Two minutes may not seem like much, but when that’s multiplied by 82 hockey games for a player who’s logged more than 18,000 minutes in his career, a little less time might go a long way — or so the Washington Capitals hope.
Eleven games into his 12th NHL season, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is averaging the fewest minutes of his career . His average time on ice this year has been 18:31, down from 20:19 last season and 21:16 over his career.
Some of that is a result of Washington having a deep lineup that means minutes can be more balanced without compromising its chances of winning. But Coach Barry Trotz has also lessened Ovechkin’s minutes with a long-term intention of keeping the 31-year-old winger fresh for later in the season, when the Capitals hope to have a deep postseason run.
“He doesn’t play a light game; he plays a heavy game,” Trotz said. “A little bit less minutes at this time, yeah, absolutely. He probably won’t feel the effects right now. It’s a little different for him. He’s used to around the 21 mark. It’s probably a little different for him. It may not feel great sometimes right now, but hopefully game 92 and 93 and 94 when we get into that, that’s when you’ll see, hopefully, the effect of sort of spreading the minutes about.”
It’s not just Ovechkin who’s had to adjust to playing less to start the season. Top center Nicklas Backstrom is also averaging the fewest minutes (17:57) of his career, winger T.J. Oshie hasn’t played this little (17:00) since he was a rookie, and defenseman Brooks Orpik’s average time on ice (16:44) is down a little over three minutes from last season.
“You want to have your minutes, but I think we can do all different stuff with our lines and our players, and obviously, you can see sometimes one line didn’t play well and [Trotz] gives different lines more ice time,” Ovechkin said. “But of course you want to be in game shape and of course you want to play like 20 minutes, more minutes. You don’t want to play 13 or 15 minutes.
“You can ask everybody. Everybody wants to have more ice time. But I think we’re doing the right thing right now, so in the future, you’re going to need those minutes. So, it’s going to help.”
Since Trotz was hired and Brian MacLellan became the Capitals’ general manager two season ago, it’s been a priority to lighten Ovechkin’s load by surrounding him with good teammates. With the acquisitions of Oshie, Justin Williams and Lars Eller and the development of young forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky, Washington has become less dependent on Ovechkin to score every night. In the same vein, the team doesn’t always need him to log heavy minutes to win.
Ovechkin has played in 850 NHL regular season games while averaging more than 21 minutes a night and an additional 84 playoff games with slightly more ice time. He has also competed in international competition for Russia every summer. Managing his physical fatigue at this stage of his career is something the Capitals have had to consider.
“You worry about the number of games and years and all that,” Trotz said in an interview at The Washington Post newsroom before the season.
“I think the important point is the better our team can be, the more well-rounded our team can be, the less pressure there is on [Ovechkin] to carry the team,” MacLellan said then. “You don’t have to go out every night and win the game by yourself.”
Under Trotz, Ovechkin has played less than 16 minutes just four times, and two of those games have been this season. When the Capitals recently played a back-to-back at Vancouver and then Calgary, Ovechkin’s time on ice was 15:58 and 15:05, respectively. Washington won both games.
Some of that is situational, as Ovechkin will naturally play more if the Capitals are on the power play a lot in a certain game. If Washington is trailing, Trotz is likely to have Ovechkin on the ice for his scoring ability, and conversely, if the Capitals are protecting a one-goal lead, as they were in Calgary, Trotz might choose to play defensive forward lines more. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of riding the hot hand.
“The adjustments that everybody has to make now that we’ve sort of spread the wealth, if you will, is that their minutes come down,” Trotz said. “Some guys don’t like it because they’re used to being out lots, and they’re used to playing big minutes. They define themselves just in the minutes, where you add all those minutes over 90 games, then you start going into the 100-game area — that’s a lot of extra minutes, and that’s a lot of wear and tear on your body. So, by giving less minutes now, you maybe have a little more at the end of the year.”
It’s hard to tell the impact just 11 games into the season, when all players still feel relatively fresh, but it could be noticeable later. Defenseman Karl Alzner said that when he logged heavy minutes during the 2010-11 season, he felt “exhausted” by the team’s second-round postseason series against Tampa Bay, in which the Capitals were swept.
Backstrom said that when he was averaging more than 20 minutes a game earlier in his career, he would often feel sore the day after a game and the wear would weigh on him by the time the playoffs arrived.
“It’s a lot of games, and you have to manage the energy, if you know what I mean,” Backstrom said. “We want to play good now as a team, but at the same time, we want to be as good as possible when it comes to playoffs because I think that’s a big key. Whoever has the most energy and the most players involved, that’s the team that’s going to go furthest, I think.”