Darren Helm’s Long Journey Back to the NHL

Darren Helm has climbed a very tall mountain to get back to the NHL. In the last 18 months he has played in one competitive NHL contest. A range of injuries and setbacks have come his way, but now nearly a year and a half later through all these injuries, Darren Helm will soon be back to being a full time and healthy NHLer.

The speedy 26-year old center has had some awful luck with staying healthy. In fact the last time he played back to back games for Detroit he had recently turned 25 years of age.

The Timeline of Events

Flashback to March 17, 2012. In a regular season contest on the road in San Jose, Darren Helm suffers an apparent shoulder injury after colliding with Dominic Moore in the third period. The Red Wings would lose the game in overtime 3-2 and later find out after the game that Helm’s knee was inured and keep him out the remainder of the season.

Jump ahead a couple of weeks, the Detroit Red Wings are heading into the playoffs with a first round date against the Nashville Predators. Darren Helm had played just 3:08 in the first period of game one in Nashville, before rushing off the ice suddenly as his forearm had been lacerated by Alexander Radulov’s skate blade. Helm’s lacerated tendons would keep him out for the remainder of the postseason, and a rehabilitation process that took around three or four months.

One annoying lockout later and Helm seems to be ready to go to start the abbreviated 2013 campaign. He, reportedly, injured his back after the lockout had ended while preparing for the season. He made his debut for the year on January 25, against the Minnesota Wild, the Wings fourth game of the year. Apparently his back was not good to go as this would be his only ice time of regular season or postseason. He severely aggravated his injury, enough to keep him out the rest of the year. Many times it was said that Helm would near a recovery but ultimately a setback would come up.

Now here we are in 2013-14, Helm has had a lot of time to rest and recover his back, reports surfaced that he had also tweaked his groin sometime in the preseason or training camp but it wasn’t judged to be serious. Nevertheless, the Red Wings logjam of forwards made him an easy candidate for LTIR as the season began. While on LTIR he skated with the team during practices and partook in an AHL conditioning stint, allowed by the new CBA, with the Grand Rapids Griffins. While the maximum a player can stay on a conditioning stint is three games, Red Wings management had him only play in two, including Grand Rapids home opener, much to the delight of Grand Rapids fans who remember him as an up and coming prospect out of Medicine Hat.

Helm’s venture into Grand Rapids wasn’t exactly memorable (three shots, -1 rating, on 10/18 against Milwaukee, and one shot, +1 rating on 10/19 against Rockford) but the important part is he made it through the games. He threw a couple of hits, took a few hits and even had a few shorthanded breakaways in the Milwaukee game. All signs seemed to point to Helm making a long awaited return to the Red Wings lineup.

Helm skated in Grand Rapids for two games as part of a conditioning stint in the AHL. (Mark Newman/Flickr)

Trouble Looms

After his AHL conditioning stint the Red Wings and Helm seemed all but ready to finally get him going in the winged wheel. His knee has been long healed, the skate cut was forever and a half ago, the back is finally healthy but wait… that pesky groin.

Helm had completed his AHL stint even though he was eligible for one more game as the Red Wings decided to call him up to the official roster just a day beforehand. Helm is eligible to come off the LTIR on the 24th, and the hope was for him to play on Saturday night against the New York Rangers. Luckily, the news wasn’t as bad as anyone with Helm’s injury record would have expected.

So his projected date of return was pushed back a little bit, what’s a few days compared to how long he’s been out of commission? The Red Wings faithful should all be happy to see #43 back on the ice in the near future.

But wait! It’s not that simple…

There’s always a catch, and unfortunately for Helm, this one is on Ken Holland. With the aforementioned logjam of forwards, Helm was providing a key role on the LTIR from a management perspective. His $2.125 million cap hit when placed on LTIR gave the Red Wings cap credit in relief to stay cap compliant. Helm along with Patrick Eaves’ cap hit of $1.2 million was larger than the amount Detroit exceeded the cap. So, when you take Helm off and his cap counts against the cap now, there are some issues. The projected LTIR relief used by the Red Wings is right around $2 million. Given that Eaves cap doesn’t exceed that number Ken Holland will be forced to shed around $800,000 in cap space to get Helm off the LTIR and onto the ice. Could another contract be buried in the minors? The $925,000 maximum would allow that, or is there a trade in the works? We should find out very soon.