After spending most of the winter wondering if Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr would come to their senses, NHL hockey is nine days away from returning. Nine. Training camps have yet to commence and general managers have yet to make moves to round out their respective rosters.
The game will be the same but the season will feel a bit different. Forty-eight games is a lot to play between now and the end of April. As Predators head coach Barry Trotz said recently, it will be a “wild ride.” Here are reasons why it will be a frenetic 2012-13 season…
One-week training camp, no preseason
Teams normally have three weeks and a handful of preseason games to prepare for a season. This season they’ll be jumping feet-first into a 48-game season in a compact schedule. Even though some players have been playing in Europe, others have been practicing at home, being in game shape for the first 5-10 games will be tough.
“For me personally, I’ve used those preseason games in the past as a tool to get adjusted to the speed and the traffic to be ready for an actual game,” said Predators goaltender Chris Mason. “In exhibition games you only dress half the lineup to ease into it, so it’ll definitely be interesting this season at the start.”
Former Nashville Predator Stu Grimson, who is now the team’s color analyst in the radio booth, played in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season with the Detroit Red Wings.
“Training camp is radically different,” he said. “From 16, 17 years of age and on up, you’re used to this protracted two-to-four week experience during training camp where you gradually ramp up to game shape. I think most everyone did a good job of staying in relatively good physical shape [during the lockout], but there’s nothing like game or training camp conditions to get you to that form.
“I found the first 10 games or so things were different – a different pace, a little scrambly, not as positionally sound. But around the 10-game mark things settled down and it looked like mid-season NHL hockey.”
Grimson reaffirms the popular belief that the players who spent time in Europe will have a leg up on everyone else in the early stages of the season.
“It does make this particular shortened season different from 1994-95 in that there is a pretty solid block of guys who have been playing – I wouldn’t say it’s NHL conditions, but the KHL and AHL have had guys playing at a high competitive level of hockey. It should benefit those players,” Grimson said.
Only having five days of on-ice time adds a layer of difficulty for coaches around the league, especially for new staffs. Predators head coach Barry Trotz pointed out that he can’t push his team too much physically between now and the season since regular season games begin right away.
“You can bury your team for five or six days [with conditioning], then you’re starting with three games in four nights and you might be counterproductive. You’re going to have to have a balance,” Trotz said when asked how he’ll treat training camp between systems and conditioning.
He continued, “Coaches are like players. We’re a little rusty. … I guarantee after the first practice I probably won’t be able to talk to you. My voice will be gone. I haven’t yelled or screamed. You go on the ice and you have to talk at a lot higher tone and your voice isn’t prepared for that.
“We’re going from zero to 60 in a very short time.”
No room for error, key injury
Last season the Chicago Blackhawks went through a nine-game winless streak in February. Any team that experiences that kind of skid in a 48-game schedule can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. A nine-game skid would account for almost 19% of a 48-game season. In an 82-game season they were able to recover from it because it was only 11% of the season.
“You can’t get in a lull,” Predators captain Shea Weber said this week. “You can’t get too high for too low because if you’re in a five- or six-game skid it’s going to be tough to battle back.”
“Everyone’s going to play 48 games and the reality is everyone’s not going to play a great 48 games,” Mason added. “Mentally it’s going to be hard.”
A key injury could have similar consequences as a losing streak. If a player misses three weeks due to injury this season, he could be out for 10-12 games – a fourth of the season. If a team loses an important player for that long, it’d be more costly towards a playoff spot than in a regular 82-game season.
This is where continuity, chemistry and depth will give teams an advantage. A team like the Predators may not be as prone to a losing streak because a large portion of the roster (as many as 20 players including Milwaukee call-ups) was with the team a year ago. Any team that has quality depth can probably get by for three weeks without a key player compared to a team that is thin in those areas.
“Our team is in a good shape because we’re pretty much the same,” said Mike Fisher. “We played together last year and lost a few guys, but we pretty much know our team. It’s not like we’re trying out a lot of young guys that would have to fit in and learn a role. We feel we’re pretty much the same, so we should be in good shape.”
