Why sky-high ice time for Oilers stars is cause for concern

Watch as Connor McDavid scores the equalizer to help the Edmonton Oilers force overtime against the Florida Panthers with only 8 seconds left.

EDMONTON — There is one National Hockey League forward, Florida’s Aleksander Barkov, who averages more than 23 minutes of ice time per night. But Connor McDavid, who ranks second among NHL forwards at 22:50, has exceeded 24 minutes of ice time nine times this season.

In Thursday’s 4-3 win versus Florida, as he carried the Oilers with two goals, an assist and a shootout goal, he played 27:34.

So we went in search of an answer to the question: Are the Edmonton Oilers playing McDavid — and for that matter, seventh-ranked NHL forward Leon Draisiatl (21:52) — too much?

We found one of the world’s most experienced track and field coaches in Les Gramantik, who in 45 years as an international coach has made a living maximizing athletic performance.

He thinks the Oilers are squeezing McDavid and Draisaitl too hard.

“I think you’re mortgaging your future on the current results,” said Gramantik. “The results, in my opinion, would be the same if McDavid played four or five minutes less, because of the (benefits of) recovery.

“If they continue to push this, (in their later 20s) neither McDavid nor Draisaitl will be as effective as they are now. Just my opinion.”

Sportsnet NOW gives you access to over 500 NHL games this season, blackout-free, including Hockey Night in Canada, Rogers Hometown Hockey, Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey, the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and more.

We should clarify: Like all NHL clubs, the Oilers’ medical and strength teams meticulously monitor their players. They have Heart Rate Variability programs that can spot when fatigue is setting in, questionnaires meant to diagnose issues with sleep, stress, and weight loss, Force Plate technology that tells staff if a player’s legs are weakening as the season progresses.

Like all NHL training and strength staffs, they may not have as much control over player usage during the three-hour window of a hockey game when the coach is in charge. But for every other minute of the season, they are cognizant of maximizing a player’s ability to perform, and get good buy-in from coaches and the front office.

Still, the combination of a wicked NHL travel schedule, a thin talent pool in Edmonton that exacerbates McDavid and Draisaitl’s responsibility to carry the team nightly, and the basic bottom line of what playoff dates are worth financially to all owners, all create an environment where a team can go to the whip too often.

Draisaitl is 23, while McDavid turns 22 on Sunday. “Will their roles in Edmonton be detrimental to long-term NHL production?” we asked Gramantik.

“Physiologically they expend too much too soon,” Gramantik said. “They can get by right now, and if (the Oilers) were Stanley Cup contenders you could say, ‘Let’s push these guys as much as we can.’ But they are probably not (Cup contenders). So right now, it would be better physiologically to have more rest and recovery within the game situation.

“Because it will catch up,” Gramantik warns. “Father Time, as they say, is undefeated.”

Gramantik has coached in eight Olympic Games and 11 World Championships. He was Canada’s head coach at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and the Edmonton Worlds in 2001, where we first met. Although he understands why hockey is how it is, he also knows that it is impossible for McDavid or any NHL athlete to maintain peak performance throughout a season.

“It doesn’t matter how comfortable the charter planes are, the travel is killer,” he said. “Up in the air 30,000 feet, the compression. It sucks the energy out of you. The recovery is being negatively impacted.

“There is no Olympic athlete who would ever hop on a plane after a decathlon, fly across the country and go in another one the next day.”

The average hockey shift lasts about 45 seconds, about the same time it takes to complete a 400-metre race. It provides a viable comparison between the two sports, bodychecks and blocked shots notwithstanding.

“We know that the 400-metre runner can recover within a day, to perform as good a day later, and another day later. Thus the heats, the semifinal, and the final,” he said.

McDavid averages 25 shifts per night. “That’s like 25 400s,” Gramantik said. “It’s not a perfect comparison, but there are similarities.”

Hockey players pride themselves on not taking a night off. Last season McDavid played an extended period while sick with the flu. A track athlete would never do that, simply because they would lose in the heats. So they withdraw, and they rest.

“Last game, my legs didn’t feel 100 per cent,” said Oiler Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, “but you can work through it. Eventually they start to feel better, you get into the game, and you forget about it. As much as you can.”

A weekly deep dive into the biggest hockey news in the world with hosts Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek. New episodes every Thursday.

We love our athletes for exactly the quality that Nugent-Hopkins alludes to there. Hockey guys play hurt, tired, sick….

Track is event-driven, and there aren’t 82 events a year plus playoffs as there are in hockey. Recovery is seen as perhaps the most important aspect of an athlete’s existence, and while some sports are built for recovery, the NHL simply is not.

But, it’s better than it used to be.

“Before, there was more guessing. It was eye-balling, visual. Now, I get so much data … I feel like I’m really on top of it,” said Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock of gauging his players’ level of fatigue.

He admits however, that travel mitigates any recovery program.

“You say to players, ‘We’re going to fly overnight again and sleep late…’ They want to get home. That, to me, is the big challenge,” he said. “The sleep (that players need versus) the mental part of it, which is that players just want to go home. They don’t want to show up at three o’clock in the afternoon the next day and have all these domestic things they have to do.

“It could be five in the morning (when they get home), and they don’t care. Those are the trips that hurt you the most.”

For the Oilers, who have missed the playoffs for 10 of the past 11 seasons and once again hover just below a wild-card spot, there are jobs on the line this season. That tends to have the coach throwing his first line over the boards more often.

“The load in hockey is based on intensity. Now, couple intensity with volume, and it is sometimes questionable,” Gramantik said.

“Define questionable?” he is asked.

“It’s too much,” Gramantik explains. “Intensity is always high. There is no other way to play the game than with the highest intensity. Now, you have to manipulate the volume. It’s like if I would have (Canadian sprinter) Andre De Grasse run the 100 metres eight times, back to back, full out. I would be stupid.”

As for McDavid and Draisaitl, Gramantik worries that overuse as a young player will lead to depleted production as they age.

“In my sport experience, I would be cautious to push the volume on these guys. The intensity is going to change,” he said. “McDavid, he’s not allowed to cruise around out there, because the team depends on him, and he doesn’t want to cruise around anyhow. The reality is, hockey players are the hardest-working guys.”

Remember what Hitchcock said after Thursday’s win over Florida, a night when his team had 18 shots on goal in regulation?

“We were exhausted,” he said.

Darnell Nurse played 31:49 in that game. And he couldn’t wait to do it again Saturday against Arizona.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.