Every team has to deal with the H-factor. Allow me to take a step back and explain what I mean.
With preseason starting today and the regular season starting in a few weeks, season previews are just popping up. One of the common part of the preview is an X-factor. Something that may turn the tides for a team’s hopes - for the better or worse. It can be the performance of a player or two. It can be an aspect of the team that some may under or overrate. Whatever a team’s situation, there’s one factor that can seriously impact how a season goes: health. Call it the H-factor.
Injuries are one of those tricky subjects in sports. No one really wants (or should) cheer for them. We may describe someone who is oft injured as injury-prone, even though they may have had nothing to do with it. Injuries can occur in a seemingly random frequency. They may come from contact with a player, a puck, another object like the boards, or nothing at all. We all hope for good health for the players on the teams we support. But there always seems to be some kind of injury that hits a team at some point or another. We just hope it isn’t significant and especially not to a significant player. A recent example of the that happening was what Montreal experienced last season where an otherwise strong squad just fell apart after Carey Price went down. Or, closer to home, losing Mike Cammalleri for just about half of last season.
The New Jersey Devils, like any team, can have their original goals derailed by injuries. Unlike most teams, they have players that are familiar with the injured reserve. Mike Cammalleri hasn’t played at least 70 games in a season since 2008-09. He’s not a safe bet to break that streak at age 34. Beau Bennett has learned to laugh at his own past injuries; he’s played more than half of a season only once in his four NHL seasons and in that one season he only could make 49 appearances. Jon Merrill, who’s healthy after having shoulder surgery back in May, has appeared in only 165 out of a possible 246 games on top of serious injuries back in his college days. Jacob Josefson’s initial reputation in New Jersey was his fragility; he’s never played in more than 62 games in a season in his NHL career. Taylor Hall, the big offseason acquisition by the Devils, has only appeared in more than 70 games twice in his six NHL seasons. At least he appeared in all 82 last season. Combined with the critical nature of the roles Andy Greene and Cory Schneider plays on this roster, this is a team that has plenty of question marks around health.
While we can hope and pray the team does not get hit too hard by the injury bug, the Devils have to plan ahead on the assumption that injuries will happen. It’s a good assumption to make as call-ups are a just about a certainty in this league. Who gets called up may depend on how the players are performing and who is being replaced. But the next two weeks of preseason games and practices in training camp will help establish the depth chart for this week. Determining who that eighth and ninth defenseman and that fifteenth and sixteenth forward may not seem important right away. It will be when the Devils are forced to go into their system for a replacement.
For the sake of perspective, here’s a chart of the number of Devils that have played at least one NHL game in the last six seasons.
At least nine defensemen and twenty one forwards suited up in each of the last six seasons. Some were called up to just get a game at the end of the season. Some were acquisitions from other organizations. But most of the additional players beyond the common set-up of six defensemen and twelve forwards came from within the organization. That this many players were used over the course of an 82-game season highlights the importance of evaluating those in the minors in case someone in the majors goes down and can’t play - even if it is for just a game. This past season saw the Devils use more players than either of the previous five seasons. That so many players were involved for some length of time to contribute speaks to the amount and timing of injuries the team suffered in addition to other transactions.
To really put it into perspective, playing a full 82-game season with New Jersey is not common. Here’s a breakdown of the above chart. Goalies aren’t included because, really, no goalie plays 82 games. This isn’t Eastside Hockey Manager.
It is not common when someone is able to play 82 games in a season (48 games in 2013’s case). Only a small fraction of the total number of players used in a season meet that mark. It requires luck as much as does taking care of one’s self on the ice. The ironman, Andy Greene, leads the team with five appearances among the nine defensemen who played the whole season. It really stands out when David Clarkson (2010-11, 2013), Stephen Gionta (2013, 2015-16), Travis Zajac (2010-11, 2013), and Dainius Zubrus (2011-12, 2013-14) were the only players to play in 100% of the season multiple times. It’s not only uncommon for someone to be able to appear in every single game in a season; it’s rare to do it more than one season.
What would be considered good health? I’m admittedly not sure, so I went with a guess to at least start. Accounting for minor injuries, I settled for around 85% of the season. That translates to at least 70 games played in an 82-game regular season and 41 in a 48-game regular season.
This chart does include players that the Devils acquired and traded away that did meet the games played mark. So Lee Stempniak from last season, Jaromir Jagr’s second season in NJ, the first arrivals of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Marek Zidlicky, and Tuomo Ruutu, and that season where David Steckel was obtained are all here. With this more generous metric that allows some minor injuries, a small number still only met that mark. It is a larger gross number and a larger percentage of all players used. It is no where near a majority of the roster, though. No goalie came close to the mark; this set of seasons did come after Brodeur’s last 70+ season. That reflects how difficult it is to be good enough to play and healthy enough to play a large percentage of the team’s games.
Now, were I to cut the metric down to 62 games in an 82-game season and 36 in a 48-game season for a more even 75%, the total number of players jumps from 56 to 75 (one goalie, 74 skaters) that meet that. That’s still only a third of all players who made at least one appearance in a New Jersey Devils uniform in the last six season. The larger point remains that the Devils had to go deep into their system. Due to the timing and severity of injury to their players, multiple call-ups were made. The H-factor came into play. Throw in added players from the waiver wire or the trading block and that’s how the Devils have used between 32-41 players in a season. They’re not all top-tier players. Most of them make up the deeper parts of the roster. Plenty of depth players had to contribute at least once. Therefore, depth matters.
Today begins the first competitive test to evaluate who will make up the deeper end of the depth chart. It may not mean much immediately, but during the 2016-17 season, they could be called upon to contribute later on. How they perform during their own season and what New Jersey needs will drive who is called up for what role. Their performances in the next two weeks may give them an edge, to give the coaches a reason to look at them a little more closely. Therefore, I wish good luck to all players involved in preseason. And just as much luck to everyone regarding their health.