Themes for an unpredictable season
By Stu Hackel
About the only thing one can say with certainty about the upcoming NHL season is that nothing is certain.
Each of the 30 NHL teams has specific concerns heading into the truncated 48-game schedule, but there are some questions every one of the will face. In our Friday post on training camps, we noted that NBC's and SI's Pierre McGuire has studied shortened seasons and it's worth repeating the five things he believes teams need in order to be competitive: 1) very good goaltending; 2) a four-line attack; 3) a coach with an understanding of work-to-rest ratio so players don’t break down and risk injury; 4) avoiding prolonged losing streaks of five games or more; and 5) creative coaching.
That said, here are some of the major themes that could potentially color the competition in the mad dash to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
1. The Schedule -- Only once before in the post-World War II era has the league played a 48-game slate -- in 1995 due to that season's lockout. Of all the wild cards in what could be a wild season, this is the biggest. Every aspect of the game will be impacted by the shorter, compressed schedule. Instead of 82 games in 183 days, or one game every 2.23 days, we'll get 48 in 98 days, or one every 2.04 days. With play restricted to each team's own conference, each contest means more since they are all essentially four-point games.
Most hockey people believe teams will need a good start, that if a team falls behind early, it could be very tough to make up ground. Whenever schedules are released for any season, coaches and GMs pore over them, obsessed with the details. Pity the poor Blackhawks: The annual ice show and some Lady Gaga concerts force them to play 10 of their first 12 games away from the United Center. They'll have to become a good road team in a hurry. After that comes a stretch of seven straight at home. Conversely, the Sabres finish the season with 10 of their final 14 games at home.
One handy rule of thumb to keep in mind is to double everything to make sense of consequences: If your team loses five in a row, it's like losing 10 in a row during a full season. If a player gets hurt and he's lost for two weeks -- and that could be the case for Anze Kopitar, perhaps the Kings' best player who was injured prior to camp -- it has the effect of him being lost for a month in a normal year.
Dirk Hoag, the excellent blogger out of Nashville, annually computes the miles traveled by each club (his post on the schedule is here) and, not surprisingly, Eastern teams will have less travel than Western clubs, the top 13 in fewest miles traveled are all in the East. That could mean that Eastern teams as a whole will have more time to practice and rest. Now, the practice part of that may be meaningless since the only time East plays West will be in the Cup final, but don't forget that in '95, the Devils swept Detroit in a shocking final series; so did New Jersey's better travel schedule and and potential for more practice time play a role in that upset? Lack of down time and the potential for injury has got to be more of a concern for Western clubs.
Playing back-to-back games is the most draining of all, and the Blackhawks don't do well in that category. either. Their 12 instances of two games in two nights ties them for the most back-to-backs on the schedule with Detroit. (Chicago plays five in April!) The Blue Jackets have 11, the Blues, Ducks, Flyers and Devils have 10.
2. Injuries and Organizational Depth -- While a few hundred NHLers played in the KHL, European and minor professional leagues during the lockout, the majority did not. The hope is that they were able to stay in shape, but teams are fearful that an epidemic of groin pulls, hamstring injuries and other common hurts caused by lack of conditioning could afflict them. It's already started: Flames captain Jarome Iginla didn't participate in the first days of camp because he's nursing a groin injury and Calgary management hope's he'll be ready for their opener Sunday against the Sharks.
Some coaches seem less concerned about the work-to-rest ratio that McGuire mentions. Asked on Tuesday if he was planning to reduce the ice time of his top defensive pair, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, Rangers coach John Tortorella replied, "No. We're going to play the hell out of them."
Everyone assumes there will be injuries and they seem to be rising annually. This year, we may see even more and -- because of the shortened, crowded schedule -- ones with greater consequence. "You're going to need some depth," Scotty Bowman told me. "The teams that have guys playing on their farm teams who can come up and play on the fourth line at the NHL level will have an advantage.”
3. Set teams -- Training camp is very short. There are no preseason games. It stands to reason that if a team is bringing back most, if not all, of its players from last season, it will have something of an advantage merely due to that familiarity. The Kings, for example, have made virtually no changes from the squad that won the Stanley Cup last June, something that almost never happens. They also have the same coach in Darryl Sutter who preaches a very simple system and, coincidentally, he's the only guy running an NHL bench who also ran one in the shortened season after the '94 lockout.
It can't be assured that a team with a fair amount of roster turnover, especially to the core -- Minnesota comes to mind here -- or a club with a new coach who wants to install a different system (Montreal and Washington, for example) can put all the pieces together quickly enough to get off to a good start. It's not impossible, but it will be difficult. So much of winning comes down to good chemistry and the shrunken time frame for getting going and playing can't be disregarded.
A related point is how many players on any given team have been playing minor pro or overseas. The Oilers have drawn lots of preseason attention because so many members of their young core have been active -- and my SI.com comrade Adrian Dater ranked Edmonton third in his first set of power rankings last week (sparking this great response from Ryan Whitney). The Canucks, on the other hand, have very few of their players in game shape. Will that matter?
4. Getting the extra point -- With every game being exclusively intra-conference, winning in regulation is the preferred way of getting two points, as your opponent is not gaining any ground. If you're behind in the standings, those three point games always make it tough to catch up, but the racetrack is shorter this time, so you'd like to win in 60 minutes. But because each game will be so critical, with parity being what it is in the NHL,there could be a lot that go past 60, in which case getting the bonus point in either overtime or the shootout could be pivotal.
In a series of Tweets on Sunday, Scotty Bowman -- who believes the shootout will be important -- reviewed last year's leaders in the postgame skills competition: The best teams were New Jersey (12-4), Colorado (9-2), Detroit (9-3), Boston (9-3), Pittsburgh (9-3) and San Jose (9-5). All but Colorado made the playoffs. The best shooters were Ilya Kovalchuk (11-3), Evgeni Malkin (8-3), Frans Nielsen (7-4), Sam Gagner (6-3), and Daniel Alfredsson (5-1). The top goalies were Semyon Varlamov (8-0), Marc-Andre Fleury (9-2), Tim Thomas (7-1, although he won't play this season), Marty Brodeur (7-2), Jimmy Howard (7-2) and Kari Lehtonen (7-3).
After being impressed by some shootout moves made by Canadiens rookie Alex Galchenyuk on Monday, this one on Carey Price...
...and this one on Peter Budaj...
...coach Michel Therrien told the media that he wouldn't add the first-rounder to the roster just because he was good in the skills competition. Galchenyuk seems capable of more but he's still young, turning 19 next month. Still, a player who is ready for the NHL and can get that extra point could be helpful to some clubs.
I've never been a fan of the shootout, but it's still part of the rules and it will be worth tracking who does well in it to see how significant an impact it has in the short season.
5. Physical play -- Another aspect of parity is that we can expect the intensity level will be ratcheted up right from the start. There is some thought that the number of fights may increase. According to NHL stats, the number of fighting majors increased slightly in '95 over the previous season, although the trend had been on the way down. Pugilism has been in further decline over the last decade, but this strange season could again result in a bump the other way.
Some guys who have been on the move since the CBA was signed Saturday night can handle the rough stuff: The Flyers, who have injuries on defense, signed Kurtis Foster. The Canucks inked Cam Barker and Jim Vandermeer. Carolina traded with the Kings for Kevin Westgarth. The Predators claimed Rich Clune from the Kings as well and the Islanders claimed Joe Finley. That's six players in three days. Hmmmm...
In one sense or another, they all answer the need for depth discussed above, but they also can throw 'em.
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