Playoff preparation with Crosby, Malkin, Duchene and MacKinnon

MacKinnon-Crosby

Trainer Andy O’Brien has a murderers’ row of clients and every summer he puts them through their paces. Sidney Crosby, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon are all on his roster and he makes sure his guys are ready for the season.

But now it’s playoff time, where the grind of 82 games – plus an Olympics-induced compressed schedule – gives way to the even harder road to the Stanley Cup. I caught up with O’Brien last week at the Gatorade High Performance Hockey Summit in Toronto to get a sense of how some of the NHL’s best are positioned for the playoffs.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Crosby locked up the Art Ross Trophy with 104 points in 80 games, so he’s been healthy. But he also played in the Olympics for Canada, winning gold and therefore playing until the final game of the tourney. Here’s O’Brien’s take on The Kid:

“It’s a real difficult season because it was a condensed schedule. For the players who actually had to go over to Sochi, they put a lot of stress on their nervous system and immune system by just going over there, then playing until the final game and going back to that condensed schedule. He’s really been preparing by making smart decisions on how to recover and working with the staff in Pittsburgh to make sure his body is fresh and ready. That’s the key in the playoffs. He’s learning every year from different playoff scenarios and it’s really just about managing energy. He’s done a phenomenal job of that this year.”

Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche

Duchene is coming off his best NHL season yet, with 70 points in 71 games. He was a big part of Colorado’s resurgence, but ended the campaign on a down note when he injured his knee in late March. He was expected to miss four weeks, which would get him back in the lineup should Colorado beat Minnesota in the first round. Here’s O’Brien on the center’s challenges upon return:

“The biggest thing for Matt – if you look at that injury, it’s not a long injury. The challenge will be about timing. You actually see that during the season if a team has a four- or five-day break between games. It can be a bit sloppy when they return to that next game. The game is so fast and there is so much instinctive decision-making, it’s going to be more of a timing thing. But Matt is so elite. I’ve seen him adapt to various situations and he’s got incredible hockey sense. So that learning curve will be a bit faster for him.”

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Like Duchene, Malkin ended the season with an injury. But Geno’s foot ailment happened a little earlier and wasn’t as bad – in fact, he has already begun skating again. Malkin is not an O’Brien client, but I posed the question to the trainer about whether Malkin’s two-week-plus break may actually be a blessing in disguise. After all, he also played at the Olympics and since the Pens still won their division, maybe he’ll be a little fresher upon return?

“There is a benefit to having a couple weeks off, especially during this season. The negative part is it’s not ideal from a performance perspective. But it might be more beneficial for an Evgeni Malkin or Matt Duchene, someone who picks it up really quickly, rather than a player who might struggle with that cessation of time. Ultimately you would like the break to be about a week or two, and try to avoid three or four weeks where it would be more of an adjustment.”

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

A practical lock to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, MacKinnon led all freshmen in scoring with 63 points in 82 games. He has also been a factor in getting the Avs back to the playoffs, but the question with rookies is whether they will hit a wall at some point. Will the post-season represent that wall for MacKinnon? O’Brien has faith that Nate Dogg will keep on rolling.

“He set that tone in the summer by building a really good conditioning plan. One of the biggest challenges for players is when they go into a training camp and they’re not in optimal shape, there’s an adjustment period and then they’re almost overtraining for the first month or two. It really sets up a difficult adaptation process and then you’re always behind. He went into the season ready. And he’s young. He’s the guy I would worry about the least because he’s recovering so much. And he’s got such a great outlook. He’s one of those guys who is intensely confident about his abilities and ready for any challenge. Mentally he’s very strong and that will carry over into the playoffs.”