The Hurt Locker: Studying the Impact of NHL Injuries - Introduction and 2010 Results

Michael Leighton was one of three Flyers goalies that missed significant time during the 2010 playoffs due to injury. - Bruce Bennett

Man Games Lost has become an outdated tool to evaluate how teams are affected by injuries, and until recently little had been done to create a more precise metric. So which teams have had the most injury luck the past three years? Which have had the least? And how big of a determining factor have injuries been in each teams' success?

Introduction

In April of 2011, the Boston Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens in a Game 7 overtime period to advance past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Less than two months later, they were crowned Stanley Cup Champions. The Canadiens were without top defenders Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges as well as top forward Max Pacioretty for the whole series, while David Desharnais, James Wisniewski and Jeff Halpern each missed time. The Bruins remained healthy throughout.

This isn't a rare occurrence. Injuries can play critical roles in the deciding of short best-of-seven series, and can just as easily derail the 82-game campaigns of supposed playoff contenders. But quantifying the role of health in a team's success can be difficult. Many rely upon the famous Man Games Lost metric, which simply adds up the total games that a team has lost to injury. But equating the loss of a Kirk Maltby to that of an Alex Ovechkin isn't exactly Corsi-level analysis. So a slightly more precise metric couldn't hurt.

Enter Man Minutes Lost, or MML.

The concept was first thought up, at least to my knowledge, by a Rangers blogger who calls himself LW3H, on his blog "Springing Malik". In 2009, he began tracking regular season injuries — thanks to the fact the NHL doesn't publish them as a list, no easy task — and using the players' cap hits to determine their overall value, and thus the value their team was losing with them out. In 2010, he came up with the alternative Cumulative Minutes of Injured Players, or CMIP. I prefer the name MML, mostly just because it sounds more hockey-talk-ish, but it's the same thing. MML is calculated by taking the average minutes played per game for each player (either for that year or the year before, playoffs or regular season, whatever is most appropriate) and multiplying it by the number of games that each player misses, obviously adding all of those numbers together in the end. Goalies are a little tougher to account for, and therefore a goalie's TOI/G was calculated as total minutes played / games for which he was dressed.

The metric isn't without flaws. TOI/G isn't a perfect evaluation of a player's worth, especially since defenders play more than forwards, and since coaches' usage can vary greatly depending on their systems. Also, a fourth liner like Colton Orr might average 10 minutes per game and a first liner like Phil Kessel might average 20, meaning losing Orr for three games would result in 30 MML while losing Kessel for one would add 20. But ask the Leafs which would be more valuable, and I think they'd sit Orr for a lengthy period to keep their sniper healthy. Finally, factors like players on LTIR (*cough* Savard *cough*) and backup goalies missing time (see Flyers in 2010 playoffs) can skew these results significantly. That said, all of this has been taken into account, which is why explanations will accompany the numbers you are about to see.

With that said, let's get started.

2009-2010 Regular Season:

In the coming weeks, I will outline how injuries have impacted regular season and playoff results from 2011 and 2012, but let's start with 2010. It was a while ago, so here's a refresher on the final standings.

Screen_shot_2013-02-17_at_9

And now, as compiled by LW3H, here are the cumulative MML/G numbers for each team.

Team MML/G MML/G Rank NHL Reg. Season Finish
Edmonton 130:14 1 30
Philadelphia 85:25 2 18
Carolina 73:35 3 24
Colorado 68:44 4 12
NY Islanders 67:45 5 26
Atlanta 66:05 6 23
Minnesota 65:30 7 22
Vancouver 64:50 8 6
Detroit 62:54 9 7
Toronto 62:29 10 29
Montreal 57:03 11 19
Columbus 54:27 12 27
Ottawa 49:07 13 13
New Jersey 48:38 14 5
Florida 44:49 15 28
Washington 44:25 16 1
Boston 41:08 17 14
Phoenix 40:29 18 4
Chicago 39:12 19 3
Pittsburgh 38:14 20 8
Anaheim 34:49 21 17
Los Angeles 33:59 22 9
Dallas 33:04 23 20
Nashville 27:51 24 11
San Jose 27:08 25 2
Buffalo 27:07 26 10
St. Louis 26:16 27 15
Tampa Bay 24:18 28 25
Calgary 23:58 29 16
NY Rangers 14:17 30 21

The 2010 Edmonton Oilers were not a great team — four years removed from an unlikely trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and yet to reap the benefits of the consecutive first overall picks they would acquire in the coming years. The hockey gods did them no favours, however, as "starting goalie" Nikolai Khapibulin missed 61 games, Ales Hemsky was out for 60 as well, while Sheldon Souray missed 45. In what may become a theme in these posts, the Flyers were near the top of the lists despite a decent finish, although their numbers were generally skewed thanks to the all-but-retired Mike Rathje still under contract and former starting goalie Ray Emery out for the season early on. The Rangers, however, couldn't take advantage of some remarkable injury luck. Despite having no player miss more than Dubinsky's 13 game absence, the Blueshirts failed to make the playoffs. Let's see how these plot on a graph.

