Beyond Headlines: Is ‘load management’ feasible in NHL?

During Saturday Headlines the panel discussed the Senators looking for a hockey operations president, the return of both Quinn Hughes and Austin Watson as well as if there will be any changes to the current NHL playoff format.

Ron Hainsey celebrates his 38th birthday today, which is notable if you’re a family member or friend who needs to pass along well-wishes, or the Toronto Maple Leafs monitoring his workload.

Hainsey’s shown himself to be incredibly durable throughout his career and is the 10th-oldest player in the league this season. He’s also seen a recent spike in playing time, surpassing 22 minutes in eight of 14 games dating back to the end of February, when Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner both went down to injury.

Physically, he says he’s feeling great despite playing in all 75 Leafs games so far and weathering the grind of another season. The playoffs are coming soon, but the last thing he’s looking for is extra time off to rest — in part, because he thinks the discussion about implementing NBA-style “load management” isn’t feasible for NHL players and teams.

“It’s easy to say ‘Oh yeah, we’ll rest this guy, this guy, this guy,”’ Hainsey said this week. “Well if you rest a guy and you lose and then all of a sudden — I’m just making up the scenario — now Montreal’s five points behind you. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Leafs are currently sitting seven points up on Montreal and seven points behind Boston with seven games remaining. When I pointed out that third place in the Atlantic Division was basically secured, Hainsey wasn’t buying it.

“Basically locked into third is not locked into third,” he said. “If someone sits a bunch of guys and loses eight in a row, you’re going to go ‘Well they were basically locked into third’ on TV? That’s not going to be an excuse. That might be your excuse right now, but if something happens — if somebody wins eight in a row or you lose … — it’s happened before.

“No one’s going to be ‘Well they were basically locked into a spot so what the f—?’ It doesn’t work like that, you know that.”

Fair enough. There’s risk in taking anything for granted, in both sports and life.

Hainsey is an avid sports observer and has worked extensively with the NHL Players’ Association over the years, so he’s spent a lot of time examining these kinds of issues and ideas.

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It’s not so much that he’s against the idea of building in extra rest for players, he just believes the tightly packed nature of the NHL standings makes it unattainable. He noted that having the Tampa Bay Lightning already clinch the Presidents’ Trophy at this stage of the season is the exception, rather than the rule.

“It depends on the scenario,” said Hainsey. “If it’s a scenario where it means nothing, or you’re the [San Antonio] Spurs who f—ing won four times in 10 years and they don’t care if they’re first or second in the conference, or Cleveland, where LeBron’s going to take his chances no matter what. It’s not the same as what we’re all doing.

“Tampa is the first [NHL] team I can remember that has that kind of luxury. It’s the first time it’s happened. It’s not the same scenario, it’s not comparable. It’s just not. The team in eighth isn’t resting guys in the NBA or seventh or sixth, not that I can remember. It’s been a few teams with star players who decided they’re going to do one thing.”

With NHL teams now making a bigger investment in sports science, we’ve seen a noticeable shift in approach over the last few years — sprinkling in more days off during the season, reducing the length of practices, switching to optional morning skates before games and almost never playing the same goalie on back-to-back nights.

But Hainsey thinks a specific set of circumstances need to be in place before a team is able to do something similar with its forwards and defencemen on a regular basis, even if the science already shows additional rest can maximize performance.

“The human body would benefit from a million things, but again … to compare anyone to the Spurs or LeBron, it’s not a comparable scenario — at least not right now,” said Hainsey. “If this team goes on a five-year run of finals appearances and they finally say ‘We don’t give a s— if we’re second or third, then it’s a different story.’ But that’s not the case, that’s not the case for anyone. Tampa this one time, but they’ve got guys who want to score 150 points. Good luck with that.

“Sure, of course, pencil me in for f—ing 10 games off [per year], but we don’t know: How’s that going to affect everything? I have no idea. Who is going to start taking that risk right now?

“Well no one. The answer is no one. Of 31 teams, so far no one.”

NEW SENS BOSS

The fact the Ottawa Senators are now in the market for a senior figure to oversee the hockey operation should be considered a welcome development for fans with concerns about the direction of the franchise.

It’s merely a coincidence that my friend and colleague Elliotte Friedman unearthed that nugget immediately after owner Eugene Melnyk went on a mini radio tour this week, saying, among other things: “These next six months are going to be critical for [GM] Pierre [Dorion] and his team and the whole hockey operations to get their act together in a big way…”

The timing isn’t linear here.

The search for a president who will effectively replace the late Bryan Murray has already been going on for a little while in Ottawa, according to sources. The Senators have also made it abundantly clear that Dorion’s job should not be considered in jeopardy because of it.

No, still in the early stages of a rebuild and with a boatload of picks the next three drafts, they are looking to add another experienced voice to what is arguably the smallest front office in the league.

While there are nuances within every individual organization, most teams have four key pieces at the top of their hockey operation pyramid — a president, a GM and two assistant GMs. In Ottawa, Dorion and new assistant Peter MacTavish have been shouldering the load.

Adding another key figure to the mix should improve the overall operation while giving the Sens someone else who can speak for the organization.

OIL SPILL

It was also a tough PR week in Edmonton after president Bob Nicholson had to apologize to zero-goal, third-line winger Toby Rieder for speaking too freely about his struggles at a season ticket-holder event.

The news won’t stop there.

With the regular season winding down, there is a sense the Oilers search for a new general manager will start to ramp up in the next week or two. And, as Nick Kypreos reported on “Headlines,” it could also see the team bring in a president above that GM.

While there is no shortage of qualified candidates — Kelly McCrimmon, Mark Hunter, potentially Ken Holland, depending on how things play out in Detroit this off-season — Edmonton could find itself with competition for the most desirable names.

That’s because the Seattle group hasn’t ruled out bringing in a general manager this spring even though it is still two years away from the June 2021 expansion draft. They aren’t operating on any specific timeline, but want to consider all options in order to best position themselves for Year 1.

PLAYOFF REFORMATTING

As the NHL and NHLPA continue to discuss extending the current divisional playoff format beyond this season — which is almost certain to happen, on a one-year basis — there seems to be some growing unrest among players about how well it’s working overall.

There is concern about the Boston/Toronto scenario in the Atlantic, where the matchup has basically been set for weeks and diminished the importance of games down the stretch. There is also a broader concern that the format doesn’t properly reward a good regular season with the most equitable first- and second-round matchups.

Now in its sixth season of existence, the NHLPA is wondering if the shift away from the 1-8 conference playoffs has had its intended impact economically, and for broadcasters and fans.

While the divisional format is likely to remain for 2019-20, the players don’t seem overly eager to commit to it beyond next season.

Talks are expected to continue this week.

DANTE’S DECISION

Dante Fabbro was never likely to follow Jimmy Vesey’s path from the NCAA to early free agency, but until the Nashville Predators officially got his signature on a contract it always hung out there as a far-off possibility.

No wonder the Predators wasted so little time in agreeing to an entry-level contract with their top defensive prospect after his junior season ended with Boston University.

Fabbro played his last NCAA game on Friday, when BU was beaten 2-1 in overtime by Northeastern, and by late Saturday night his agents at CAA Sports were hammering out the details of his first NHL deal with Nashville.

It’s a big development that could have an immediate impact on the team’s roster.

Fabbro represented Canada at two world junior tournaments, winning silver in 2017 and gold in 2018, and was the 17th overall pick in 2016.

Had he returned to college for his senior season, he could have become an unrestricted free agent in August 2020. That’s what Vesey, a former third-round pick by Nashville, did in 2016 after engaging in a long dance with the Predators. His rights were eventually traded to Buffalo and he signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent.

Fabbro is instead choosing to lay down roots in Music City, starting his pro career right here and now.

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