Grimson added, “The Predators’ brand of hockey will bode pretty well for how things will go in the early going. If you play a simple, puck pressure game like the Predators do that’s an easy game to play if you play it effectively, as opposed to more dynamic offensive teams where it takes a little time for that touch and feel to come back.”
Travel, particularly for Nashville
On Tuesday TSN’s Bob McKenzie tweeted the details of what the 48-game schedule will look like:
Each team plays: 4 games vs. two Divisional opponents (8); 5 games vs. two divisional opponents (10); 3 games vs 10 Conference rivals (30).
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 8, 2013
Since there are no games against the Eastern Conference, travel may be a little bit of a concern for the Predators. Though their Central Division foes are close by, multiple trips out west in this compact schedule could take a toll on their bodies.
“I worry about it a lot,” GM David Poile said Monday when asked if he’s worried about the travel schedule. “I don’t know if we’re playing six divisional games or five divisional games or if we’re making two trips to the west coast or northwest or just one trip. Obviously in a shortened season, one trip to the northwest and one trip to the west coast would be big savings for us in terms of wear and tear.”
Last week it was thought that a 48-game season would feature seven games against divisional opponents, meaning only one or two trips out west. Under the format McKenzie reported, there could be three or four trips out there depending on how the schedule falls into place.
Travel will be a piece of cake for Eastern Conference teams, as they will all stay in the same time zone. The treacherous Western Conference features teams in all four time zones.
Importance of goaltending
Trotz stressed Tuesday that having good goaltending will be of extra importance this season. He likes the fact Pekka Rinne got 22 games under his belt in the KHL before coming back to Nashville, and thinks it will be advantageous once the NHL season gets under way. Not only will the Predators need Rinne to be at the top of his game, but backup Chris Mason as well.
“You have to get wins out of your backup goaltender. There’s no question about it,” Trotz said. “The last time there was a 48-game season, a guy like Martin Brodeur played 40 games. There are a number of goalies that played in that 40-game range; a number of teams had goalies in that 30-game range.”
Brodeur went 19-11-6 with a 2.44 goals-against average in 1994-95 and carried the Devils to a Stanley Cup that spring. Patrick Roy and Trevor Kidd led all goaltenders that season with 43 games played, as eight goalies played 40-plus games.
However, Trotz wouldn’t expect Rinne to play that many games because of travel.
“We’re in the Western Conference, so there’s a lot more travel than when you’re in New Jersey. Brodeur, back then being a lot of younger than he is now, probably could handle 40 games because of the fact their travel was across the river,” said Trotz. “In the Western Conference you’re going to have to get wins out of your backup goaltender. Mason has had some key victories over the years and he’s a great veteran to have.”
Mason didn’t play games during the lockout but believes he’ll be in game shape by the start of the season. Why? “I’m going to have to be,” he said.
“I don’t have any goal as far as number of games played. My contention is I play when Trotz tells me to, and I’ll be ready for when that is. If Peks needs a break, he needs a break; if he keeps going, he keeps going. But I’ll be ready when Trotzy gives me the word.”
In a normal 82-game schedule, mid-January and February is around the time NHL games pick up in pace and it feels like a playoff race. It won’t take long for it to feel that way this season. Players have so much built-up energy that games will be intense right off the bat. Even if that adrenaline wears down a bit, the intensity will likely stay high because of the importance of every game.
“It’s almost like the equivalent of playing for four points every time you’re out there,” said Grimson, “Right out of the gates [in 1994-95] you felt a different intensity [compared to an 82-game season].”
Weber said of his expectations: “The games are going to be intense. They will probably be a little sloppy early on but I think it’s going to get ramped up right away and each game is going to mean so much it’s going to be a high-intensity season.”
Even though the intensity is going to be there throughout the season, it’s going to be tough mentally and physically on the players and coaches.
“You’re going to have some things hit you right between the eyes and you’re going to have to react the next day and it can’t faze you,” said Trotz. “It’s going to be a grind. It’s going to be groundhog day.”