In 2013, All 30 NHL teams faced a challenge foreign to most players and coaches. With a 48-game schedule packed into three months, player health, including physical and mental maintenance and recovery, was paramount in determining which teams rose above the rest during the season.
The Islanders coaching and training staffs worked together closely too ensure that players were in peak condition for each game, even if it meant avoiding the time-tested tradition of the morning skate or mixing in more off-days at the expense of practice time.
“[The schedule] was so condensed and Cappy (Head Coach Jack Capuano) did a great job identifying if guys were going to be beat up or banged up,” said defenseman Andrew MacDonald. “In order for us to keep our rest and even our mental focus, it was important for us to have those days off and optional skates. I thought during that stretch when we played every other day, we got into a rhythm.”
That stretch of playing every other day was, in reality, most of the season. Only once between January and April did the Islanders have more than two days between games, whereas the original 82-game schedule allowed for seven breaks of at least three days.
Any hockey player will tell you that acquiring bumps and bruises is a certainty, especially at the NHL level. The key for athletes being pushed to their physical limit day-in and day-out is to keep minor ailments from costing them ice time.
Perhaps that’s where the Islanders made their biggest turnaround. The team lost just 81 man games to injury in 2013 (1.7 per game). In the three previous seasons, the club lost 1230 man games to injury (5.0 per game). And while part of that equation is luck, Travis Hamonic says the lion’s share of the credit should be given to the Strength & Conditioning coaches who monitored each player’s progress closely as the season went along.
“Injuries are always an area of concern,” said defenseman Travis Hamonic. “They happen at fluke times and you never want to be injured, have your team injured or your best players injured. Our training staff did a really great job with the program we had last summer and heading into this summer, we have another great program.”
The Islanders training staff has transformed over the past two years, with a complete re-tooling of the offseason workout regimen serving as the centerpiece of their new program.
During Training Camp, Capuano was asked daily what adjustments he needed to make to his practice routines to adapt for the different schedule. With very little in the way of a blueprint for handling the situation (the NHL played a similar 48-game schedule in 1995), the Islanders head coach had to learn on the fly. At the end of the year, the feedback the players gave the staff was positive.
“Coaching is about your relationships with your players and making sure you communicate well,” Capuano said. “In the end-of-year meetings, we talked with a lot of guys about the optional skates. We talked about how we went about our business. The feedback was good from those guys, sSo we learned a lot.”
As the season progressed, the Islanders played better and looked stronger. They brought a physical element to the rink and out-battled opponents – sure signs of a team handling the rigors of a hard schedule with aplomb. The team held up under pressure, including the handful of players who had already played half a season in the American Hockey League or overseas prior to the NHL season.
The NHL returns to an 82-game slate in 2013-14. And while parts of the approach will need to shift back to “normal” to accommodate the change, the Islanders players and staff are better prepared for whatever peaks and valleys the schedule-makers hand them next season.