The average National Hockey League team used 11 different defensemen at some point last season. At one end of the spectrum were the Detroit Red Wings, a team that only iced eight different players on their blue line last season. At the other end were Detroit's one-time archrivals, the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs led the league by using 16 different defensemen as trades and injuries forced major turnover on the back end.
Given the sheer volume of injuries that Colorado suffered to its defense, perhaps it isn't surprising that they had a miserable season. The team finished with 68 points, ahead of just the hapless Edmonton Oilers, and allowed 288 goalsthe worst total in the league.
How much were Colorado's struggles due to the injury problems on the blue line?
The Avalanche kicked off the 2010-11 season with an overtime win at home against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. For that first game, their defensive depth chart looked like this:
1. John-Michael Liles, 26:24
2. Ryan Wilson, 21:54
3. Kyle Cumiskey, 21:10
4. Kyle Quincey, 18:53
5. Adam Foote, 18:51
6. Scott Hannan, 17:50
7. Jonas Holos, scratched
Was that group especially injury-prone? A quick glance at the history of the players in that group shows that three of themLiles, Wilson, and Hannan (traded to Washington midway through the season)were injured for roughly the same number of games in 2010-11 as they had averaged over the course of their career. A fourth, Adam Foote, played in just 47 games but had a long history of injuriesin the preceding 10 seasons. He'd topped the 70-game mark on just three occasions and played in 60 or fewer games five different times. Jonas Holos, the seventh man on the depth chart, lost three games to injury and spent much of the year in the AHL.
It was a similar story for most of the players the Avalanche brought in or sent awayErik Johnson was healthy, Kevin Shattenkirk missed one contest before being dealt, Ryan O'Byrne set a career high in games played, Matt Hunwick missed just three games, while callup Cameron Gaunce missed half a dozen. Injuries among that group simply weren't a major factor for the Avalanche.
There were, however, serious and surprising injuries to two key players on the Colorado blue line: Kyles Quincey and Cumiskey. After playing 79 games for the Avs in 2009-10, Quincey was limited to just 21 in 2010-11 due to a concussion in November that cost him eight games and shoulder surgery in December that ended his season. Like Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey also suffered at least one concussion, but his was less forgiving; he missed nearly half the season, returned in mid-January, and then was out again by mid-February with another head injury, this time for the rest of the season.
One way to evaluate the cost of these injuries is to calculate each player's GVT (goals versus threshold) prior to injury. Cumiskey's numbers for 2010-11 are quite good; he had a GVT of 1.8 in 18 games, meaning that he was contributing one-tenth of a goal more per game than the equivalent threshold player. Quincey, though, was suffering through a miserable season (one assist, minus-5 in 21 games) and actually had a value below that of a threshold defender. Therefore, if we omit Quincey and project Cumiskey's numbers over his missed time, we come to a total loss of 6.4 goalsa drop in the bucket, given that Colorado finished 61 goals in the red last year.
Another way would be to take the GVT's of both players from 2009-10. Quincey had a better year, posting a 6.4 GVT, while Cumiskey was a ways behind at +3.8 GVT. If we project Quincey's 6.4 GVT over the 61 games he missed, on the basis that he started slowly and would have rebounded, and we take Cumiskey's superior numbers from 2010-11, on the basis that his hot start represented legitimate improvement, we come to the most flattering possible measure of the two players' impact on Colorado's fortunesand it works out to a hair over 11 goals, which probably wouldn't have been enough to get Colorado out of lottery territory.
The short version is as follows: last season, Colorado suffered some surprising injuries on its blue line, injuries that cost the team significantlybut almost certainly by less than 12 goals overall. Even that's decidedly generous, given that Kyle Cumiskey may not even make the team out of camp this year.
Have the Avs done a good job of insuring themselves against injury this year with their offseason changes? To some degree, the answer is yes. Jan Hejda, Erik Johnson, Shane O'Brien, and Ryan O'Byrne have all been brought in since the opening night of 2010-11, and all are relatively durable (though Hejda will miss the start of the season with a knee injury). Additionally, holdovers Ryan Wilson and Kyle Quincey should be healthythough Wilson is questionable for opening night with a thumb injury. The team also has more capable reserve players than last season in Cumiskey, Matt Hunwick, and prospects like Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie; only one or two of that group is expected to make the team.
The defense still isn't a real strength for Colorado, though. The loss of Liles hurts, as does a lack of proven high-end players for the top pairing. That said, if Colorado can dodge last season's injuries, it should help, and even if they can't, there are more options a little further down the depth chart than there were one season ago.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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