Thursday, January 9, 2014
Life after Sochi could be struggle for stars
By Pierre LeBrun
There's certainly an amount of pride attached to the fact that you're an NHL team sending the most Olympians to Sochi.
That can only signal that you've got a lot of good players on your team.
But there's also the cold reality of what that entails: a large number of players traveling halfway across the world and coming back possibly fatigued after the Olympic break.
The Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues lead the NHL with 10 Sochi-bound players each. They're not ignoring the ramifications of that.
"It's a good question," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told ESPN.com Thursday. "People are asking us how we're going to deal with our team going into the Olympic break. I don't see that being a problem. What I say is, how are we going to be coming out of it? I think rest is going to be very important. Days off."
Time away from the rink will be Quenneville's best move to help ease the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith, especially -- workhorses on the team -- back into the swing of things after Sochi.
Sure, the Hawks coach says, limiting their minutes is also a possibility, but that's easier said than done.
"It's easy to say you'd like to share the ice time a little bit more, cut their ice time, but once you get into a game, you play to win," said Quenneville. "So, I just think that keeping guys away from the rink as much as you can so they can get the added rest. That's probably the most planning you can do. Other than if you can do it in-game, you'll cut back, as well."
The Blues might push it even further than days off between games. There might even be a game off or two for their top Olympians right after the break.
"We have a plan we're working on," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com Thursday. "We're going to give guys extra days off, and possibly certain players will get a game off or two. We don't want short-term goals to override long-term goals. We want to make sure we're as well-prepared energywise for the playoffs."
Really, the Blues might not have a choice to go that route. They open the post-Olympic break with a road trip to Vancouver, Anaheim and Phoenix. Thank you, NHL schedule maker.
If any of the Blues stars -- such as David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo or Jay Bouwmeester -- are playing right up through the final weekend in Sochi, you can't imagine what kind of shape they'd be in traveling from Russia to St. Louis to Vancouver post-break.
So to that end, depending again on which of Armstrong's Olympians play to the final weekend, he says he's pondering different options, such as perhaps one or two players missing the opening game in Vancouver and then joining the team for the rest of the trip, or a player or two playing the first two games back and not playing the last one on the trip. The plan is still in flux, but the Blues aren't going to lose sight of what matters most: being at full energy levels come playoff time.
Of course, what makes the situation with the Blackhawks and Blues so intriguing is that both clubs are rivals competing for the Central Division title. And you know home ice might come in handy if both teams reach the second round, where they'd face each other.
Hence, the chicken and the egg: Do you max out right after the break with your Olympians to make sure you win the division, or do you make the tough call to rest top players after the break in order to be in better shape come springtime? Tough call, but it appears neither organization will ignore the fatigue that top players will be battling after Sochi.
The Blackhawks, many of you might have already noted, had Toews, Keith, Kane and Brent Seabrook all play right to the end of the 2010 Olympic tournament, yet they still won a Stanley Cup that year.
Ah, but that was an Olympics held in Vancouver. Very little travel.
What concerns NHL teams the most is not the actual playing of the games at the Olympics, but rather the long travel there and back, and how that jetlag affects their players.
"To me, the biggest part is the travel, more than anything," said Quenneville. "I would say there will be an adjustment period when they get back. I'm not worried about it, but I expect it."
Therefore, the better comparison for Sochi is Torino in 2006.
Were the 2006 Red Wings, top seeds in the West that season, affected by having a bevy of Olympians in Torino that year? Key Swedish gold medalists Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall played big roles in Torino. Could that explain in part the Red Wings' stunning first-round exit to eight-seeded Edmonton in the playoffs that year?
Wings GM Ken Holland isn't buying it.
"At the end of the day, we met an Edmonton team and their goalie [Dwayne Roloson] got on an incredible run. Their goalie put up a wall," Holland told ESPN.com Wednesday night.
OK, so maybe the Olympics that year didn't affect the Red Wings; hard to tell, in the end.
But Holland isn't pretending you can ignore the possible toll it can take on your team, especially with his club sending 10 players to Sochi.
"Those four teams that play to the final weekend in Sochi, if you're able to manage the minutes of those players for the first couple of weeks after the Olympics, I don't think it's going to be that much of a factor," said Holland. "But if you're having to make them push out 20 minutes a game night after night after night, after they get back, then maybe, yes, at some point in time they may wear out.
"I don't think the Red Wings of 2006 pushed anybody that way. We were able to roll four lines."
And that's going to be the biggest key of all for the clubs that have several Olympians: having enough depth on your roster to spread out minutes in the second half and not overburden your stars returning from Sochi.
"Part of the puzzle is to have good depth, the ability to roll four lines, the ability to get contributions up and down your lineup," said Holland, whose team does have depth when healthy, though the Wings have been ravaged by injuries this season.
Rolling four forward lines and distributing minutes is how the Blackhawks approached the lockout season last year, given that teams were playing 48 games in 99 days.
"Yeah, we wanted to cut back top guys," said Quenneville. "Jonny [Toews] didn't kill [penalties] as much. We tried to get the four lines going. We're not quite as consistent this year as last year's four-line rotation, but definitely would love to make it more balanced where you look at your sheet at the end of the night and everybody is in double-digit [minutes]."
Ah, but there are nights where you fall behind and suddenly that plan goes out the window.
"It's hard to manage minutes once the competition starts," said the Blues’ Armstrong.
"You get behind like [Wednesday] night, I played Jonny 21 minutes; I like him to be around 18," added Quenneville as a case in point. His team lost to the Rangers in overtime Wednesday.
A lot of it will all depend on which countries go the furthest in the Olympic tournament, and which players end up playing prominent roles, in terms of how NHL teams will react post-break to handling those players.
The flip side to all this is that contending teams that had some of their stars snubbed for Olympic duty could potentially gain from it. Case in point: the San Jose Sharks (four Olympians) and Boston Bruins (five Olympians).
They certainly could have been sending more to Sochi than that.
With the likes of San Jose's Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture overlooked for Olympic duty, as well as Boston's Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Torey Krug, those players will enjoy a two-week rest period that could benefit them. Particularly, I'd say, for veterans Boyle and Thornton, but in Couture's case it allows him to take all the time he needs to recover from hand surgery.
Whether of any this affects the playoff run for any of the contenders, we'll be able to answer that question come June. But I will tell you that Carolina and Edmonton played for the Stanley Cup in 2006, and neither club was terribly overtaxed playerwise by the Torino Olympics.
Just saying ...