The NHL got 3-on-3 overtime in the All-Star Game in return for a bye week for each team, a scheme that has caused havoc with the schedule this season.
With three teams having completed their bye weeks and four teams due to come off them in the next two nights, we’ll soon have a pretty good idea what the short-term effects are on teams. The very small sample size so far has been decidedly mixed.
The New York Islanders came off their five-day break, then proceeded to lose an overtime and shootout on back-to-back nights on the road against the two worst teams in the league. The Ottawa Senators lost at home and the Pittsburgh Penguins won at home. Overall, the teams are 2-2-2 in the first two games back from the break.
All 30 teams, though, are feeling the long-term effects, whether they’ve had their furlough or not. The combination of the World Cup and the mandated bye week has compressed the schedule like no year before. And if the NHL continues to play in the Olympics, it will be far more dramatic next year, considering that the league will have to shut down for a minimum of two weeks.
Feelings about the bye week depend on which constituency is expressing them. The players, who negotiated it as a give-back for going to the 3-on-3 format at the All-Star Game, love the idea of having an extended break in the middle of the season. And although they won’t say it, they’re probably OK with sacrificing practice days along the way as well. To say that most coaches and GMs don’t like it would be an understatement. Some of them, such as Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall, whose team has back-to-back games on both sides of the break, called it, “the most asinine thing I’ve ever seen.” The irony is that the bye week is supposed to make the players feel more refreshed and rested, but the side effects of it have had the opposite affect. Talk about your unintended consequences. Makes you wonder whether the 3-on-3 tournament in the All-Star Game is worth it.
The bye week has affected everything from practice time to injuries and even though everyone has to deal with it, to say it does not affect the quality of play would be wrong. It does. When teams are battered and tired, they don’t play as well. Worse, they tend to play a defensive style that can make the games boring. “Does (the compressed schedule) have something to do with the injuries?” asked Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, whose team has been besieged by injuries this season. “I can tell you that I know we go into a lot of games a tired team.”
Along with injuries, the most dramatic effect of the bye week has been a huge reduction in practice time. Let’s say a team comes in from a road trip and they arrive home at 2 a.m. You can’t practice that day because the players are too tired and because the team got in so late, that day cannot be used as one of the four CBA-mandated days off per month to which the players are entitled. That means that in some cases two practice days have been lost.
“I know we’ve never practiced less and when you have a young team, you have to practice,” said St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “You have to make a decision that allows you to have the energy for the game, but I’ve never practiced less than I have this year. I was looking at our schedule leading up to our break and we’re going to have maybe two hockey practices for the next three or four weeks.” The lack of practice time has forced some coaches to do more teaching during morning skates than they’ve done in the past, simply because they can’t cover what they need to in practices. “I’ve never coached 5-on-5 in morning skates before,” Hitchcock said, “but I am this year because we can go a week or 10 days without doing anything. This season has felt way different than the other ones.”
Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland looks at his team’s schedule in late March and early April and cringes. Because their postponed game against Carolina was rescheduled to March 27, a stretch of seven games in 12 days has become eight games in 12 days, including games three straight nights – which never happens under normal circumstances - in two different buildings.
“Last week we had a game with six or seven players out,” Holland said. “And once you get a couple of injuries, you’re taxing your other guys. Instead of playing minor leaguers, many of those minutes go to the players who are healthy and their being taxed. And there’s no relief. It just goes on week after week, month after month.”