Time on ice.
One of the biggest concerns for coaches when planning for a lock-out condensed schedule is the fatigue factor, especially amongst team’s top players. The two schools of thought were either the players can handle more average ice time because they won’t be playing 82 games, or the players average time on ice must be closely monitored because of the rigorous demands of playing almost every second night. A majority of NHL coaches were in the latter group, preferring to cut back ice time for their leaders throughout the season, in anticipation of the draining 48 games in 99 days.
Unfortunately, injuries have altered that mindset for most, and some specific players, mostly defenceman, are bearing the brunt of playing more from game to game.
To offer some baseline, most team’s top defencemen typically play around 24 minutes a night. In looking at top minute munchers since the 2005 lock-out, Bryan McCabe of the 2006 Toronto Maple Leafs led the entire league, and still holds the highest “time on ice per game”(t.o.i.) since, with 28:17 per game over the 82 game schedule. To put that into perspective, this year’s t.o.i leader is Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild who is playing 27:27 per night, with no other player in the league into twenty-seven minute territory. In contrast to the first year after 2005, there were 4 defencemen averaging 28 minutes a game.
So where does that bring us now that we factor in a condensed schedule, faster pace of play, more travel and now more injuries than ever?
Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings is on a career high in average ice time (26:23) because of injuries to Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell since the start of the year. Henrik Sedin is playing the most he’s ever player per night, eclipsing the 20 minute mark, with the injury to Ryan Kesler, as that’s a full minute more each game that he’s out on the ice compared to last year. In Columbus, Jack Johnson leads his team, and is in the top five, with over 26 minutes per night, which includes a staggering 34:59 on February 2nd in a 4-2 regulation win versus Detroit.
In terms of a coach who is doing a fine job of spreading out minutes to all their players, veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock of the St.Louis Blues has only 2 players averaging over 20 minutes a game, both being defencemen. Minnesota on the other hand has 6 players averaging more than 20 minutes a game, and given their travel schedule this season, that consequence will certainly become costly to them at season’s end. For the Canucks, Alain Vigneault and Rick Bowness have been consistent with their top 4 defencemen playing around 23 minutes per game with no one player being overused.
From the outset, the plan for most coaches was to play four lines and 3 sets of D as much as possible to distribute the minutes around. As we hit he half-way point of the season, it’s back to playing your top players as much as they can handle, with New Jersey putting Ilya Kovalchuk out on the ice for 25:48 per night, as a forward, which would lead 22 other teams overall in that category.
In the end, coaches will trend toward playing their difference-makers more than previously planned, as injury and circumstance will overtake reason if it means two points for the win.