While NHL teams give it their best effort to qualify for the playoffs each season, there is no denying the toll that the game takes on the human body. Though it’s a form of entertainment for fans, it’s both physically and mentally draining for the players on the ice. With such a limited amount of players in the NHL and a limited number of spots in the postseason each year, it’s advised that players never take a day off or take their jobs for granted. Still, when a team has qualified for the postseason, that mentality changes.
When teams clinch postseason berths and are locked into their position in the standings, it isn’t unheard of for a team to rest their best players. Not only does this save those players from the risk of injury, but it also gives them a chance to breathe and let their body recover ahead of the NHL’s grueling postseason. It’s for this reason that the Chicago Blackhawks rested so many of their players against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. In the Blackhawks penultimate game of the season, the team rested stars in Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Risk Versus Reward
While it’s important to keep players rested heading into the playoffs, the risk of being too rested rears its ugly head. Though the Blackhawks were resting some of their best players in a 4-0 blowout loss to the Anaheim Ducks, the Western Conference’s best team may have already considered that risk and took it into account for their gameplan. All four rested players are expected back in the lineup Saturday for the Blackhawks against the Los Angeles Kings in the regular season finale, as Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times points out, to avoid being rusty or out of game shape heading into the postseason.
Teams have to evaluate whether or not resting a player heading into the postseason is worthwhile. Though teams want to put the best team on the ice every night, that isn’t always feasible with long-term goals in mind. This then creates an issue of fans potentially going to games to see their favorite players but ultimately seeing their understudy instead. Keeping a fanbase happy is important, but weighing the value of keeping fans happy on a game-by-game basis versus keeping them happy with a potential Stanley Cup run leads to the clear conclusion that a Stanley Cup victory is all that truly matters. If keeping a player healthy is an option, it should be the only option a team considers.
The Value of Depth in the Postseason
There are no guarantees in the NHL. That statement holds even more weight once the postseason rolls around. It is for this reason that teams try to keep their stars safe heading into the playoffs. Depth is important, but when that depth is forced to take over for top talents in the lineup due to injury, the odds of winning a playoff game, and as a result, series, dwindles exponentially. If teams can keep their depth in the roles that best suit them, success should follow.
There have been examples of depth players stepping up playing a role for their club down the stretch. Whether it was Torey Krug scoring four goals in his first five games with the Bruins in the 2012-13 postseason or Matt Murray shining in the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup run during the 2016 Playoffs, there are certain talents that can step in and make an impact. This isn’t always the case, however, and its the reason why teams are so cautious about how they use players at this time of year.
Even if a star player isn’t kept out of a game heading into the playoffs, they could see their playing time limited in the games that they do play. With NHL teams dealing with injuries throughout the season and faltering as a result such as the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning who were both considered Atlantic Division favorites but had their seasons knocked off track, it’s clear that star power is important. A good supporting cast is always important, but the headliners and main draws are the driving forces behind deep playoff runs.
Affecting the Postseason
When teams rest players, however, they don’t simply affect their own future. With teams resting players against teams that are either looking to qualify for the postseason or looking to finish in a better position (as is the case within the Atlantic Division) then the entire landscape of the playoffs change from resting players. With the Boston Bruins looking to finish in the top-three within the Atlantic Division, they run into the President Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. Fortunately for the Bruins, however, the Capitals are set to rest one of their best players in John Carlson. This decision could hold implications on the Capitals, Bruins, and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This isn’t necessarily the mindset that a coach holds heading into the final weekend of the season, however. The playoffs are all that matters at this time of the year – something that teams need to put all of their focus into; not the teams they may be hurting or helping.