doesn't always set in immediately -- probably the former if you're desperately clinging to the hype train and the latter if you're realistic.

Despite the unique nature of McDavid as a player, the indirect impact of his injury is anything but unique. Throughout the early NHL season, commentators have nervously observed an absence of injuries, waiting for the other skate to drop. Sure enough, recent events in the NHL have cost teams players, and the Minnesota Wild are no exception.

In their game versus the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, Justin Fontaine took an unpleasant knee that sprained his MCL. Fontaine's projected return date is some time in December. Around the same time, Tyler Graovac looked to be on the mend as a potential spot-filler. His return to the lineup would allow Charlie Coyle to fulfill his power forward destiny and shift to right wing on a better line. That shift would free Jason Pominville up to move to the third line and play against softer competition and hopefully score his first, and presumably last (if we go by the dreams of some Wild fans) goal in a Wild sweater. Unfortunately for Mike Yeo and the rest of the Wild, Graovac aggravated his groin injury during practice, adding another set of weeks to his recovery time and clamping down on their depth early in the season.

If it seemed like there were a lot of moving in that last paragraph, it's because there were. Fundamentally, that's what injuries are about: moving parts that don't move like they should anymore. Physically, that idea is pretty obvious: from Marian Gaborik's immensely-tearable groin to Pierre-Marc Bouchard's famously-concussable brain (I feel bad writing that one), Wild fans are well-acquainted with the impact injuries can have on players' careers and their tenures with the team.

On another level, though, injuries are about the moving parts of roster management which don't move like they should anymore. In the cases of Fontaine and Graovac, their impacts on the team thus far this season have ranged from limited to unnoticeable, but they've filled in spots on the roster and have given Yeo the opportunity to be creative in how he deploys different units. Fontaine and Graovac's injuries remove that opportunity and force his hand.

The Wild are a deep enough team, such that the loss of Fontaine and Graovac are easily remedied, at least in the immediate, by calling up players like Jordan Schroeder who have made consistent strides to crack the roster over the past year. Nevertheless, Schroeder will need to get up to speed with the Wild's current system and won't afford Yeo the flexibility he's needed early in the season to identify and fix problems in the lineup.

At its core, that's the real problem of injuries. It's not the individual skill of most players, nor is it their scoring or their play on a specific line. It's the stiffening of the roster around that hole that limits the team's ability to adapt. Looking across the league at teams with respect to man-games lost, the impact of injuries is telling.

Man-Games-Lost provides a full accounting of individual games lost to injury by team, as well as a measure which accounts for man-games lost, adjusted by the quality of the player. The idea here is that losing a 4th line role player doesn't squeeze a roster quite as tightly as losing a top-line center or starting goaltender. The relevant metric here, then, is quality-adjusted man-games lost. Currently 5 of the top 6 teams in terms of quality-adjusted man-games lost are outside the playoffs. The bottom 3 by this metric? Teams off to exceptional starts like the Washington Capitals, the New York Rangers, and the Nashville Predators.

Historically, the impact of injuries on successful championship rosters is also telling. According to the once-again fantastic ManGamesLost.com, in the past six NHL seasons (in which precisely three different teams have won the Stanley Cup), the least injured teams according to the quality-man-games-lost metric are the Chicago Blackhawks,the Los Angeles Kings, and the Boston Bruins. Those names sound so familiar...hmm...where have I read those inscribed on a large, shiny cup recently?!

Taken together, these trends make an implicit, obvious point about the modern NHL more mechanically clear: the NHL season is a marathon, not a sprint. Injuries over the course of those 82 games reduce the flexibility of rosters and cause cramps in some lines and leave bruises on other. But, at some level, every athlete and every team takes their lumps.

In the end, individual losses in the course of the season don't matter at an individual level; they matter when they stack up. The best teams in the league have always been, and probably will always be, those which are best able to adapt to the ebb and flow of the season. And historically, it's way, way easier to adapt to that flow when you have all hands on deck for the full ride. Unfortunately for the Wild, they've benefited from having all those tools available so far, but the injuries they've sustained over the past week could make them a league leader in man-games lost.