"Alexander Semin and Mike Green."
If Alex Trebek blurted those names to you on "Jeopardy," what would the question be? Many of you probably blurted out "Who are two key members of the Washington Capitals?" As they said on all those SAT preps, that's correct, but not the best answer. The one I'm looking for is "Who are the only two players with fewer than 73 games played to rate in the top 50 in points during the 2009 season?" (The only other under 77 games? Marian Hossa.)
Every year, there are coaches, front-office personnel and even fans who say "If only so-and-so had stayed healthy, the season would be different." That's true. Very few teams can overcome the loss of a key player. If Alex Ovechkin had missed time with a back injury last year, would the Caps have been the same team? Depth is an issue for almost every team, and it's more exposed when a key player is lost.
The worst possible loss to a team is at goalie, where there's almost never a No. 2 that's not a significant step down unless the No. 1 isn't that good. The Nikolai Khabibulin/Cristobal Huet duo was an oddity in the modern NHL. The New Jersey Devils survived while Martin Brodeur healed, but they didn't excel.
There's an old saw in basketball that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take. With an injury, you miss 100 percent of that player's production for every game he misses. The team is paying for and expecting a certain amount of production, yet here's the player in the locker room on crutches, rehabbing from surgery instead of skating and scoring. Injuries, as much as defense, goaltending and faceoffs, can cost a team a championship or even a spot in the playoffs.
Most of the work we do at Puck Prospectus involves deep research and numbers derived by formulas I missed while sleeping through Algebra II. What I'm about to share with you is simple enough that even crazy, face-painted fans banging on the glass can understand it: Healthy teams win.
I can make it even easier for you. Of the 13 teams that had 12 or more players skating in 70-plus games, nine of them made the playoffs: the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks.
There's a very high correlation between having players on the ice for the bulk of the season, producing and making it into the playoffs. The reverse is also true, as evidenced by the New York Islanders, who finished last in the league after getting just two players to play 70 games or more.
So if health really is this important and isn't controlled by luck, what can teams do? There are two key factors to managing health: preventing and managing injuries and accepting risk. The first is easy to understand. Each team has a qualified medical staff made up of doctors, athletic trainers and other associates who work to avoid injuries, and when that fails, to minimize the time lost. Accepting risk is a bit more complex and is often misunderstood. While there's some element of luck to injuries -- anyone can be in the wrong place at the wrong time -- health is a skill that players have or don't have, just like speed or power. A team that takes on too many risky players is putting its medical staff at a steep disadvantage. The Blackhawks know that Hossa has an injured shoulder and are betting heavily that his value on the ice overrules his injury risk. We'll see.
In evaluating the league, we found that the healthiest teams are those that fit a certain profile, avoiding players unproven against the rigors of the league and steering clear of elder statesmen who have held on too long. Combine that with players known to be injury risks and you get the foundation for how to build a team that can stay healthy throughout the season.
For years, we've known that health is important, but finally, we're doing something to measure it. As in baseball and football, some teams are better than others. And some, well, they'll be the ones in April claiming that no one could have known their best players would miss this much time, talking about bad luck and packing their gear. You? You'll know better.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .