When it comes to NHL teams that are in position to make a deep playoff run, a common challenge is exclusive among them. The challenge to keep players fresh and with enough left in the tank to hoist the Stanley Cup in June. An 82-game season is incredibly taxing on even the most physically fit athletes in the world. Now, with a a 48-game schedule that includes several 3 games in 4 nights stretches and overall very little breathing room between games, every team is in uncharted waters this season. The most physically tested athletes on the ice, are a teams top defenseman. How exactly will these elite players of unquantifiable value to their respective teams handle the condensed schedule?
Most of the talk about “Who is most affected by the condensed schedule?” has been centered around goaltenders. Even I tackled this query in my Over/Under piece on Ray Emery. However, I believe that the top d-men, who eat up ice-time like it’s served at a buffet, will be the players feeling the effects of the quirky shortened schedule.
Here’s a look at the leaders in time-on-ice per game, during the 2011-2012 season. 29 of the top 30 are d-men.
These players, often see their time on ice reach the 30-minute mark, which is half of the entire game! Players like Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, and Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, are leaned on like crutches by their respective teams to be on the ice more often than not. These players are night in and night on engaging in “track meets on-ice” night in and night out, and even with the comfy 82-game schedule, exhaustion and fatigue set in by seasons end.
Blackhawks fans are very familiar with these, due to the trials and tribulations of one I mentioned earlier, top d-man and assistant captain, Duncan Keith. Duncan Keith is extremely gifted athlete and one of the most physically fit athletes in the NHL. Some even consider him to be “superhuman.” However even super-beings like Duncan Keith will tire out and end up looking very human, and at times even looking quite pedestrian. Hawks fans are familiar with Keith’s typically excellent play. They are also familiar with his special teams miscues in his two post-Norris Trophy winning seasons. These mental lapses became more common in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons. The year after Dunc’ won the Norris, the season after the Hawks won the cup, and the season following the great salary cap purge which forced the Hawks to rely more heavily on Keith and his unique talents and abilities.
Now, all of those overuses of a superhuman blueliner were within the cozy confines of an 82-game schedule. With the rapid 48-game schedule, these problems will only multiply. The 82-game schedule gave guys like Duncan Keith more days in between games to catch their breath before their next fast-paced marathon on-ice. Just imagine these guys playing 25-30 minutes a night, 3 times in 4 nights!
Something has to give. Perhaps much like the increased reliance on backup goaltenders that we will see around the NHL season, will also happen on the blueline. Much like in baseball, 7th and 8th defenseman will be used as utility players, to give everyday starters a day-off for a breather every now and then. Days off for guys like Duncan Keith would be an absurd idea in an 82-game season, but in this new frontier of the wacky 48-game schedule, it’s definitely not out of the question. Perhaps coaches will ease up on their in-game reliance on these top d-men, to where an entire game off wouldn’t be necessary.
We will see, but it is definitely something to keep an eye on this season.
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