Commentary

How countries are coping with injuries

Updated: November 25, 2009, 10:27 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

You can understand why Mats Naslund might be chewing on his fingernails these days.

Between Saturday's brutal knee injury to Niklas Kronwall and the long-term injury to key forward Johan Franzen, the GM of the Swedish Olympic hockey team can hardly bear to watch what will happen next in what has become an NHL season chock full of injuries.

"We're maybe beginning to watch more for injuries than who is scoring goals," Naslund told ESPN.com this week.

"It seems this is the year of the injury, more so than other years," Team USA coach Ron Wilson said. "There are a lot of star players out with significant injuries."

Luckily, the Olympics aren't until February, and we can only hope the injury trend from the opening eight weeks of the NHL season will have dissipated and the Games will feature the best of the best, as opposed to the best of the rest.

The trend, however, has been scary.

Players who would make up Russia's likely top power-play unit were all injured at one point this season: Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov. Only Markov remains out, but this October-November stretch no doubt has been a stressful time for Russia GM Vladislav Tretiak. Sergei Zubov also missed some time in the KHL, but he's back. Defenseman Anton Volchenkov is still out, as is winger Alexander Semin, and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is day-to-day with a back injury.

Enough already!

"The scary part is, you make your decisions and have your team on Jan. 1, and we still have another six weeks to survive more injuries," said Wilson, referring to the gap between roster announcements and the actual start of the tournament (an injured player can be replaced right up to Feb. 15, on the eve of the Olympic hockey tournament).

The U.S. has been hit as hard as any country. Star forward David Booth is the biggest concern; he has been out a month after suffering a severe concussion and is showing slow progress. Others who are out right now include defensemen Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek, as well as forwards Brian Gionta, Mike Knuble and Scott Gomez. Some of them are expected back soon, others next month and most of them certainly by February. But that doesn't mean there isn't concern.

"As a coach, you worry about these extended absences, what it's going to do to their play or timing," Wilson said.

The Team USA coach then began chuckling when he added, "I also worry about [Buffalo Sabres goalie] Ryan Miller playing every game. Is he going to run out of gas? But there's nothing you can do."

But should this trend continue, the difference is that not all countries are created equal when it comes to the list of star power to draw from.

"All the other teams except Canada and Russia, we don't have the depth," Naslund said. "We need all our players. Canada and Russia have more players to pick from. In our case, we need Henrik Lundqvist, we need Henrik Zetterberg, we need Nicklas Lidstrom. Canada has more guys like that."

Canada's having more players to choose from is hardly a revelation, but in an Olympic year that has seen injuries play a more significant role, it's a point worth underlining. Canada has had its share of injured stars, as Cam Ward, Ryan Smyth, Brent Burns and Simon Gagne are among those who are out of their respective lineups.

But no matter who is injured for Canada come February, there will be still plenty of depth to choose from. That doesn't guarantee anything in terms of a gold medal, but it might weaken some opposing teams.

"Yes, from our point of view, we're not as blessed as Canada in terms of depth, and that's the same with all the other countries," Wilson said. "With Franzen being out, that's a huge blow to the Swedes, for example."

You don't need to remind Naslund.

"He's a unique player, plus he's been better in the playoffs than the regular season," Naslund said of "The Mule," a power forward who is tough to replace. "He comes to play for the big games. But we have to wait and see. There's nothing we can do about his recovery. He's getting the best treatment from the Detroit people."

Kronwall, who went down Saturday night after being felled by a knee-on-knee hit by Montreal tough guy Georges Laraque, should be back in time to help Sweden defend its Olympic title.

"From what I heard, he should be able to be back in about two months," Naslund said. "So I don't think it's a big problem."

Still, given the uncertainty of players' status, Wilson wondered where the logic was in eliminating the three extra players Olympic teams were allowed to carry at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy.

"I'm actually surprised that there is no taxi squad this time around," Wilson said. "Because the way the season has shaped up, injuries are going to be huge."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.