Playing 48 games in 99 days was bound to make this NHL season a test of attrition.
For the Carolina Hurricanes, that idea took on a new grimness and immediacy when the team announced on Wednesday that defenseman Justin Faulk, who leads the Hurricanes in average time on ice per game, would miss the next two to four weeks with a second-degree sprain of his MCL.
Already playing without their No. 1 goalie – the former Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) winner Cam Ward — the Hurricanes now face the loss of another key player one day after they fell out of first place in the Southeast Division.
Given the more optimistic timetable, Faulk could still return for the final month of the season. However, if he remains out for something like four weeks, then Faulk might not return until only five or six games are left in the season.
In the 16 days since the Hurricanes announced that Ward would be out for six to eight weeks with a third-degree MCL sprain, the Hurricanes have held their own thanks to goalie Dan Ellis, whose save percentage ranks sixth in the league at .925.
In that sense, the Hurricanes benefitted from general manager Jim Rutherford’s decision to sign a strong back-up in the offseason after several seasons without one.
When it comes to defensemen, however, it will not be as easy to replace the 23 minutes and 23 seconds that Faulk has averaged over 28 games. In addition, the 21-year-old, coming off a very strong rookie season, ranks second among Canes’ defensemen with 10 points and is tied with Tim Gleason for the team lead in shorthanded time on ice per game at 2:58 – a blow for a penalty killing unit that ranks 25th in the league.
Faulk’s injury also hit while veteran defenseman Joe Corvo is out with a lower-body injury and is expected to be out for another week. The Canes’ depth is about to be seriously tested.
It’s been that kind of season so far for the Canes’ blueliners. Corvo, third among the team’s defensemen in power play time, has missed five games; Pitkanen 13 and Gleason 6. Jay Harrison has been the stalwart, playing in all 29 games and Faulk had been right up there with him.
On Wednesday, the Canes recalled defenseman Brett Bellemore, 24, from Charlotte of the American Hockey League. Bellemore has never played in the NHL before and, if he were to play on Thursday, would be the team’s fourth player this season to make his NHL debut.
One has to wonder if the Canes might look for a more long-term solution. One possibility might be attempting to recall 2011 first-round draft pick Ryan Murphy from Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League. However, Murphy, who played four games earlier this season in Carolina on an emergency basis, averaging 21:03 per game, is only 19 and throwing him into the rigors of a playoff stretch run could be a bit much to ask.
Significantly, Carolina also would have to consider the possibility of Murphy’s entry-level contract kicking in. If he plays one more game, the Canes would lose an entire season off his three-year entry-level deal.
Another consideration is that the Canes already have one player on defense who has rookie status in Bobby Sanguinetti (even though Sanguinetti is 25). The idea of one-third of their defense corps’ being rookies could be a dicey on a team competing for a playoff berth.
Another option for a replacement is the waiver wire. Mike Komisarek, once considered a top defender with Montreal, has reportedly been put on waivers by Toronto, an organization with which the Canes have shown an affinity at times in terms of personnel, as current Canes Jiri Tlusty, Jay Harrison and Tim Brent all did stints in Toronto.
Picking up Komisarek from a contractual point of view would have its positives and negatives. The negative would be that he earns $3.5 million this season and next. The positive is that his cap figure is actually $1 million higher, which would help them hit the league’s salary cap floor of $44 million next season, although that should not be an issue for the Canes.
All of this comes as the Hurricanes find themselves in a dogfight for both the division lead and also playoff position. They sit two points behind first-place Winnipeg in the Southeast but hold a game in hand. For now, they sit in sixth in the Eastern Conference, but only because of tiebreakers. Their 32 points tie them with ninth-place New Jersey, which is on the outside looking in.
It’s the kind of situation that could make or break a season.