The challenges of playing pro hockey with a short lineup

Flames GM Brad Treliving talks with the media about the team trying to handle more players testing positive for COVID-19.

I’ve heard that, for some people, this recent run of positive COVID tests in sports feels comparable to what it was like back in March of 2020, and I kinda get that -- the news does feel like it’s changing hourly -- but that’s not my personal experience. Do you remember what those first weeks were really like? My wife and I used to order our groceries to be delivered, then we’d wipe down every item like Brad Marchand had licked them. If I went to the store, I’d shuck my clothes at the front door when I got back, wash them immediately, and shower. We limited the outdoor walks we took with our young family, and those who stopped to play in the park were pushed along home by the police. I bought a 10-pound bag of rice like I was preparing for the apocalypse, and toilet paper near became currency. Nobody knew how it spread and zombies felt possible.

Today … this just feels like it sucks. We have vaccines and boosters that help some, there are pills to limit COVID's severity coming in the immediate future, we better understand how it spreads and have some conception of how to limit that from happening. We went from being uncomfortable at the start because it felt like anything could happen, to uncomfortable now because we have a much better sense for what could happen and our own personal risk/reward conclusions vary to immeasurable degrees.

Part of that last sentence is what feels so off for professional athletes. I genuinely think it’s hard for people, even fans of professional sports, to understand the amount of risk a professional hockey player has grown accustomed to accepting every night. We play a game where Jacob Trouba can step up and hit a player with the outcome of his shoulder to Jujhar Khaira, and hockey itself deems that not just OK, but a boon for Trouba’s personal stock. I tore MCLs and separated my shoulder, and I kept playing. I had my jaw shattered by a slap shot and made plans that off-season to go back and play yet another season. And of course, I played through illness on more occasions than you’d like to hear about.

That’s part of what I mean with the discomfort professional athletes are dealing with right now, and let me tag “frustration” along with that discomfort. There’s a big adjustment being made from how they used to operate, because you used to have to play through everything. It can be hard to change your mindset.

Now, because of COVID, you have players who can’t play when they’ve got, well, anything. If you’ve got a symptom, they don’t want you at the rink. Asymptomatic players who test positive can stay away, too. That all makes logical sense, it’s just a wildly different world.

That change in attitude and policy brings us to what’s about to happen: some teams are about to be light on players for their games because the NHL’s salary cap rules don’t allow them to plug in players from the minors when guys are on the COVID list (if you go over the cap), which is frankly ridiculous. Teams are going from asking guys to play sick a dozen years ago, to asking them to play without enough bodies in a full 82-game season and through a schedule condensed by an Olympic break that looks increasingly likely won’t be used for any Olymping (not a word, I know).

Here’s what Elliotte Friedman had to say about this in his latest 32 Thoughts from Tuesday night:

At some point, if teams are going to be forced to play through COVID-crushed rosters, there must be cap relief to add extra bodies. No one should be forced to play shorthanded through this. Almost everyone is vaccinated. They’ve done what was asked of them, and there’s no excuse to make anyone more vulnerable to illness, exhaustion or injury because Omicron is more transmissible.

No more talk about, “Well, everyone should have managed the cap better.” It’s enough. Make it like bonus overages for next season. Whatever. It’s enough already. It affects the product, too.

The product will certainly be affected, that I can confirm.

I spent parts of three seasons playing ECHL hockey, a developmental league that aims to do its developing by getting players on the ice and off the bench. They do that by making game rosters carry all of 10 forwards, which is pretty light, personnel-wise. Then consider it’s the minors of professional hockey, and there’s going to be some fights and injuries and gear malfunctions, and suddenly there are nights you’re rolling with nine forwards, with eight forwards, or with seven. As NHL teams brace to play undermanned, I figured I’d share five things to watch for that happen as you go from a full roster to a skeleton crew.

The over-conservers

There are some players who believe having a couple less guys mean they’ve got to conserve energy like they’re running a marathon. Unfortunately, hockey is a game that’s comprised of a series of sprints, and there’s often about six or seven plays that involve things going right or wrong by an inch or two that decide the outcome of games. The over-conservers bury their teams in those moments, and in general bury them far more than the guys who burn out by going too hard too soon.

The growing pass length

Forwards aren’t coming all the way back to offer low support if the puck is being transitioned back up the ice, not with short rest on the bench. There’s more stretch-and-tip dump-ins, more rink-wide passes, and more “let the puck do the work”-style hockey. It’s higher risk, and decent to watch, but like a QB who passes a ton in football, it usually leads to some dangerous picks and chances that quickly go the other way.

The reliance on “good D side positioning”

As a forward you constantly have to decide whether to sprint and provide hard pressure on the puck, or to sag and stay above the opposition in good D-side positioning. The teams who make these decisions best win the most. Aggression is good and winning teams often rely on it, but it comes at the cost of energy and risks that can involve some scrambling back from when things go wrong. With the calculus changed of only having a few warm bodies on the bench to give you rest, guys almost always choose to sag and stay above and conserve. It results in awfully defensive looking hockey, which combined with tired players means not much happens for thrilling net-front action. The rush play can be a snooze.

Breakdowns are major crises

I just mentioned A) longer pass length can result in picks, and B) players are in good D-positioning, which sounds A) exciting and B) boring. But that’s the shape of hockey without a full roster. It’s dull, it’s dull, it’s dull, then hockey happens and a puck hops a stick, or an ice-wide pass is picked off, or someone falls, and much like 3-on-3 overtime, the game kicks into action for about 15 seconds while a team tries to pounce on a rare opportunity. It’s fits and starts hockey.

And of course, it’s…

Up to you, keeper

With most of the action to the outside, and goalies the only players operating under their usual conditions, they can decide the outcome of games more than ever, for better or worse.

The league is very unlikely to shut down like it did in the middle of March 2020. It’s most likely the NHL presses on doing its best to contain outbreaks, and so the players will have no choice but to accept the total 180 that exists in pro hockey today: a ton of players are going to have to not play who aren't feeling sick. Barring some rule change that allows teams to call players up from the minors, that’s going to leave us with these thin rosters.

For fans, that won’t mean bad hockey, per se, but it certainly will be different. And while we’re comparing now to the beginning of this all from 2020, I think most of us would take this over that, no? Different hockey is good, no hockey is bad. Fingers crossed things stay stuck at “different” and not the other thing for the rest of the 2021-22 season.

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