Commentary

Balancing ice time will be key

Updated: January 29, 2013, 2:52 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

One very important key to success in this compressed NHL season will be rolling four lines with confidence.

The best teams will spread out the minutes so their top players won't get drained during this crazy season.

When you're playing five games in eight nights, you can't have a top-heavy lineup minutes-wise, or else your team will run out of gas before late April.

Thing is, it's one thing to know this, and all teams are well aware of this reality, but it's another thing altogether to be able to pull it off with consistency and effectiveness.

"That's the distinction," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com Tuesday. "It's not an innovative thing. Even when you're in an 82-game schedule, you want to spread out the minutes. You want to be able to be as fresh as possible from night to night. This is more magnified this year because of the compressed schedule. Everyone knows to do it, but the thing is, can they do it?"

You need depth, quality depth, to be able to manage minutes.

This is the No. 1 reason teams such as St. Louis, San Jose, Chicago and Boston are off to such tremendous starts.

They are rolling four forward lines and three defense pairings with actual consistency, which to some degree is helping manage the energy levels for the top players.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock made that a priority before the puck dropped this season.

"We talked a lot about that as a team before we even got going," the Blues' Andy McDonald, who centers an exciting line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, told ESPN.com Tuesday. "It was initiated by Hitch. He realized that with the schedule this year and the type of team we are, we can't afford to play mostly six forwards, we needed to pay four lines. For the most part, we certainly have rolled four lines. Just in terms of keeping guys fresh and energized and sharp out there, it's really made a big difference."

All of St. Louis' forwards are averaging less than 20 minutes per game. All four lines are getting real minutes. The same holds true for the Bruins, Sharks and Blackhawks: All of their forwards are averaging less than 20 minutes, too. In fact, the Bruins and Sharks don't have a forward at 19 minutes; the Blues have only one such player (T.J. Oshie, 19:16) and the Blackhawks have two (Patrick Sharp, 19:09; Patrick Kane, 19:02).

As of Tuesday morning, 53 NHL forwards were playing more minutes per game than any player on the Blues, Bruins, Sharks or Hawks, the teams with the best records in the NHL (combined 20-1-1 entering Tuesday night).

"If you go back over our last 3-4 years, we've never had a forward over 20 minutes," said Chiarelli. "When we won [the Cup in 2011], the key to the success was the depth among our forward lines, among other things. And certainly, when you're playing every other night, it's important to spread out the minutes."

With this season's compressed schedule, the Bruins' GM is keeping a close eye on it.

"Usually, in a normal year at the end of a game, I'll look at the game sheet and I'll see the shots, hits and maybe ice time, too," said Chiarelli. "Now, I look at everybody's ice time right away to see that it's spread out. It's been a staple of ours for a while; we've had the luxury of a good fourth line."

First thing a rival Western Conference team executive said about the 5-0-0 Sharks when asked via text Monday? "They are deep, really deep," he said.

So, what's the result of being able to manage minutes with confidence?

Take Sunday night. The Blues, playing back-to-back games, were trailing after two periods to the Minnesota Wild, who had not played the day before and had been waiting in St. Louis for the Blues to arrive from Dallas.

Yet somehow the Blues outshot the Wild 18-4 in the third period and overtime to come back and win 5-4.

"Guys being somewhat energized and not being tired, we've been able to come back in the second and third periods in a lot of games," said McDonald. "We've been able to play on top of teams, and that's the style we play; we're an aggressive forechecking team, put a lot of pressure on the puck all over the ice. We can't do that when we're tired. We're really in good position having the depth we have and having the coach manage it that way."

The Wild, by the way, are a team I like to make the playoffs, but they are too top-heavy right now on the No. 1 line of Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley and Zach Parise. The three stars are doing most of the scoring while also playing north of 20 minutes a night, more than four minutes a night more than the next set of forwards. Those guys are going to run out of steam if that's how it's going to be all season long.

The approach of managing minutes, no doubt, will get tested as the season goes on. There will be injuries which will force top teams to rely more on top players. Wanting to snap a losing streak will also create desperation -- survival mode, as some coaches call it -- and the minutes will again go up for the top players.

For the Blues, though, the added benefit is that they don't really have a top line, per se.

"I say this as a good thing: We're a team with three second lines," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com Tuesday. "We just don't have a traditional top line. But that's OK. It works for us."

Especially in a season like this one, managing minutes and keeping fuel in the tank for their best players will be important factors for clubs to survive and succeed through the grind of the playoffs.