The Michigan Gray Wolves seemed to be in a great position as the season approached its halfway point. The defending champions were, if anything, better than ever. The team’s defense remained at its smothering, hard-hitting best. Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist remained the league’s best netminder. And the offense, if anything, had jumped to the next level. It had gone from being good enough to being a genuine asset. The Anchorage Igloos seemed likely to challenge, but the Wolves remained clear favorites to reach the SHL Finals for the second straight season.
Those projections took a big hit this week, as first-line C Hunter Bailes went down with a severe upper-body injury, one that could sideline him for up to a month. Michigan’s players and fans alike were left anxious and concerned about where the season might go without their captain and top scorer.
“Losing Hunts, man, that’s tough,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford. “When we found out that it was a serious injury, it kind of took the breath out of us for a bit.”
Bailes was hurt in Wednesday’s game against New York. In the third period, the center was bringing the puck up out of his own end and was leveled by a devastating check from D Dominic Sanchez. Bailes fell awkwardly and landed with his shoulder canted against the boards. He was down for over a minute as the team’s medical staff came to his aid. He came off the ice and directly down the tunnel.
“We should have known it was bad then,” said Lunsford. “A guy as tough as that doesn’t go down unless something’s really wrong.”
Bailes showed back up on the bench before the end of the game, although he did not return to the ice. Follow-up examination after the game revealed that the injury was more significant than Bailes first believed, one that will keep him out for weeks rather than days.
“I’ve always been a play-through-the-pain guy,” said Bailes. “Most hockey players are. So once the initial shock wore off, I thought maybe it wasn’t so bad and I could go back out there. But then the docs looked me over afterward and they said, ‘Uh-uh, you can’t play with that.’”
In losing Bailes, Michigan loses arguably their best two-way player. He had put up 9 goals and 24 points before the injury. The only reserve forward on Michigan’s current roster is Travis Gauss, who is not a natural center and had been demoted to bench status after a poor 2016.
Wolves coach Ron Wright tried to downplay the significance of the injury. “You never like to lose a player like Hunter Bailes,” Wright told reporters. “He’s a tremendous asset to us, and having him off the ice stings. But I’m a big believer in the next-man-up philosophy. No one player makes or breaks us. The team is what matters. And I know everybody on this team is going to step up and help us fill the gap.”
Wright said that the team has no plans to make a trade to replace Bailes, although they might consider calling up a center from the minors.
The Wolves are still a strong team, even without Bailes, and they remain on top in the West. But whether their offense continues to click or starts to sputter without their top-line anchor will go a long way toward determining whether Michigan can repeat as SHL champion.