After Sunday’s games, NHL teams have gone 4-12-4 in their first game back from the bye. Saturday was particularly bloody, with the Capitals, Canadiens, Blackhawks, Lightning and Predators all losing in their return to the ice after short rests. The 16 teams that lost have been collectively outscored by 37 goals, and even when you throw in the four teams that won, the goal differential remains minus-30. Ten of the losing teams either scored just once or not at all.
Rust obviously plays a big factor in this.
“It’s a situation, you’re in the middle of your season, it’s a challenge and it’s a challenge all of us in the league have to face. We didn’t master that task. You’re in a situation where you go full tilt on the treadmill to nothing, to vacation,” said Devils Coach John Hynes, whose team suffered a 4-1 loss to the Sharks on Feb. 12 in its first game off the bye. “As much as you try, even the players, to eat well and keep yourselves going, it’s different. And you’re coming into a team that’s in that mode of practice and games. A lot of times, it’s not an even playing field for either team. But it is at the all-star break. We have to find a way, if it happens again, to perform better. It’s a new challenge for everyone in the league. I think that’s where the difficulty is coming in, having the readiness to play really without having a lot of practice time, either. Obviously, we didn’t do as good enough a job as coaches to have the team ready. It’s almost more mental than it is physical.”
The bye weeks have not only been bad in the short-term games-won metric, but a growing number of coaches say they’re actually bad for player health, which is why they were instituted in the first place. Giving teams five days off — on top of the all-star break — in the middle of the season means everything else on the schedule is compressed, leading to more back-to-back sets of games and fewer practices so that players can rest. The problem was compounded this season because it started one week later than usual because of the World Cup.
“We’ve had fewer practices than any time I’ve ever been a coach in this league,” Wild Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team is on its bye this week but will finish the season with 20 games in 35 days, told the Buffalo News at the All-Star Game last month. “We finished nine games in 15 days and we never practiced the other six days because you can’t kill the guys, especially your better players.”
Said Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock, also to the News: “I think it’s 100 percent wrong for player safety. 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.”
Most observers feel the league will have to revisit the bye weeks during the offseason. One suggestion, by Flames assistant general manager Craig Conroy and relayed by Adam Gretz of Pro Hockey Talk, is to have each conference take its bye at the same time and then have those teams play only squads from their conference in their first game back. A similar idea proposes splitting the bye weeks into smaller groups of teams, and then having those teams play one another in their return.
“Obviously, it was kind of tough,” said the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, whose team entered its bye week on a 17-2-1 run but lost consecutive games for the first time since December upon its return. “Five days’ break, sometimes it feel like, ‘You ever play hockey or not?’ ”