Photo: Amanda Bowen
If you’ve yet to come across it, I highly recommend giving Tom Haberstroh’s recent splendid piece of reporting for ESPN The Magazine a read. It sinks its teeth into the grisly nature of the NBA’s 82-game schedule, putting a spotlight on the immense physical toll it puts on its players. The story itself isn’t necessarily a revelation, but is important nonetheless because it gets to the root of the issue stemming from systemic flaws the league willingly inflicts upon itself.
The comparison between the NBA and NHL isn’t seamless. There are fundamental differences between the two sports. In basketball significantly fewer players are relied upon to carry the load. The tread on the tires can accumulate particularly quickly for those guys given how much they’re asked to do on a nightly basis. Regardless, the idea that performance dips under fatigued conditions holds true in hockey just the same. The ability to control territorial play, generate more goals than the opposition, and ultimately win games all precipitously declines with decreased rest, lending credence to the phenomenon of “schedule losses.”
It’s the nature of the beast. Despite growing evidence that jamming 82 games into a 6-month window is degrading the quality of the product, it’s something that’s not likely to change anytime soon given the financial incentives that come with it for the league and its owners. As such, we’ve seen NBA teams take notice of those growing trends as our collective understanding of the human body and how it functions in various environments has expanded over time. While they’ve adjusted accordingly in recent years by altering how they divvy up the playing time, and just as importantly the days off, it’s a transition that hasn’t quite made its way to the NHL just yet.
The Capitals could very well change that, considering the rather unique position they find themselves in this year. There’s nearly two months of hockey left in the regular season and for their purposes there may as well not be any. They’ve so thoroughly lapped the competition in the standings, that from their perspective, there isn’t much left to be played for between now and the start of the playoffs.
There’s the Presidents’ Trophy, which would ensure that the road to the Stanley Cup would run through Washington assuming they took care of their own business. But with the gap they’ve established between themselves and the next closest team, the baseline for them to put a bow on it even while in cruise control is very attainable.
Then there’s the vanity of individual accomplishments like Alex Ovechkin taking home his fourth straight Rocket Richard Trophy and Braden Holtby setting the single season record for wins (and in turn surely securing the Vezina Trophy in the process), but considering the baggage the franchise carries from past failures, those achievements seem like distant secondary goals.
That they’d prudently approach their remaining 27 games with an eye on the big picture, making sure they’re well-adjusted personnel-wise for the long haul seems like a sensible plan. It’s also one that flies in the face of the old school culture that still permeates through the hockey world. It’d be naive to suggest that it wouldn’t be met with resistance from the fans who are potentially putting their hard-earned money towards going to see their favorite players play on that one occasion a year. Or from the talking heads, who peddle that aforementioned foundational mentality where everyone needs to be constantly playing the game a certain respectful, hard-working way. The players themselves, after all, are marketed as warriors who persevere through nicks and bruises along the way to continue competing at all costs (which ironically enough has gotten the league into hot water as more information has come out about concussions, and the long-term effects they can have if not tended to properly).
When the San Antonio Spurs initially provided the template a couple of years ago, it was met with contempt and ridicule. I still remember people arguing that they were making a mockery of the system, not taking things seriously. The league even went so far as to fine them when they most notably sent their older players home at the end of a road trip in advance of a nationally televised game in Miami. All they did was keep winning, and eventually it stopped being a talking point and instead transformed into something the teams that have been paying attention have implemented into their own respective routines.
The Capitals likewise only have the one obligation to fulfill, and it’s putting themselves in the best possible position to raise the Stanley Cup at season’s end. In this regard, it comes in various shapes and sizes. Whether it’s by bringing Ovechkin’s ice time under the 20-minute threshold he’s logging on a nightly basis, which is more palatable this year than at any point in the past given that they’re blessed with secondary scoring options unlike ever before.
Or maybe it’s more prominently in the form of not having to rely on Braden Holtby to start ~70 games again like he did last season. While Holtby is unquestionably among the league’s best netminders, Philipp Grubauer has shown that he’s a perfectly serviceable backup option in his limited appearances. It’s clear that the league has started to slowly shift away from the convention of teams grinding their workhorse number-one option into the ground, instead opting for a more balanced approach between the pipes. The days where Miikka Kiprusoff and Martin Brodeur start essentially every game appear to be gone. It’s still far from an exact science, but there’s certainly a trend that emerges when looking at the list of teams that have made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in the past decade, and how frequently they used their starter during that regular season. Jonathan Quick‘s ridiculous ’11-’12 performance in the first Kings title run was more of an aberration than anything else:
(*82-game pace in the lockout shortened season)
There’s little nuanced adjustments like that which the coaching staff can tinker with during the stretch run to ensure that their top players are in peak physical condition when it matters most. A trickier schedule looming on the horizon from March 1 on, including 5 back-to-backs and a trip out West through California, could force their hands to ease up on the reins.
The reality is that competition gets tight come the spring. One reason why the NHL playoffs are so exhilarating is because parity reigns supreme in the sport. When the crop of teams gets dwindled down to the best of the best, the pre-existing margin for error from the regular season essentially vanishes. Every little bounce or decision can determine the outcome of a game, and in turn a series.
With that in mind, it makes sense that teams would be exploring every possible avenue for getting even the slightest leg up on the opposition, in any place they can get it. Over the years we’ve seen a greater attention to detail invested into the preparation that takes place off of the ice well before the players make their way onto our television sets.
The current point structure in the regular season generally makes it exceedingly difficult for teams to separate themselves from the pack. By taking care of business in the manner which they have early on, the Capitals have afforded themselves a distinct opportunity to manipulate the schedule in their favor. Come the playoffs when the meters are running on empty, it could very well be the thing that makes the difference between winning and losing.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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