The game changer

Playoff marathon may hinge on how many top players get concussions

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin is out with a concussion. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows spends most of his professional life playing on the same line as Daniel Sedin, who is out indefinitely with a concussion following an elbow to the head from the Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith in a game last week.

It is a concussion, by the way, that’s keeping Sedin on the sidelines, a diagnosis confirmed by Alain Vigneault, the Canucks’ coach and official injury-updater. Nowadays, even getting that tiny little bit of intel out of a team can be an exasperating exercise.

Story continues below ad

But Burrows was making the larger logical point – that the length of Keith’s five-game suspension really affects the Canucks very little. Sedin’s absence, by contrast, affects them a lot – this week, in the chase for the President’s Trophy, next week in trying to get their game in gear for the playoffs, and then after April 10, when the Canucks resume the quest to win their first Stanley Cup.

“For us, we’re crossing our fingers that Danny’s going to be back sooner rather than later and hopefully, it won’t be months or weeks,” Burrows said. “Days would be nicer.”

Days would be nicer, but concussions are maddeningly fickle that way. Sometimes, it takes a week or so and the player comes back with little issue. Other times, it can take multiple weeks and even months, the progress uneven – a good day here, a bad day there, a going-half-mad day mixed in between.

So that leaves the Canucks in a state of limbo for the next few weeks, trying to shift from “sputter” to “sailing on all cylinders” in the fortnight before the playoffs begin. But they also have to prepare for the unknown – just when, or even if, Daniel Sedin can come back and make a meaningful contribution between now and whenever their season ends.

More and more, you get the sense that the 2012 NHL playoffs may well be The Concussion Games, a two-month marathon that could twist and turn on how many times players in Sedin’s category get clocked in the head and are forced out of a team’s lineup.

Injuries, of course, are a factor every year, and in every playoff. But players are more aware of concussion protocols now and deal with them in a far more sensible manner – and you see it all around the league. The St. Louis Blues just activated Alex Steen from injured reserve after he missed half a season with a concussion. The Washington Capitals are hoping to get Nicklas Backstrom back in the lineup before the end of the regular season, after he’s missed half a year with a concussion. The Boston Bruins’ Nathan Horton, concussed in last year’s playoffs by the Canucks’ Aaron Rome, is still on the sidelines with a second concussion this year. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby is back in the lineup for a second time, everybody keeping their fingers crossed that this time it’s for keeps.

Lose one or two key players for any length of time and your season can be over in a flash.

So how do you prevent all the unnecessary hits from happening? Somebody suggested to Canucks’ captain Henrik Sedin that Keith’s hit on his twin brother was the result of vigilante justice – Keith angry because of a hit that Daniel delivered moments earlier in the game that was illegal too, but not nearly as illegal as the response.

“You can’t expect to get an elbow run through your head,” Henrik answered. “If that’s where we are, then that’s wrong. Like I said, if the league wanted to do something with Danny’s hit, they would have done something. If the right thing is to run somebody’s elbow through other players’ heads, if that’s where we are, then I’m not happy.”

Sedin had an interesting thought about that too – that if the NHL’s goal is to create a greater culture of deterrence, then perhaps referees should be given more leeway to call double minors, or even more severe penalties, for the sort of egregious hits that cause injuries. Sedin’s argument is that in a team game, the one thing no player wants to do is put his team in a position where they might have to kill four or six minutes of power-play time and potentially lose a game. That, according to Sedin, might change attitudes more than an after-the-fact suspension.

“I think on the ice, the referees should have an easier time giving out a few [extra]minutes for the dangerous hits – elbows, charging, boarding, that kind of stuff that can injure players,” Sedin said. “I think players would respect that more than one- or two-game suspensions, because if you hurt your team in the game and you lose because of a stupid play, that’s going to hurt more in front of your teammates than a one- or two-game suspension.”

For now, a big part of the Canucks’ long-term aspirations hang on the uncertainty of Sedin’s recovery. Short-term, they can compensate for a while. Long-term, it gets harder.

“You’re right,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo, “but there are injuries all over the league. A lot of star players get hurt. That’s part of the game. I think we have enough talent in this locker room that we can win games and keep on trucking along. That’s the beauty of our team – we’ve got a lot of depth. Guys can step in and play roles.

“Danny is not a guy you can replace easily, but unfortunately injuries are part of the game nowadays and you’ve just got to keep going.”