By Mike Tenay
When the NHL’s lockout-shortened 2013 season is analyzed by the experts after the playoffs conclude in June, they will have all the answers. Through the perfect vision of 20/20 hindsight, they will be able to tell us exactly why certain teams thrived while others barely survived and even others nose-dived. But why wait until the season is over? Let’s attempt to be ahead of the curve by trying to examine some important elements and hurdles that teams are facing under these very unique circumstances.
It would make perfect sense that teams that had players who competed overseas during the lockout should be at an advantage early in the season. Not only in terms of game shape and conditioning, but also in the intangibles like the routines of practice and meal times. Players are at their best when they are in familiar situations. The strange nature of this season requires major adjustments in terms of preparation.
The quick move out of the starting gate by teams like Boston, San Jose, St. Louis and Ottawa might just be attributed to the European numbers game. The same theory could be applied to surprising teams like the overachieving New York Islanders and Montreal. With about 140 NHL players competing internationally during the lockout, the average team had about four players in action. The aforementioned Bruins (9), Islanders (9), Sharks (8), Blues (7), Senators (6) and Canadiens (6) had above the average competing on European rinks.
Conversely the slow starts for the Kings, Colorado, Calgary and New York Rangers might be chalked up to lower numbers. The four teams all had four or less players per team in Europe.
If you delve even deeper and consider the teams that had several players on AHL ice, you could come up with explanations for the strong starts for teams like Chicago and New Jersey.
Not only teams, but individual leaders admit how important their time was spent during the lockout. Since the season started, Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek has been among the leagues top scorers. Vanek, who played in his homeland of Austria, told USA Today, “It's a different game over there. The NHL is the best league in the world, but it’s a grind. You sometimes forget, especially if you are losing, or missing the playoffs like we did last year, how fun this game can be.” Vanek’s General Manager Darcy Regier said, “I think rejuvenated is a pretty good word for Thomas.”
The big question that remains to be answered comes during the second half of the season is will those teams and players be able to maintain their advantage or will they hit the wall and run out of gas late in the season or in the playoffs?
It's already been established that with 48 games in a 99-day regular season that this year is a three month sprint to the playoffs. But let’s look deeper at the hands some teams are dealt in terms of the schedule. And let’s focus on schedule pattern rather than schedule strength since teams are concentrating solely on division and conference opponents.
Most fans would surmise that the NHL teams are all in the same boat as far as scheduling goes. But as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, ‘Not so fast my friend.’ This season teams are dealing with extreme patterns. Not only the dreaded back-to-back games, but also three games in four days, four in six and even five in seven.
Let’s compare second half schedules for the Kings and their Pacific Division rivals.
The Kings have a difficult March with 17 games. Fortunately they have two long home stands, but must deal with four back-to-backs and seven sets of three-games-in-four day stretches. April is game on, game off for the most part, but it's a strange pattern with a lot of home, home, road, and road.
Dallas has just 13 games in March and they are well-spaced. April is very busy for the Stars with one four-in-seven stretch.
San Jose has an easy March with 14 games, and with only two back-to-backs and one set of three games in four nights. The schedule looks very favorable for the Sharks.
Phoenix has a tough March with 15 games, eight on the road. But they are loaded with six three-in-fours and a number of four-in-sevens and five-in-eights. April looks much easier.
Anaheim has a brutal March with 17 games and eight on the road. April also looks busy with 13 games, seven home and six away.
Besides scheduling and Euro numbers, you must consider important factors like injuries, goaltenders and goaltending depth. It’s always been said that hot goalies are a primary reason teams catch fire in the playoffs. Some coaches like St. Louis’ Ken Hitchcock have already compared the entire regular season to an extended post-season schedule.
And, speaking of coaches, the Kings may have a strong edge dealing with the intangibles this year. Darryl Sutter is the only coach in the NHL who was also behind the bench after the 1994-95 lockout.