Pre-season injuries are always a drag. But when they strike at the most vulnerable part of your lineup, the pain is doubled.
That's the case for two Eastern Conference teams expected to be in a dogfight to make the playoffs this season, the Maple Leafs and Tampa Lightning, after both were struck by troubling injuries over the past few days.
For the Leafs, it was the news that No. 2 centre Kyle Wellwood would be lost with another round of sports hernia surgery. The team's spin was to play down the problem, but it's something that has troubled Wellwood since last season and obviously isn't just going away.
The worst part for Paul Maurice is that his team is already thin down the middle. Even with Wellwood, the Leafs' lack of punch and size at the centre ice position had to be a major concern. Rather than address that through free agency - Chris Drury, Scott Gomez - or a trade, Leaf GM John Ferguson added wingers in Jason Blake and the suspended Mark Bell.
Now he's got to hope that shifting a winger to the middle, either Chad Kilger or Alex Steen, will patch the hole until Wellwood returns. Kilger has the size and shot, but Steen offers at least the possibility of replacing the offence lost with Wellwood out.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, suffered an even more serious blow when defenceman Dan Boyle sliced the tendons in his left wrist in a freak dressing room incident on the weekend. Boyle, who is looking to a big payday either during this season or as an unrestricted free agent next summer, was talking to teammate Doug Janik when a skate fell off a hook and cut him deeply, sending him to hospital.
The prognosis after surgery is that Boyle will be lost for 4-6 weeks. Like Wellwood, however, you have to wonder how long it will take the talented Lightning blueliner, a 20-goal shooter a year ago, to get back up to full strength.
While the Leafs have Tomas Kaberle should, say, Bryan McCabe go down, the Bolts have no defenceman who offers anywhere close to the offensive package that Boyle does. That, of course, is in part because the Bolts have so much money tied up in three superb forwards - Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards - and haven't been able to afford to spend on another blueliner.
So the Leafs lose a key player at centre when they're thin, and the Bolts lose their best defenceman off a relatively thin blueline. In a similar way, another Eastern Conference playoff hopeful, Atlanta, has to be terribly worried about early season groin problems being experienced by No. 1 goaltender Kari Lehtonen. If Lehtonen's out, only Johan Hedberg stands between the opposition and big-time trouble.
The salary cap, of course, dictates that every team has to make decisions where to spend and where not to spend, leaving most teams with a part of their roster they just have to hope and pray won't be hit by injuries. It's a judgment call, but right now, for example, the Senators are looking pretty smart for hanging on to goalie Martin Gerber, with starter Ray Emery's immediate future still cloudy due to ongoing post-surgical wrist issues.
For the Leafs, Bolts and Thrashers, meanwhile, the 82-game hunt for a playoff spot is off to a challenging start.