Barry Trotz’s gameday scrum with media ahead of the Kings visit Saturday night included a lengthy discussion of Thomas Hickey’s path back from injury, and the nature of working veterans like Hickey and Andrew Ladd back into the lineup — and creating spaces for them on the 23-game roster.
The Isles shared the scrum on Twitter (and these are sometimes posted in the game preview on the official site if you’re Twitter-allergic) and you can view below, but I pulled out some interesting parts:
Trotz addresses the media ahead of tonight’s game the Kings: pic.twitter.com/g2JYB2ffr0— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) February 2, 2019
Thomas Hickey has skated quite a bit, and we’ve been getting the updates — even Lou Lamoriello shared that Hickey and Ladd were skating as the team came out of the bye week — but it’s been unclear how close he is to returning. Remember that Hickey was hurt in that awkward fall into the boards during a victory in Colorado in mid-December, a crash that appeared to wrench his neck and hit his head.
Here’s Trotz on Hickey’s progress, which fans of the fish oil ambassador will appreciate:
“Hicks is a bit of a cerebral guy in terms of how he manages his life and how he plays the game. He’s all in, but he’s very thorough — the process he’s going through, he’s the only one who knows how he feels. I know he’s had lots of questions, he’s going through all the protocols from a medical standpoint but also some protocols internally, “Does this feel right? Does that feel right? How’s my processing? How’s all that?’
I think he’s very thorough, and the next step is to join the group on a regular basis, getting some contact, getting cleared and then getting confident and up to speed with the game, because he’s been out for a while.”
Trotz was then asked about the tough decision of working such players back into the lineup for a team that has been winning, all the way to first place in the division, without them. Hickey and Ladd are sure regulars — or at least they were when first injured — and also carry respected veteran status, so it’s not as easy as saying “Hey, sorry, it’s a numbers game and you can go to Bridgeport to wait your turn” like they would do with a waiver-exempt young player on an ELC.
Trotz affirmed, then went into how organizations handle that challenge:
“It will be a tough decision. What you want to do, what we’ve done in the organization is create a competition. We feel we have pretty good roles with different guys better at certain things. Hicks has been out for a while now, so he sort of falls into a spot like Andrew Ladd, where you know he’s a good player, and at some point you have to get him in to allow him to get up to speed.
“There may be some, call them sacrifices, that you make to get them started, maybe in a back-to-back, or who knows, maybe they’re [sent] down for conditioning — we don’t know, we’re not at that point yet.”
Trotz continued with how difficult it is for players to get back into 100% mode with long mid-season layoffs:
“But we’ll want to get them up to speed as quickly as possible to give them a chance to have success, because it is hard. A lot of times players will come back and in that first game they have adrenaline, all this energy, they’re effective — and then the next two or three games [it falls back]. With these long-term injuries, it takes a while...[former Trotz assistant coach] Brent Peterson used to say it takes 10 games. …all the processing, the feel, body parts that aren’t so sore when you’re skating by yourself all the sudden are sore. And it’s more of a mental thing, how you handle those pressure moments you haven’t had in a while...”
He also said that’s all the more reason you want to build “a cushion” in the standings, so you can afford to take risks working players back to speed with the hope of it paying off — in terms of them being back to full health and form — later in the season.
And of course, the unspoken part here is that barring other injuries and IR moves, the Isles would have to make roster moves to make room for either player — but who do you move or expose to waivers? Devon Toews’ contributions so far have made him a player you can’t cut, even though he is the lone defenseman who is still waiver-exempt. Meanwhile, Michael Dal Colle is coming into his own, though he’s likely in a slot Ladd would occupy whenever he is ready to return.
This is always an interesting aspect of roster management, because it gets to the fact that players are not static: As fans, and especially among the analytically inclined, we try to put values on the contributions of players and peg where they are and what they can add to the lineup.
But those values are derived from the aggregate, taken from a large sample when (reasonably) healthy. That’s often not what a player is when first returning from long-term injury. Hickey has been out over six weeks and may not be the “Thomas Hickey” we know when he returns. That return to 100% may take three, five, 10 or any number of games to arrive. (In some cases, it never arrives, another reason aging players are observed more carefully than players in their 20s.)
Meanwhile, Ladd has faced a series of injuries basically from his first training camp since signing as a free agent with the Islanders. Each time he’s eventually solved the injury; a back injury appeared to be a major factor in his initial slow start after signing. But the current injury, believed to be lower body/knee, just adds to the variables that could keep Ladd from being the player they think or at least hope they have.
So, building off Trotz’s points, they want to get these players back “up to speed” as quickly as possible, but that is of course an inexact science. They may have that adrenaline spike in their initial return, then fall off. Fans may see either player dragging or hesitant in the first few games and think, “He’s done, get him out of here, we have replacements who are ready.”
But as Trotz said, that drag can be part of the process. It may take 10 games. Maybe more or less. The only way to truly find out is to try.