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Time Management

Star NHL players get the most ice time per game, earning trust from coaches and providing a new way for fans to enjoy the sport

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Maybe some diehard hockey fans don't know Oscar Klefbom-or even which team he plays for-but Edmonton coach Dave Tippett is keenly aware.

Going into the weekend's slate of game, Klefbom leads the league in time on ice (TOI) per game with average of 25 minutes and 48 seconds. That statistic is important to coaches, including the man called "Tip" around the NHL Seattle offices where he worked last season as a senior hockey operations adviser. 

"Ultimately, you look at your bench and you look at players you can put into a situation where they can help you win the most," said Tippett to EdmontonOilers.com's Tony Brar last week. "When [Klefbom} is on the ice that much, he must be doing some good things. That's what we think of him."

Klefbom, a seven-season NHL player from Sweden, embraces his coach's trust that the TOI that comes with it. He has rewarded his coach's belief in him with one goal and 17 assists plus stellar play on the defensive end of the ice, especially during m and man-down situations.

 

"I'm really happy about the responsibility I'm getting from being out there on the penalty kill and the power play, playing a lot of heavy minutes," says Klefbom. "If I'm out there for that many minutes, I've got to manage my minutes and obviously, do something good with it."

TOI is a stat worth following for fans. You can see which players are winning a coach's trust at even strength or during power plays and penalty kills. In Klefbom's case, you will see Tippett uses him an average of three-plus minutes each on power plays and penalty kills per game. 

You can compare players on your favorite teams to see how many shots they took compared to time on ice; maybe one veteran forward took five shots while playing 19 minutes and a young, promising player took five shots in just 11 minutes. 

You can figure out your favorite team's coaching staff might be tempted to overwork the best players, revealing a lack of confidence in some players during a certain game or stretch of the seasons. Or maybe you are Dave Tippett and you realize Connor McDavid and Leon Drasiaitl can skate 22-plus minutes a night with no dip in energy from puck drop to the last-minute-of-play announcement in the third period. Both Oilers stars are used extensively on power plays and Tippett is on record as saying he has never seen power play units with the stamina to play practically the entire two minutes of the penalty-until this season ("we're in the [offensive] zone a lot [controlling the puck]," he explains.  

When the playoffs start in April, fans will definitely be able to see patterns during a series, as one player or line gets a hot hand or a defenseman is struggling. Fun stuff.

The top NHL leaders for time on ice per game will always be defensemen. It starts as strictly a numbers proposition. Most NHL coaches roll out four lines of three offensive players (a center and two wings) during a game but only three pairs of defensemen. Strictly math: The centers and wings divvy up 60 minutes four ways or a 15 minutes-per-game average, while the defenseman divide out to 20 minutes.

Along Klefbom, veteran defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup winner Drew Doughty logs 25 minutes-plus and going into weekend stood just four seconds per game less than Klefbom. New coach Todd McLellan clearly likes what he sees in the 29-year-old during what is Doughty's 12th NHL season. 

In training camp, McLellan foreshadowed his confidence in Doughty during a conversation with LAInsider.com's Jon Rosen: "I believe some of these special players - and I would put Drew in that category - are unique individuals. They speak from the heart, they're not afraid to put themselves out there, and when it's all said and done, when you do that, you have to walk the walk, and I believe that Drew can do that on the ice and he can do that off the ice." 

The top 10 of the TOI leader board reads like an All-Star Game roster of defensemen: Doughty, Klefbom, Thomas Chabot (Ottawa), John Carlson (Washington), Kris Letang (Pittsburgh), Brent Burns (San Jose), Roman Josi (Nashville), Seth Jones (Columbus), Miro Heiskanen (Dallas) and Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia). Notice that all play for different teams; there tends to be an alpha-defenseman on every NHL team that plays the most minutes during power plays, penalty kills, even-strength and final shifts of close games.  

Crunching ice time numbers for defensemen, the top TOI leaders play about 28 shifts per game with an average of roughly 50 minutes per shift. Star forwards play 20 to 22-plus minutes per game, notching about 25 shifts on average. Doing the math, that means some of the 18 skaters dressed for game will play significantly less during a game, all available to see on NHL.com boxscores. 

There have been heated debates among media members, fans and hockey insiders about whether, say, shorter shifts of 40 seconds would improve a team. All sports coaches and front office personnel are considering "load management" to make sure a team's best players are available and primed for playoffs and title runs. Keeping track of TOI is a way for hockey fans to get a deeper look into the sport. 

TOI is similar important tool for hockey analytics experts to standardize a player's most relevant contribution on a 60-minute length-of-game basis. Check back for a future article on how hockey analytics has lifted the potential of TOI telling a deeper story about player performance. For now, we can all check out hockey boxscores on NHL.com to gauge a player's value to his team.

Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon's scoring sheet clearly shows high value for an Avalanche team that is comfortably in contention for at least a home-ice series during the first round of next spring's Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has 16 goals and 23 assists in his first 25 games for a 1.5 points per game average. But even he is surprised at one number-TOI--many nights when viewing boxscores. Once a month or so, he might even break the 25-minute mark typically exclusive to star defensemen.

 "After the game, you're kind of in shock," says MacKinnon. "That's a lot of minutes. But you get the adrenaline going, especially late when you're down. You're pushing. It's mostly the next day I feel it. Definitely a little sluggish, tough sleeps… But I love it. It's a lot of fun. We can't complain about playing a lot."

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