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Coaches Room

Rest takes priority over practice time in second half of season

Carlyle says keeping players fresh between games, travel can be delicate balance

by Randy Carlyle / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, Carlyle, the former coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, discusses the grind of the second half of the season and options coaches must consider to keep their teams as sharp as possible. 

The dynamic games we've seen in the past 10 days brings to mind the ongoing discussion about how players and teams get re-energized.

Among the impressive, even spectacular, performances were from Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews when the Oilers and Maple Leafs met at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 6. The 6-4 victory by Edmonton is a game embedded in a lot of fans' minds.

And the Oilers' 4-3 loss at the Calgary Flames on Saturday was another high-level event, if you ask me, a sample of what Stanley Cup Playoff hockey's going to be. Given the competitiveness for spots in the postseason, teams might have to play that way in the majority of their games if they want to get in.

Where do these players find the energy for increasingly better performances in the middle of the long grind of a regular season?

There are a number of factors that need to be understood when you're having conversations about the rising level of games.

For starters, most teams have realized what kind of group they have and what their strengths really are by this point of the season. These realizations don't always come in October or November.

Case in point is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have finally gotten into gear. Another case would be the Oilers, who charged out of the gate but then had quite a flat period before Christmas and are now in the thick of the race in the Pacific Division.

Video: Lindholm scores twice, Flames edge Oilers

One of the things all teams struggle with in today's game is practice time, specifically that it becomes much reduced by this time of the season.

Every coach goes through this dilemma, trying to balance rest and recovery with the need to practice. When you're playing every second or third day for extended periods, you might go six or eight weeks before you'll have a three-day break between scheduled games, a window where you might be able to have a serious practice or two. And it's even more difficult when you have to factor in a mandated one day off per week or four per month for the players.

You can multiply the difficulty of the situation when it comes to teams in the Western Conference. The amount of travel can be onerous, certainly far more taxing than for teams in the Eastern time zone.

Teams in the West now have their travel extended even more. Many employ sleep doctors and/or rest experts who have studied these issues and a lot of teams, rather than end a road trip and arrive home at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., are choosing to fly home the next morning.

I can tell you from experience: I know of no player who wants to get on that plane in the morning, arrive home and then go to a 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. practice. It used to be a normal thing in the League, practicing when you got home, and many years ago, that was never questioned because practice was more important than anything.

Today, we realize such fatigue leads to an increase of injuries and a continuation of tired minds and bodies.

The Oilers are a good example of the benefit of rest and a reset.

Edmonton had a difficult December, going 4-7-1 in games before the Christmas break. Upon return, they were defeated 5-1 by the Flames, but then were able to have three days of practice to help get them refocused.

After that point, their play improved dramatically, and they went 5-1-1 in the next seven games. That tells me that you shouldn't always use the first game back to judge whether a break was beneficial for a player or a team. In reality, you should be looking at the next two or three weeks to make that determination.

If you're going to ask players to perform at 110 percent, they have to be 100 percent rested. If they're tired and worn down, how can they possibly give you that? It's then on coaches to find ways to be creative in their balance between rest/recovery and practice. 

Going on the ice every day isn't the most important thing anymore. A lot of times, it may be better to have an off-ice workout of some type, or some other team-oriented activity at the rink which can provide a mental break from the daily grind. It's just as important to do it in January, February and March as it is to do at the beginning of the season.

From here to the finish of the regular season, every team is looking to inject energy into its game and every coach is looking for the best way to do it. He's coaching to win every game, I can guarantee that.

Video: Penguins have found success without Crosby

The reality is you won't win 82 games and you won't have 100 percent fresh players every game, so you have to accept some things that are taking place.

Rest is always an option now, but when it's time to practice, it must always be useful. Practice is not punishment!

And when it's time to practice, the three things most important in my mind are special teams (power play and penalty killing) and defensive-zone coverage. Efficiency in those areas can get your team going in the right direction.

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