Taylor Hall said it once and then he said it again for emphasis: “Training camp injuries are the worst,” and he is oh so right. Nowadays, players work all summer to get themselves into the peak of condition for the start of camps and then use the next three weeks to refine their games – to get their timing down, to get their bodies re-accustomed to contact, and to get to know new teammates and sometimes new linemates.
Then it all goes up in smoke for someone like Sam Gagner, the Oilers’ No. 2 pivot, who will miss the start of the regular season, as a result of a broken jaw. But it isn’t just the injury that Gagner will need to cope with, it is the convalescence.
Trying to keep his fitness at an optimum level will be next to impossible, given how he will be ingesting most of his food through a straw for the foreseeable future. No matter when Gagner may return to the lineup, he will be behind the rest of the league – and catching up is no small feat in this day and age, just because the pace of play always escalates as the season moves along. It starts in three-quarter time during the preseason, cranks up a notch in early October and generally by the end of the month, things are humming along at a better pace. This is often why rookies who look so good and so ready in September are suddenly reduced to bit players once the veterans get engaged.
For Edmonton, Gagner’s loss is compounded by the fact that their No. 1 centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, will miss up to a month recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. The Oilers put Nugent-Hopkins into the lineup as a teenager and while he thrived as a player almost right away, injuries have bedevilled him in his first two NHL seasons.
Was it just bad luck, or are young players more susceptible to getting hurt, playing against players who are, across the board, more physically mature? The jury’s still out on that one, although if you ponder the time Gabriel Landeskog missed last year, or the fact that Jonathan Huberdeau is slow to get ready this season in Florida because of off-season surgery, you do wonder about the value of putting precocious youngsters into the lineup, even if their skill set suggests they belong.
The Vancouver Canucks’ Zach Kassian clipped Gagner in the face with his stick and was on the NHL’s carpet Monday, talking about his actions with NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan. Joining Kassian was his Canucks’ teammate Dale Weise who went after Hall’s head with an elbow that could have had devastating consequences for the rising Oilers’ star.
As it is, Hall escaped injury and so far anyway, will continue to fill in at centre for the Oilers, a position that will require some on-the-job learning. In the meantime, Anton Lander and Mark Arcobello, who played 11 and one NHL regular-season games respectively for the Oilers last year, are suddenly legitimately in the mix to start the season in the lineup. They can fill in, but they are unlikely to replace the 38 and 24 points that Gagner and Nugent-Hopkins provided in the lockout-shortened 48-game season. For Gagner, it was a true breakout season that had him in the top 40 of NHL scoring and convinced the Oilers they could part with captain Shawn Horcoff in the off-season.
As Sunday night’s brawl between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres proved again, stupidity is frequently a hallmark of the NHL exhibition season, when the goons and the wannabes are all trying to catch an organization’s attention.
Every year, the NHL playoffs provide the most entertaining and sensibly played hockey of the season. It’s far superior to the regular season, which in turn, is miles ahead of the preseason. Year in and year out, exhibition hockey remains a tedious, tiresome minefield for teams to skirt as carefully as possible, lest there be the sort of unintended consequences that have occurred - 10 games on the sidelines for the Leafs’ David Clarkson (who will be suspended for leaving the bench to join the fight) or an indefinite time in sick bay for Gagner .
For Edmonton especially, in a year when the Oilers legitimately believe they can end a seven-year playoff drought, this is no way to start.