NHL teams adjusting on the fly to new wrinkle of bye weeks

Mike Smith felt weird.

The All-Star goaltender for Arizona knew other teams were playing while he and the rest of the Coyotes were enjoying a week off. He filled his time by sledding with his kids and not doing too much of anything.

''It's been great,'' Smith said. ''I've got to spend some quality time with my family, my kids. Nothing crazy, pretty chilled and pretty relaxed.''

A five-day bye week for each team is a new wrinkle added to the NHL this season so players can get a breather during the second half of a grueling, 82-game grind. The players' union negotiated for it last year in exchange for agreeing to the 3-on-3 tournament that replaced the traditional All-Star Game.

The NFL-style bye week will return next season or in 2018-19 - depending on whether NHL players go to the Pyeongchang Olympics - because that 3-on-3 All-Star format is in place Sunday in Los Angeles.

Players are widely in favor of the extra time off, even though it compresses the schedule for the rest of the year, but it isn't as popular among coaches and general managers. Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz is concerned about injuries when a team coming off a bye plays an opponent that has been in action. Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall isn't a big fan of the concept in general.

''I think it's ridiculous,'' Hextall said recently. ''The most asinine thing I've ever seen.''

Old-school hockey people are characteristically resistant to change, but current players love it. Players' feedback from the 2014 Sochi Olympics was that the time off re-energized them for later in the season.

As All-Stars gather in L.A. this weekend, a lot of players will go on vacation and but they also believe the best in the NHL deserve a break, too.

''A lot of times it is taxing on the stars,'' Capitals forward Daniel Winnik said. ''When I was younger I was like, `Man, those guys get to go to the All-Star Game, that's awesome,' but then the more you're in the league you're like, `It sucks for those guys, they don't get the break that we have.' I think it's good. I think down the stretches guys get tired, and I think this is the time when guys need rest.''

The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders were the first to go on their byes Jan. 1, and the Anaheim Ducks will be the last to come off theirs March 2. Trotz and the Capitals have been charting results coming out of the bye week in preparation for their break in mid-February.

When the bye week idea came about, Trotz sent a proposal to the NHL to have groups of teams take bye weeks together so they're in the same shape and timing and injuries don't pile up. Even better, the intent in the future is to have half the league off the five days before All-Star Weekend and the other half the five days after to make it more even across the board.

No matter the timing, bye weeks make for a difficult adjustment back to game shape.

''These guys are used to playing the game every day and touching the puck every day, and when you take them away from that, their timing, I think their game timing tends to establish a little bit of rust,'' Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. ''I think that's what happens in professional sports when these athletes are used to honing their craft day in and day out.''

Winger Carl Hagelin felt some of that rust in Pittsburgh's first game back Jan. 8 with his stick handling and execution. But he also felt some extra energy in his legs. Teammate Ian Cole said the Penguins did a good job of working out during their time off and not falling out of midseason form.

That's one challenge, but so is the compressed schedule that has come about because of the World Cup of Hockey and the bye weeks. According to the On The Forecheck blog, teams will play a total of 444 sets of back-to-backs this season, up from 412 in 2015-16, and the schedule isn't ever light except for the bye week.

''It's five full days off and you get to recover and heal some bumps and bruises,'' Ottawa Senators center Chris Kelly said. ''But that being said, we played 17 in 30 days to start a season. That's very unusual in the NHL, especially when you're competing against baseball and the NFL. Most times when you're playing 17, 18 a month, it's March. That's maybe the bit of the downside to it.''

Even with that caveat, players will gladly take the extra rest that comes with the bye week.

''Our schedules, you don't really get to take vacations ever, so it's good for the families - spend some time with wife, girlfriend, kids, whatever you have,'' Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. ''It's good for family life, and playing is better when family's good.''

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

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This story corrects team name in 2nd paragraph.

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