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The dangers of missing a season in the modern NHL

After a good first outing, Tim Thomas has been pulled from his last two starts. (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

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After a good first outing, Tim Thomas has been pulled from his last two starts. (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

The season started off with so much promise for Tim Thomas. Back in the NHL after a self-imposed one-year sabbatical, the Stanley Cup-winning goalie had a new team in the Florida Panthers and his first win in a season-opening 4-2 triumph over Dallas.

Then, the wheels fell off in St. Louis. Thomas gave up five goals before getting yanked, then came out bewildered against Philadelphia Tuesday night. After giving up two goals on five shots, he came out of the game with a slight groin injury, but the mental trouble Thomas was having with the way the puck was bouncing off the boards behind him suggested a little yoga wasn’t going to fix the issue. Thomas is currently lugging around a 5.05 goals-against average and .850 save percentage.

Over in Toronto, the Maple Leafs had a feel-good story over the summer in Paul Ranger. The defenseman had mysteriously quit hockey early in the 2009-10 season while he was playing for Tampa Bay and only returned last year, when he suited up for the American League’s Toronto Marlies. Ranger won’t go into the reason for his hiatus, but has said it was a personal matter.

Now 29, Ranger has been given ample opportunity to prove himself in the Leafs lineup and though the team is off to a solid 3-1-0 start, the big blueliner has struggled. In Tuesday night’s loss to the Avalanche, the game-winning goal came as a result of a series of errors and fumbles on Ranger’s part and though he’s a plus-1 on the season, young partner Jake Gardiner has often bailed him out when an opponent has slipped – or blown – by the veteran.

Players from Ken Dryden to Alexei Yashin missed entire seasons due to contract disputes, but they played in totally different eras: some of the shooters Dryden faced were still chain smokers and the best players from the Iron Curtain were still on the other side of the world. Yashin played during a wild expansion era that saw Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota all trying to find footing while he lit up the league for 88 points in his return.

The game today is faster, stronger and incredibly skilled: If the early returns from Thomas and Ranger are any indication, you simply can’t take a year off anymore. Even young players who have been sidelined find the road back difficult.

Defenseman Erik Johnson was coming off a solid rookie season with the St. Louis Blues when he was injured in a freak golf cart accident at a pre-season team outing, tearing ligaments in his knee. His offensive totals upon his return were actually decent on a non-playoff team, but the next year the Blues traded him to Colorado in what is now looking like a lopsided deal for St. Louis that sent Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart the other way.

Two years after Johnson’s golf cart mishap, Minnesota’s James Sheppard wrecked his knee in an off-road ATV accident. He missed the entire 2010-11 campaign and was traded that summer to San Jose, where he has totaled four points for the Sharks since.

Both Johnson and Sheppard are young and while their careers are far from over, it’s the missed development time that seems to have hurt them the most. Johnson, for example, didn’t appear to suffer any ill effects upon his immediate return, but his play has dwindled as time has gone on. Sheppard has just been buried and unable to earn more than fourth-line minutes.

While it’s great to have the cagey Thomas and underdog Ranger back in the league, no one’s been taking it easy on them once the puck drops and if their play doesn’t improve, their nice storylines are going to become little more than footnotes.

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