- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Hardly a day passes in this NHL season when the injury list doesn't grow.
And not just your foot soldiers, shot-blockers, grunters and grinders. Top-notch players are falling by the wayside, from goal-scoring machine Ilya Kovalchuk to gifted defenseman Sergei Gonchar to one of the game's best playmakers in Marc Savard. Now, teams have to do some fancy footwork to patch significant holes in their lineups.
Here's a look at which teams are patching where:
The Thrashers announced Monday that Ilya Kovalchuk, their captain and heart of their offense, will be gone four weeks with a broken foot he sustained blocking a shot Saturday night. Look for Maxim Afinogenov to spend more time on the power play, and it would be nice if Bryan Little could find the back of the net. After connecting for 31 goals last season, Little has zero so far this season.
Coach John Anderson will tinker with his lineup, looking for some balanced offense in Kovalchuk's absence. Rookie Evander Kane likely will start with Rich Peverley and Colby Armstrong, while Jim Slater plays with Marty Reasoner and Little, with Slava Kozlov, Todd White and Afinogenov looking to break through.
"Obviously, how are you going to plug that hole?" Anderson told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "But as much as I love Ilya, I would hope we are a deeper team than just an Ilya Kovalchuk team."
Anderson is about to find out, and the pressure is on to find some sort of team groove if the Thrashers are to take advantage of a strong start to their season. Jason Krog was recalled from the minors to fill Kovalchuk's spot on the roster.
Paul Martin doesn't sport the profile of a Sergei Gonchar, but the loss of the defenseman for four to six weeks with a nondisplaced fracture in his forearm is every bit as serious. Maybe more. The Devils rely on a defense by committee to get the job done (they rank sixth in goals against per game), and Martin is the chairman of the board. He leads the Devils in ice time at 23 minutes, 58 seconds a night. His injury, sustained while blocking a shot, will mean that players such as Johnny Oduya, Colin White and Mike Mottau will have to play more minutes than usual and assume roles they don't normally play.
Cory Murphy, recently sent to the AHL, was recalled, but the loss of Martin, one of the game's smartest players, will be a test for the so-far-resilient Devils. Also lost this past weekend was veteran checking forward Jay Pandolfo, who is expected to miss four to six weeks with a shoulder injury.
Day-to-day is the prognosis, but any day away from the rink for Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook are long days for the Blackhawks. Toews, Chicago's youthful captain, was crushed by Vancouver defenseman Willie Mitchell this past Wednesday in a tremendous open-ice hit. Seabrook, half the team's top defensive tandem with Duncan Keith, also was lost after a collision in that contest. Both are believed to have suffered concussions. In their absence, the Hawks have managed two wins, shutting down offensively challenged Minnesota 3-1 and even more offensively challenged Nashville 2-0 to move into the Central Division lead. There is a chance both will be back in action later this week.
For an Oilers team heavily weighted on the youthful end of the spectrum, the absence of veteran defensemen Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios is especially troublesome. Both are out indefinitely, putting an even greater burden on Denis Grebeshkov and Tom Gilbert, two 26-year-olds who lead the Oilers in average ice time. They are a combined minus-6.
Here's a name unfamiliar to many folks outside Columbus but whose absence has had a significant impact on the Blue Jackets' recent fortunes: Jan Hejda. When healthy, he forms half the team's top shutdown defensive duo, logging an average of 21:45 a night in ice time. He was a team-best plus-8 before sustaining a sprained left knee. He has played in just five games for the slumping Blue Jackets, who have lost three of their past four games and given up 22 goals during that span. Hejda isn't expected back until late November.
When you're a team like the Preds that consistently operates with little margin for error, the loss of a key cog like captain Jason Arnott is a body blow. The big forward remains out of action for at least another week with an upper-body injury. The Predators are already the lowest-scoring team in the NHL by far (they average 1.70 goals per game), and their power play also ranks last, clicking on a minuscule 8.3 percent of opportunities.
