While Derek Stepan’s jaw in broken, just how badly is up for debate. He got up from the hit yapping, played the rest of the game, and it looks awfully likely that he’s going to play after just five days. People have apparently hurt themselves worse eating pancakes.
But lost in the this is fishy/this is legit debate is that, regardless, Derek Stepan didn’t do anything to play up his own injury. He got blindsided, had surgery, and it looks like he’s going to play a game wearing a jaw protector tonight. That’s easier written than executed, so lets give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume he’s in rough shape.
I managed to take a slapshot to the face while playing, requiring a 10-screw plate at the point of impact, and an X-plate on the chin to keep the two sides from flapping about separately, so my recovery was undeniably different. After months of healing and finally getting the wires off, I tried to make a return to the game.
I practiced with the jaw protector on, I tried a few battle drills, did some conditioning and still - the game the puck hit my face ended up as the last pro game I ever played. It’s not that I couldn’t have made it back that season, it’s that I wasn’t comfortable trying.
Below are the six complications I noticed most, and they’re likely similar to what Stepan will experience when he gives it a go.
1) Puck control
One of hockey’s essential skills for an offensive player is “dealing with the hockey puck,” and try as they might, no company has managed to create a jaw protector that allows you to see it all that well. The sturdy plastic qualifies as “translucent” at best, so you find yourself guessing a lot.
2) Peripheral vision
Speaking of guessing, imagine how fun it is to be injured by something you didn’t see coming, than strapping something on that limits your peripheral vision? That jaw protector is a legitimate visual burden.
3) Plate freezing
It sounds like Stepan had a plate inserted, and I found those painful in the cold. I don’t know if they freeze or what, but it isn’t fun. He has the advantage of playing in a bigger, warmer facility than where I was practicing, but if it gets cold enough, it could get tight on him.
4) Hesitation (tenderness)
You cannot physically operate on a body part and have it not be tender within a few days. Some puck battles in hockey are just a mess of limbs everywhere, and you never know where you’re going to get hit when. If tender, you’re a little more cautious about entering with reckless abandon, which limits your effectiveness.
5) Jarring from mild contacts
I don’t mean hits, I mean your own actions. A slapshot rattles through your body in a way you don’t notice until you’re hurting. Landing on the ice after jumping the boards for a line change makes you wince. Little things distract you in a less-than-advantageous way.
Stepan’s jaw was never wired shut, but he probably doesn’t have his usual mouth range. After the wires, you insert an extra popsicle stick to the stack every day to stretch your mouth range back to normal. When you get really tired and go to open mouth mode, as will happen in a playoff game, being able to open your mouth a whole half-inch doesn’t exactly help you recover effectively.
All of that isn’t to say that Derek Stepan won’t feel 10 times better than I did, as he’s very recently removed from action. He’ll likely be less hesitant, as the initial break wasn’t a life-changing event. He might score three tonight, who knows. But whatever he contributes (assuming he plays), the Rangers need to look at it as a bonus. Playing after a jaw injury isn’t easy.