The NHL regular season is set to begin on Saturday with a condensed 48-game schedule. This is going to put a different spin on the regular season and possibly lead to a different type of team having success in 2013. Here are my five keys to success in a shortened season.
This year, more so than most, a veteran coach who is familiar with his team and staff is going to be vitally important. Being able to pick up where you left off last season, whether it’s in the playoffs or early in April, is going to be a huge benefit when facing teams that are learning from a new coach. Teams with new coaching staffs - such as the Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames - will face a difficult race against the training camp clock to install new systems, establish a new team identity, develop accountability and find chemistry within the lineup.
For these teams to succeed and excel without having the benefit of pre-season games, leadership within the dressing room is going to have to be far above NHL standards. The players are going to have to “buy into the system” rather than learning and accepting it over a three-week training camp. Teams such as the Detroit Red Wings, with Mike Babcock, are at an extreme advantage as their leadership group - minus Nicklas Lidstrom - and coaching staff is largely unchanged. In the last NHL lockout-shortened season who was the Stanley Cup winning coach? None other than Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire.
A Training Staff with the respect of the Coaching Staff
While I was with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tom Mulligan was our head athletic trainer. He had the unenviable job of informing head coach John Tortorella of the players’ injury statuses on a daily basis. Time and time again, I saw Tom go into Torts’ office and half expected him to come back with a back eye, or at a minimum with the bad news that a day off wasn’t an option, but he always returned with the answer he went in there to get.
Torts respected Tom’s opinion, but that didn’t mean Tom was going to get out of Torts’ office without getting the full Tortorella treatment that became famous in HBO’s 24/7 series. Over time, Torts grew to accept Tom’s decisions and recommendations and knew that if Tom said a player needed a day off to rest a groin strain and that the player would be fine to play in the next game that it was the right course of action. Players should get maintenance days off to rest the inevitable nagging groin, hip flexor and back pains to make sure these strains don’t turn into tears or get worse later on. It’s one thing to have to miss a practice or a single game, but when they turn into bigger injuries that require a week or more to heal, it will definitely hamper any team’s playoff hopes.
A Veteran Backup Goalie
While having a veteran backup is key any season, it will be even more crucial this year. First and foremost, you’re going to need a backup goalie who’s been around the league and is comfortable playing as a starter should your No. 1 netminder get injured. Secondly, with games and points being contended for in a condensed fashion, a veteran backup can allow you to give your starter a couple days to work the kinks out should he begin to struggle - as often happens throughout a season.
When I was in Tampa in 2003-04, Nikolai Khabibulin hit a rough stretch during the season and John Grahame came in and played rock solid for us while Nikolai was struggling. This gave Nikolai time to work with goaltending coach, Jeff Reese. Having this luxury will be especially important this season, as a bad couple weeks could be the difference between having a lottery pick and making a run in the playoffs.
The final and most important reason for teams to have a solid backup is to make sure your starter is fresh for when it matters most – the playoffs. While starting goaltenders generally play around 60-65 games per regular season, with the condensed fashion of the games this season it will be even more important to give your starting goaltender time to rest periodically and give his body some time to heal for the final push through the playoffs. During the last 48-game season, the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Detroit Red Wings had a duo of Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood. Both goaltenders were at an advantage as they went deeper into the playoffs. This is the reason why I think it would be a good idea for Vancouver GM Mike Gillis to hold on to Roberto Luongo this season and have two No. 1 goaltenders.
Having as many players as possible who have already played this season
Since there won’t be any pre-season games, teams with players who have participated in other leagues, whether in the American League or Europe, will be at a great advantage for a number of reasons. First, these players should be the closest to being in “game shape.” Second, they should have the touch-and-go feel that can take several weeks of play to truly feel comfortable with. Third, they should be able to avoid many of the nagging injuries that often aren’t reported on, but can play a large role in a player’s season.
The team with greatest number of players with live game experience this season are the Philadelphia Flyers with 17 players having laced them up in other leagues. The Edmonton Oilers, a team I see flying out of the gates his season, are second in this category. The Colorado Avalanche have the smallest number of players (four) with game action under their belts. With Joe Sacco already rumored to be on the hot seat this season and in dire need of a fast start, this may not bode well for the Avalanche.
A third line that can score
All teams that contend for a playoff position have top-six forwards who can score, but with the density of games this season, look for an even greater need for some third line scoring to drive a team’s success. Players of the past who would be worth their weight in Stanley Cup silver are John Madden and Jere Lehtinen. One player to look for this season to contribute more than normal in the playoffs is Detroit’s Darren Helm. He is capable of providing more scoring, but due to his team’s depth and the defensive role he’s been assigned he tends to get lost in the shuffle. Look for him to blossom this season and become even more valuable in the playoff push.
It’s rather interesting that the beginning of the famed “Grind Line” in Detroit was formed in 1994-95 with Kris Draper and Darren McCarty playing together and Kirk Maltby being added via trade with the Edmonton Oilers the following season. Detroit fans might never forget the impact Claude Lemieux had on the Stanley Cup final in 1995 en route to being named the Conn Smythe winner.
Follow Ben Clymer on Twitter at ben_clymer.
Clymer was originally drafted in the second round, 27th overall, by the Boston Bruins in 1997. He played 438 games in the NHL over seven seasons with Tampa Bay and Washington, scoring 52 goals and 129 points. After playing for the American League’s Hershey Bears in 2007-08, Clymer joined Dynamo Minsk of the KHL. Read his other THN.com Insider Blogs HERE.