The “TOI” column on the score sheet is one Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov checks after every game. It reflects time on ice, and Barkov gets a lot of it — his average of 22 minutes 55 seconds leads all NHL forwards. And while that kind of steady workload for a center might cause others distress, it doesn’t bother Barkov.
“I don’t really care how much I play,” he said. “I can play 18 minutes and be tired, and I can play 25 minutes and be okay.”
Barkov is one of seven forwards — all but one (Chicago’s Patrick Kane) are centers — averaging at least 22 minutes of ice time. Just two, Barkov and Los Angeles’s Anze Kopitar, played that much last year, and no forwards averaged more than 22 minutes the three seasons before that. Some believe this trend toward heavier workloads for top centers is troubling, exposing them to a higher risk of injury.
“Those guys play too much, to be honest with you,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “Especially when you play that position compared to wing or even defense, it’s so much skating for the center-ice position. I see some of those totals, I don’t care how good of shape you’re in, in this league, it’s not sustainable, especially if you’re going to try to make a deep run. …
“If you’re asking those guys to play that many minutes, I think it’s unfair to those guys, to be honest. They can’t play to the level they’re capable of if they play that many minutes.”
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid has skated an average of 22:50 this season, second to Barkov, and after a November game against Toronto in 2016 that saw McDavid on the ice for 22:46, including 8:15 in the first period, Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock told reporters, “You jam a guy out there every shift or three in a row, stuff like that, and it’s hard to have the same pop.”
A top-line, all-situations center is typically among the highest-paid players on the team, and in McDavid’s case, his $12.5 million cap hit accounts for 16.2 percent of the Oilers’ total salary cap space. The potential trickle-down of that is less depth throughout the forward corps, so in crucial situations, the bench gets shortened and McDavid gets deployed more frequently.
“It’s probably coaches fearful for their jobs,” Orpik said. “That plays into it. I think they just ride those guys because they feel pressure from management and external pressure. … They probably look at the small picture instead of the big picture when it comes to stuff like that.”
To Orpik’s point, of the seven forwards who play at least 22 minutes per game, six of them are on a team that’s currently out of a playoff spot and pushing to get into one. But as Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon put it, “I’ll never say no to ice time.” He said that the game feels easier the more he’s out there, that there’s more of a rhythm. MacKinnon is one of the league’s top scorers with 28 goals and 45 assists in 53 games, and he averages 22 minutes. In an overtime loss to Washington on Thursday, his final ice time was 23:29, and the next afternoon, he was one of the last forwards to leave the ice after the team’s practice.
“I talk with Nathan not only before games on how he’s feeling but during the game, too,” Avalanche Coach Jared Bednar said. “We have a number where we like to keep him at, right around the 22-minute-a-night mark. We’ve been hitting that number or pretty close to that number on most nights, and there’s certain nights where he’ll get a little more ice time. But to be honest with you, he’s in phenomenal condition and takes care of himself so well that on lots of nights I feel like he can handle more. We just don’t want to wear him out in the long run, either.”
MacKinnon and Barkov are both 23, and the oldest of the forwards skating at least 22 minutes per game is Kopitar, 31. There’s a case to be made that this new, young generation of player is in better shape with more sophisticated offseason training regimens. But Panthers Coach Bob Boughner acknowledged that Barkov was “overplayed” earlier in the season, when center Vincent Trocheck was out with an ankle injury, a two-month span that saw Barkov average more than 23 minutes per game — not that Barkov minded.
“I love to play,” Barkov said. “I love to try to help the team win the game in any way possible. I know sometimes I’m getting tired on the ice, but I just try to learn from that. During the shifts maybe, when I’m out there for 30 seconds and nothing is going on and I finally get the puck, maybe just change and wait for the next shift because you know you’re going to play a lot. Off ice, you just need to do everything you can and take care of your body and get enough rest and try to stay in shape during the season.”
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