Screen_shot_2013-02-17_at_11

As you can see, there is a slight positive correlation between how many MML/G a team was plagued with and how low in the standings they finished, but it's hardly conclusive. It's only logical that injuries play a part in a team's rank, but they aren't close to the most important factor it seems.

2010 Playoffs:

For the playoffs, games played become far more important, since obviously teams don't play the same number of games. Thanks to TSN.ca and NHL.com, I tracked the same data for the playoffs, which is where even a small injury can make all the difference. As we all know, luck tends to play a bigger part in a short series, and injuries make up a large part of that. I'm sure most will still remember the 2010 playoffs rather vividly. There were the Canadiens' remarkable upsets, the Flyers' crazy comeback, the Canucks' second-straight collapse to the Hawks, and of course the goal that nobody saw and the missing puck. If you need more of a reminder, just watch this.

Here is the MML/G data for the 2010 playoffs.

Team MML Total Games MML/G MML/G Rank NHL Playoff Finish
*Philadelphia 2316:21 23 100:43 1 Loss in SCF
Colorado 317:45 6 52:58 2 Loss in R1
Vancouver 590:06 12 49:10 3 Loss in R2
Buffalo 195:39 6 32:36 4 Loss in R1
Phoenix 244:29 7 32:04 5 Loss in R1
Montreal 473:14 19 24:54 6 Loss in R3
Boston 306:38 13 23:35 7 Loss in R2
New Jersey 112:30 5 22:30 8 Loss in R1
Nashville 148:20 7 21:11 9 Loss in R1
Ottawa 91:15 6 15:12 10 Loss in R1
Pittsburgh 191:28 13 14:44 11 Loss in R2
San Jose 200:30 15 13:22 12 Loss in R3
Detroit 157:03 12 13:05 13 Loss in R2
Washington 53:10 7 7:36 14 Loss in R1
Chicago 97:03 22 4:25 15 SC Champions
Los Angeles 0:00 6 0:00 16 Loss in R1

*Yes, I know what you're thinking. "Did half the Flyers' team get in a bar fight with Mike Richards?" No, and here is where the flaws in this metric are revealed. Luckily, I'm not going to leave you high and dry island (okay last joke). Philadelphia's ridiculous 2316 man minutes lost were the result of a few factors. First of all, as mentioned above, Mike Rathje continued to be on the Flyers' payroll, and as a result had to be included. Last time Rathje played, he was on the ice for 20:49 per game — crazy, I know. As a result, him missing the 23 playoff games alone accounted for 478 man minutes lost. Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere each missed significant time during those playoffs, accounting for 197 and 125 MML respectively. Then there's the goalie dilemma. Ray Emery didn't play in the playoffs, but while healthy he was used like a starter. Michael Leighton missed nine of 23 games, and Brian Boucher missed seven. Combined, the three goalies accounted for 1514 MML. So yes, the Flyers had simply awful goaltender injury luck, something that for any other team would have likely meant an early exit. Luckily, Boucher and Leighton caught lightning in a bottle for a few games each and a strong, mostly healthy team was able to overcome this fact and advance to the finals. Accounting for only the Carter and Laperriere injuries, Philly's MML/G would have been 9:40, placing them just ahead of Washington as one of the luckier teams, more befitting a Stanley Cup finalist. So take that initial egregious number with a grain of salt, and treat it as you will. Let's plot those numbers.

Screen_shot_2013-02-17_at_11

As with above, there isn't any kind of concrete connection between injury impact and success, although once again it's clear that it is a part of the picture. It should be noted that I didn't include the Flyers' numbers on this chart as it was somewhat of an outlier for the reasons I outlined above.

Conclusion:

The 2010 Stanley Cup Champions were the Chicago Blackhawks, and it's therefore unsurprising that they were among the healthiest teams in both the regular season and playoffs. Others, like Los Angeles and Washington, weren't able to take advantage of favourable injury luck, getting ousted in round one. 2010 has since been known as the year of the sub-par goalies, as Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton faced off in the finals. But perhaps the real lesson to take from those playoffs is how luck takes many forms, and that injury luck is not the be-all and end-all. Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, two career .901 goalies, put up .916 and .909 save percentages respectively, something nobody could have foreseen. Peter Budaj has a career .902. Joey MacDonald a .903. Mathieu Garon a .904. Who's to say one of those guys, for example, couldn't do the same if called upon out of necessity. Injuries can be devastating — goalie injuries more than any — but as can be seen from this data, losing a top player doesn't mean someone won't step up. It just means the task will be that much harder. Stay tuned in the next few weeks to see whether 2011 and 2012 brought the same conclusions.


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