If you are a hockey player and have a fear of flying, do not play for the San Jose Sharks, or for any West Coast team really.
During the 2016-17 season the Sharks travel about four percent less than they did during the 2015-16 season, not including any travel associated with pre-season or any playoff run the Sharks may make. That sounds like a nice break, but it is not. The Sharks, while having the best road record in the NHL, travelled over 50,000 miles last season, most in the league. This season they will travel only 48,872 miles, second to the Edmonton Oilers. By contrast, the New York Islanders travel a league low 32,425 miles this season.
The reality is the Sharks will spend almost 90 hours in the air. For comparison, the Sharks play 82 regular season games, which is only 82 hours of hockey playing time, 8 hours less playing hockey than in the air. The 90 hours in the air does not include other travel time such as the many more hours travelling to and from airports, passing through airport security and customs, checking in and out of hotels or any delays in travel caused by weather or other issues.
Additionally, the Sharks not only have the just finished five game East Coast swing, but have another six-game trip through the East Coast from November 8 through November 19, and a late season four game in six-day road swing from March 20 through March 25.
The good news is, at 28-10-3 the Sharks had the best road record in the NHL last season. While most NHL playoff teams finished over .500 on the road last season, only the Sharks, the President Cup winning Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues earned 50 points or more on the road last season. The bad news is that the Sharks were the only playoff team last year to finish below .500 at home when they were 18-20-3 at home.
Last season’s success on the road kept the team in the playoff race as the Sharks struggled at home. It is more likely than not that better play at home will be needed for the Sharks to have a chance to repeat as Western Conference Champs. In fact, better home play may be needed just for the Sharks to make the playoffs as a 59-point road season may not be repeatable.
As tough as the multiple long road trips the Sharks take are, it is far from the longest trip in NHL history. The longest road trip in NHL history was a 14-game, 13-city, 42-day trip by the Vancouver Canucks during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Sharks Cannot Get Proper Rest or Needed Practice Time
Yes, the Sharks travel in a level of comfort most of us will never experience, but jet lag is still a problem for anyone that travels in any fashion. The effect that jet lag has depends upon several factors, primarily being how many times zones you cross and the time you have to recover before taking on an activity after you travel. What is worse for the Sharks is that the likelihood of getting jet lag is greater travelling from west to east. As logic dictates, going east has a far greater affect on people than gaining hours when travelling west.
The National Sleep Foundation (“NSF”) provides several tips for minimizing the impact of jet lag include, selecting flights that allow early evening arrival and staying up until 10 p.m. local time after landing. Teams often, if not frequently, board planes immediately following night games that end after 10 p.m. making landing by 10 p.m. impossible when travelling west to east and nearly impossible travelling east to west. The NSF says studies have shown that travelling across time zones result in an imbalance in the human body’s natural “biological clock.” Other helpful hints from the NSF are to avoid alcohol and caffeine, not exactly how many, if not most, professional athletes live their lives.
The grueling travel schedule also reduces time available for practice. Despite Allen Iverson’s personal beliefs about practice, power play success in the NHL requires practice. For example, the Sharks power play unit scored 62 goals last season and had a scoring percentage of 22.6%, third in the league. Without any practice opportunities to work on power play sets, or to adjust plays or personnel during the long road trip, the Sharks currently sit at 15%, 19th in the league. A very slow start for a team that led the league in power play chances last season with 275 and was third in scoring percentage.
An argument can certainly be made that older players take longer to recover after games. The impact of travel, even in the comfort of first class, on the older bodies of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joel Ward and others reduces the ability to reduce aches and pains of playing a physically grueling hockey game.
These long road trips not only impact sleep habits and family life, but may have a greater impact on older players and certainly negatively impact game preparations due to lost practice time.
Sharks Offseason Decisions Tested Early
The Sharks won their home opener against the Kings but then lost three of five on their first long trip of the season. Most interesting about the recently concluded road trip is who the Sharks beat and who beat the Sharks. The post NHL finals Sharks attempted to address deficiencies exposed by the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals by adding Mikkel Boedker and David Schlemko and removing Roman Polak and Danius Zubrus.
In a copycat league like the NHL, the rule of thumb for all teams is to copy what the winners do. These moves by the Sharks, like those taken by other teams, were clearly intended to address team speed and the Shark’s ability to counter teams that play an aggressive and fast forecheck game like the Penguins did throughout their championship run.
During the just completed trip the Sharks beat Blue Jackets and the Islanders and lost to the Rangers, Penguins and Red Wings. The Islanders and Blue Jackets, like the Kings that the Sharks beat on opening night, are not built for speed. These three victims of the Sharks continue, for various reasons, to play a slower, but more physical style. The three loses on the trip all came to teams that play fast, if not extremely fast. First the Rangers turned the game into track meet that resulted in a 7-4 Sharks loss. Then the Penguins, even without Sydney Crosby, used their speed to take advantage of a tired Sharks team in the third period to win 3-2. And finally, the Red Wings took control of the game early and shut out the Sharks on the final game of their trip 3-0.
Was it the long time on the road or ineffective roster moves that resulted in these scores? Time will tell.