What many consider to be the most important season in the career of a top prospect has been anything but for several blue-chip players eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft.
This is the season they put all their hard work into place to impress NHL scouts. Instead, for a few top players, injuries have plagued their draft season and dominated the headlines.
There currently are seven players with great potential sidelined by injury. The wounded are skaters at all positions, and in the U.S. and Canada.
Injury insight from Craig Button
Of all the injuries affecting the top 2012 NHL Draft-eligible players, the post-concussion symptoms that right wing Martin Frk of the Halifax Mooseheads has experienced might be the one raising the most questions.
"We know the cumulative effect of concussions," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "So as a general manager, you may start to think, 'what type of player is Frk.' He's a hard-nosed player who is competitive and plays along the boards, so he's going to engage in contact.
"There's more uncertainty about concussions because we hear how every case is different -- everyone is an individual case. So if I'm a manager and looking at Frk, and why wouldn't I be, what you're asking is, 'He had this blow, so how did it happen and how many other times has he had it happen in his career?' It becomes real detective work."
Frk, who was concussed in a preseason game after a hit by Moncton Wildcats forward Allain Saulnier, has yet to play this season after producing 22 goals and 50 points in 62 games as a rookie in 2010-11. He's practicing with the team but has not yet been cleared to play.
"It's probably my fault because I tried a spin-o-rama and maybe that wasn't a good move to try," Frk told Willy Palov of the Halifax Herald. "I felt really good in training camp, then one stupid move and now I am still out."
Button said the medical reports are what scouts and general managers ultimately will turn to in making their final evaluations of Frk. According to Halifax GM Cam Russell, Frk is targeting Dec. 9 or Dec. 10 for a possible return.
"You have to really know what the medical reports say," Button said. "I think if there's any red flags on a medical report on structural things like the back, head, shoulders, knees ... that's where you really delve into that.
"The only time you should be wary of a player is if you haven't done the whole evaluation, which includes on-ice and off-ice. I'm a big believer in that when you go to a game and watch a player, you should always consider the fact you're evaluating with the eventuality that this player could get hurt down the road. That's why you always try and impress on your scouting staff to evaluate when you have the opportunity and a player is healthy."
-- Mike G. Morreale
It includes forwards Nail Yakupov (lower back) and Alex Galchenyuk (season-ending knee surgery) of the Sarnia Sting, defenseman Slater Koekkoek (dislocated shoulder) of the Peterborough Petes, defenseman Ryan Murray (high ankle sprain) of the Everett Silvertips, defenseman Morgan Rielly (season-ending knee surgery) of the Moose Jaw Warriors, right wing Martin Frk (concussion) of the Halifax Mooseheads and defenseman Jake McCabe (severed tendon in finger) of the University of Wisconsin in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Yakupov and Galchenyuk are rated Nos. 1 and No. 2 and Koekkoek No. 9 on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of Ontario Hockey League skaters. Murray and Rielly are Nos. 1 and No. 2 on Central Scouting's Western Hockey League preliminary rankings; Frk is No. 2 on the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League list, and McCabe is the lone "A" player from the WCHA on Central Scouting's NCAA Players to Watch list.
"I don't remember a year with this many injuries to the top-end guys," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "There have been seasons where some top-end guys get hurt before the playoffs, but I don't remember as many guys being out for a year this early in the season."
NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr was asked if all the injuries to top-end players would have a trickle-down effect, perhaps allowing teams drafting lower a better opportunity at snagging a future star.
"As far as Central Scouting is concerned, the injury won't be held against the player," Marr told NHL.com. "I do think it's unusual to see season-ending injuries this early. Once that happens, you're not able to chart their development or their production and it's unfair to compare them to the players that are still in the lineup, and vice versa. It makes the process more difficult, but it's far more difficult for the teams that have to select players because they're going to have to go through the medical reports and rehab reports before they decide where they want to pick the player."
Koekkoek, who became the latest casualty when he suffered a dislocated shoulder in his team's 6-3 loss to the Windsor Spitfires on Sunday, had five goals and 18 points in 26 games at the time of his injury.
"I can only recall one other time in last 15 years where this amount of top-end players were hurt in their draft year," Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan
told NHL.com. "It depends on doctors' evaluations on the severity of the injuries come draft time. Enough head scouts have seen these players. But it is interesting ... could a top-end player fall to a better team?"
In 2010, the Tampa Bay Lightning
selected forward Brett Connolly
with the sixth pick despite a nagging hip injury that limited him to only 16 games with Prince George (WHL) in 2009-10.
"The injury involved wasn't a concern," Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman
said. "It was nothing structural. The trick is projecting a player and what he will become."
Connolly was ranked third among North American skaters by in Central Scouting's final ranking for the 2010 draft.
"As long as the injuries are not career-threating, then it should not affect their draft status much," Edwards said. "It makes the NHL (Scouting) Combine medical more important. We have viewings on all these guys from summer camps, and the RDO Camp. That does not replace regular-season and playoff viewings for making a ranking list. The more you see guys play in their regular situation, the more you know about the player."
NHL clubs cannot request individual prospect physicals until after the Combine, which is held in May.
"It is unusual to have this many top prospects go down so early ... and high, top-end prospects," Blair McDonald of NHL Central Scouting told NHL.com. "But in this case, all the injured players have been seen in the summer and early on this season. They all performed at high levels, so scouts and teams know what they are capable of doing.
"The medical reports will be important, but their injuries should not affect their draft spots too much."
Marr said he wouldn't expect Yakupov's sore back to hurt his already high draft status come June.
"Not at all," he said. "Especially at this young age. These are young, healthy athletes and they heal quickly. The junior teams, agents and families will do what is in the best interest of the player. These kids aren't rushed back or forced into any situation. Everyone does what is right for the player here. Just as there is a protocol with concussions ... everyone plays it safe."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale