TORONTO — Mike Babcock is no fan of the NHL’s newly created bye week.
Speaking a day before his Maple Leafs get their first taste of the mandated five-day break, Toronto’s head coach said the concept worked counter to what it was supposed to accomplish — namely offering players a break from the grind of an 82-game season.
"I think it’s 100 per cent wrong for player safety," Babcock said ahead of a Saturday tilt with the Montreal Canadiens. "You’ve got so many games in such a short period of time and you’re jamming in more. To me, the more days rest you can have by not playing back-to-backs and jamming it in the healthier you have a chance to be I believe."
The Leafs have a league-leading 18 back-to-backs games this year, including the weekend set with the Canadiens and Devils. Toronto played Friday night in New Jersey, winning 4-2.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week that he was hearing similar grumbles about the bye week from players and clubs who argued that the compressed schedule was hurting rather helping with the rigours of a long season.
This year’s schedule was further condensed as a result of the World Cup of Hockey, staged just before the start of the regular season in September. The schedule next season, too, could also be tightened if NHL players ultimately attend the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, a reality that’s uncertain at this point.
Bettman has voiced numerous concerns about participation in a sixth consecutive Games, including wariness among owners with the season shutdown and resulting compression of schedule.
The bye week was added this season after the NHL Players’ Association agreed to a new three-on-three format for the all-star game.
"I like the bye week," Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said. "I think everyone likes whenever they get a little bit of rest. With the World Cup and everything the schedule is a lot tighter this year with it so it won’t be as compressed in years to come. But yeah, whenever you can get a break and rejuvenate and get ready for the second half it’s nice to have."
Bozak said he was looking forward to a little bit of time in the sun during the break with his family.
No practice is permitted during the break, though an on-ice session is allowed after 4 p.m. on the fifth day if the team plays on the sixth day — which the Maple Leafs do, a Friday night affair on Jan. 13 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
The elimination of practice time, which comes on top of CBA-mandated days off for players, is also what likely tweaks coaches like Babcock in addition to the potential effects on player safety.
Whether the concept becomes a staple of the schedule for years to come is uncertain and will ultimately be discussed by the NHL and NHLPA. The break will be included next season if NHLers don’t attend the Olympics with nothing confirmed beyond that.
"Obviously if there is any tangible evidence of a deleterious effect on Player Safety, that will play heavily into the equation," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to The Canadian Press. "But, at this point, we have raised the potential concern with the Players’ Association and they have told us they do not share the concern."
Players clearly value an extensive break they wouldn’t otherwise get from a season that runs from October to April and sometimes longer.