Arnott is a key part of both elements of the game; last season, he led the team with 33 goals and was second with nine power-play markers. The Predators also have been without one of their three big defensemen, Dan Hamhuis, who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Physical forward Jordin Tootoo is also day-to-day with a quad/hip flexor injury. Hamhuis, an invitee to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in August, is expected to play Wednesday. Tootoo is not close to returning to action.
You can't blame the Panthers if they feel as if the hockey gods are somehow out to get them. Struggling out of the gate, they have now lost their most important forward, David Booth, who is gone for at least a week (maybe longer) with a concussion after taking a controversial blindside hit from Philadelphia captain Mike Richards on Saturday. Booth led the Panthers with 31 goals last season and, although he had just two goals and one assist thus far, was one of the team's most energetic forwards. His prolonged absence is not good news for a team that ranks 28th on the power play and is tied for 28th in goals per game. The double whammy for the Panthers on Saturday was that Radek Dvorak also was lost after a knee-on-knee collision. Already thin offensively, the Panthers will really need slow starters Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton to fill the gap, something they've shown little ability to do in the past.
Sometimes the injuries you think are going to send a team off the rails simply turn out to be someone else's opportunity. So it is in Denver, where the Avalanche continue to be the story of this early NHL season without John-Michael Liles, the smooth-skating defenseman who had five points in six games before suffering a shoulder injury.
In his absence, the Avs have continued to roll and sit atop the Northwest Division with an 8-1-2 record. Kyle Quincey continues to impress, leading the team in average ice time at 25:53 a night, while veterans Scott Hannan and Adam Foote are plus-11 between them. Rookie Ryan Wilson and Kyle Cumiskey also have stepped up nicely. Liles, who is with the team during its current four-game road swing, is hoping to return to action by the end of the trip. The same can't be said for agitating forward Darcy Tucker, who was providing nice scoring depth before Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu hammered him face-first into the boards last week. He's out indefinitely. Colorado also found out Tuesday that backup netminder Peter Budaj will not make the team's four-game road trip after being diagnosed with swine flu.
There are teams that just can't afford to miss anyone, and the Wild would be one of them. They sunk to a disastrous 0-8-0 on the road Monday night in Chicago and rank dead last in the Western Conference. Top scorer Martin Havlat did return to the lineup for Monday's 3-1 loss to Chicago, and free-agent signee Petr Sykora has managed to work his way into five games thus far but has just one goal. He's also been bothered by a groin injury that kept him out at the beginning of the season.
The Wild still are missing defenseman Kim Johnsson, a staple on the their second power-play unit who is out a couple of weeks with an upper-body injury, while Pierre-Marc Bouchard, third in team scoring last season with 46 points, is out indefinitely with a concussion. Bouchard has played in just one game this season as rookie coach Todd Richards struggles to find some consistency from a team that is tied for 28th in goals per game and is 20th in goals allowed per game.
The Bruins have been soldiering through without their top playmaker, Marc Savard, who is gone for another month or so with a foot injury, and top physical forward Milan Lucic, who is out for about the same time with a broken finger. Although the team wasn't off to a great start with the two forwards in the lineup, their absence has put more pressure on the squad to try to shake off its early-season yips. The team has won three of its past five games, including a spirited come-from-behind effort against Ottawa. Steve Begin has been a nice surprise, scoring twice in the past three games, while Patrice Bergeron has four points in his past five games.
The Penguins did lose a game after it was announced defensive anchor Sergei Gonchar would miss up to six weeks with a broken wrist, but they remain one of the elite teams in the NHL with a 9-2-0 record. Young defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski will be counted on to fill the void on the power play, but there is no way to replace Gonchar's presence both on the ice and in the dressing room. Still, the Pens seem much more prepared for Gonchar's protracted absence than last season, when he missed the first 56 games after undergoing left shoulder surgery.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
5hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com