Maple Leafs Utilizing a ‘Load Management’ Strategy

The Toronto Maple Leafs are taking a page from the Toronto Raptors. Why not? It worked for Raps. For the non-basketball crowd, in 2019, the Raptors utilized load management for superstar Kawhi Leonard. He sat out 22 of the 82 regular-season games and did not play in any back-to-back contests. It paid off when Toronto won the NBA Championship, and Leonard was named MVP.

The Maple Leafs are sitting Auston Matthews for the game against Winnipeg tonight (April 15). This will be his fourth missed game of the season. Officially he is listed as day today, and it doesn’t sound serious. Toronto has been playing Jack Campbell carefully. Jason Spezza was held out earlier this week. We should expect more healthy scratches or day-to-day listings down the stretch.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Auston Matthews is out of the lineup for the Toronto Maple Leafs, perhaps so he can score more goals like this one in a few months. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Leafs’ focus was to do a better job during the regular season to give themselves an advantage later. It worked. Toronto has the luxury of space and time. At this point, it would take a catastrophic collapse to miss the postseason. Toronto has put distance between themselves and the final playoff spot. As of April 15, that space is 15 points. The Leafs play 13 games over the next 27 days. So, if a star player is not 100 percent or a veteran requires a little extra rest, they are likely to get it.

Load Management Advantages and Disadvantages

While Leonard and the Raptors made load management a mainstream term utilized in the NBA, it’s been growing in popularity for years. In 2016, the International Olympic Committee put together an expert committee to research load on elite athletes.

…Load (defined broadly to include rapid changes in training and competition load, competition calendar congestion, psychological load and travel) and health outcomes in sport.

National Library of Medicine

Results did show an increase in physical injury and mental well-being due to the load faced by professional athletes. While keeping your team as rested and healthy as possible, load management is a concern for team cohesion. Toronto has been trying different line combinations all season. The fourth line was a carousel of players going between the taxi squad and the roster. However, a player who is out of the lineup can impact how he clicks with his linemates.

“We can look at those things at that time, but there’s a number of challenges,” said Sheldon Keefe when asked about managing his team down the stretch. “You wanna make sure guys get appropriate rest, but you also want to make sure guys are sharp, and you want to utilize your depth and get everybody in,” Keefe said. It’s a difficult balance because the coach wants to have as much time as possible with the group together to build the structure. “We will go day to day from there but definitely something that’s on our mind. We’ve got to manage it appropriately because we still got to be rolling as a team.”

Load Management a Fineable Offense

Other elements are related to advertisers and broadcasters. They pay millions to show these games. Leonard’s load management has continued. The NBA now prohibits teams from holding out players in nationally televised games and high-profile match-ups. There is a fine of $100,000 for teams who go against the rules. However, there is nothing against keeping a player out due to being day today.

Toughness Hockey or Football
Hockey players are known for their toughness. (Pinterest)

Then there is the fan aspect. Watching a game that doesn’t have the top players can be a letdown. I was in Los Angeles in 2019 when the Raptors were taking on the Lebron James and the L.A. Lakers. Leonard was held out. I was disappointed, but watching the Raptors win the Championship a few months later took care of that. I’m sure Leaf fans won’t mind if a few stars miss some games if it means those same guys are holding up the Stanley Cup in a few months.