Barely a night goes by in the NHL’s situation room without a close call.
Like an instance where a player is sent flying and has his skate graze by an opponent. Or a moment where a boot glances off a goaltender’s mask rather than somewhere much worse during a scramble in the crease. Or even the occasional time where someone takes a skate blade directly to an unprotected part of the face and escapes serious injury.
That’s why it was so unnerving to see Ilya Mikheyev have an artery and tendons severed in his right wrist during a game in New Jersey on Friday night. It was a frightening scene, first and foremost, but it also wasn’t a total surprise that something like that might happen.
Not for the folks who closely track and log games at the league. And not for the men who play them.
As Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares put it: “We’re wearing blades on our feet.”
Five of Mikheyev’s Toronto teammates were fitted for protective Kevlar sleeves within hours of seeing the rookie winger suffer an injury that could cost him the rest of the season — and was just a couple millimetres from potentially turning catastrophic.
NHL players currently have seven league-approved options to choose between when it comes to cut-resistant gear that protects their Achilles tendons or the wrist and sleeve area. They range in thickness and are made by a variety of manufacturers. And players will soon get an eighth option because a mock turtleneck that protects the throat and neck was cleared for use by the league two weeks ago.
Even though the Mikheyev incident and a cut to the wrist of New York Islanders winger Cal Clutterbuck on Dec. 19 has renewed public awareness about the dangers of skate lacerations — not to mention what happened with Niagara IceDogs goalie Tucker Tynan — there had been an ongoing internal dialogue at the league well before that.
Something called the “Laceration Task Group” was formed in 2016 to monitor incidents like the ones we’ve just seen and keep abreast of developments in protective equipment. It’s overseen by Rod Pasma of the NHL’s hockey operations department and Joe Reekie of the NHL Players’ Association and includes team trainers, equipment managers and doctors.
That group is due to meet again during next month’s all-star weekend in St. Louis and will discuss next steps. They’re not likely to include any immediate changes to the mandatory protective equipment worn by players — changes of that nature usually involve deep study and discussion by the NHL and NHLPA beforehand — but there will be a serious tenor given what’s just happened with Mikheyev, Clutterbuck and Tynan.
In fact, as of Saturday night, the league had 14 documented cases from this season of instances where a player was either cut by a skate or came within a whisker of having that happen.
And there are untold more where the folks in the NHL’s situation room said “wow, that was close.”
LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1
That sound you heard across two continents early Sunday morning was relief: The left knee injury suffered by top 2020 NHL draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere at the world junior tournament is not as serious as initially feared.
An MRI revealed that the 18-year-old didn’t suffer any torn ligaments or fractures after falling awkwardly in a collision during Saturday’s game against Russia.
It’s not yet clear whether Lafreniere will play again in the world junior tournament — a shame for anyone who saw him dominate in Canada’s opener against the United States, which includes several NHL general managers that made the trip to Ostrava, Czech Republic to scout the event.
But at least his long-term prognosis is good in a season that is expected to culminate with Lafreniere being drafted first overall in June.
There was plenty of concern when Lafreniere left the ice on Saturday unable to put weight on his left leg.
Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too long before he’s back on skates again.
With the holiday roster freeze now lifted, my trusted colleague Elliotte Friedman did a nice job on Headlines in summing up the situations where we may soon see some action. Among them:
• You’ve got veteran right-shot defenceman Zach Bogosian, who is patiently waiting for a deal out of Buffalo. His $5.1-million cap hit could be a bit of an impediment, but the fact he’s on an expiring contract should make a trade possible. There’s some interest.
• You’ve got 21-year-old forward prospect Lias Andersson, who has requested a change of scenery from the New York Rangers. This feels a little like the Jesse Puljujarvi and Julius Honka situations in Edmonton and Dallas, respectively, because Andersson is recent high draft pick who has yet to pan out as a professional and New York needs to find a decent return. The Rangers also have a decision to make on impending UFA Chris Kreider before the Feb. 24 trade deadline. There will be plenty of interested bidders if Kreider is put on the market.
• You’ve got 27-year-old winger Tyler Toffoli, who is showing signs of life in Los Angeles after a sluggish start. Another UFA rental with little risk attached.
Aside from the trade scene, free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk is still hoping to catch on with a Stanley Cup contender. The teams with the strongest interest so far haven’t held contender status.
Let’s start with an undeniable truth: Picking all-star teams is a nightmare.
The rules require that each of the 31 member clubs is represented at the game and fans vote in two players per division — the captain and the last man added. The NHL’s hockey operations is left to fill in the rest of the picture, and there were plenty of tricky situations to navigate with rosters that will be unveiled on Monday.
Take the Atlantic Division, which has only seven available forward spots and a disproportionate amount of the league’s top scorers.
One goes to division captain David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins. The second is almost certain to be used on Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel, a Hart Trophy contender. Let’s assign the third to Florida’s representative — either Jonathan Huberdeau or Aleksander Barkov. The fourth and fifth are spoken for by players from Ottawa (Anthony Duclair?) and Detroit (Dylan Larkin?).
That means the sixth and final spot selected by the NHL comes down to a group that includes Brad Marchand, Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov, Patrice Bergeron, Mitch Marner and whichever of Huberdeau and Barkov isn’t already locked in.
A few extremely productive superstar-quality players won’t be getting an invite as a result.
Yes, one additional forward from that pool will still be added in fan balloting, but it’s not likely to quell the outrage that accompanies Monday’s all-star roster announcement.
• The Maple Leafs started this season in a tight salary squeeze and were expected to play games where they couldn’t dress a full 20-man cap-compliant roster, but now that’s looking less and less likely to happen. That’s because they haven’t been fully healthy for even one day of the year, and it’s allowed them to gain additional salary cap relief by placing players on long-term injured reserve (which requires at least 10 games and 24 days off the roster). The list of Leafs to hit LTI includes Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott, Mitch Marner, Trevor Moore, Andreas Johnsson and Mikheyev.
• Eric Comrie cleared waivers Sunday afternoon and was assigned to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, giving the 24-year-old goalie nearly as many different teams (5) as appearances (7) this season.
• Robin Lehner is a pending UFA who is among the NHL leaders with a .925 save percentage. He also becomes eligible to sign an extension with the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 1.
• Count me among those excited to see a Winter Classic game unlike any other Wednesday: Nashville vs. Dallas in reasonably warm temperatures at the sold-out Cotton Bowl.
• Have yourself a season, David Perron: The St. Louis Blues winger is on pace for career highs in both goals (34) and points (82) at age 31, and he’s already scored four overtime winners this year alone.