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Playoffs After a Layoff

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Who might have benefited from a bit of a breather heading into the playoffs?

Washington Capitals v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

With training camps officially kicking off around the NHL yesterday, teams returned to action after an unprecedented break - four months, to be exact, with many of the players having been off the ice for a good portion of that time. It’s a significant break even for an offseason, let alone going into a playoff-type situation that teams would usually be approaching at full speed.

While there’s likely to be some rust after such a lengthy layoff, and while some players who went into the break red-hot are likely not happy about the forced cooldown, it’s likely that time away from the rink may end up being beneficial for some of the Caps.

So who could perhaps get a boost from the break?

The first group that jumps to mind would be anyone who wasn’t 100% healthy when the League hit the pause button back in March. But the Caps were actually a pretty healthy team this year, with very few man-games lost compared to the rest of the NHL:

Via @ManGamesLostNHL

That said, someone like Michal Kempny may very well have welcomed some time off despite being “healthy” at the time of the break. He started the 2019-20 season a couple of weeks late while recovering from that leg injury he suffered last spring — and while he appeared in most of the games after that initial delay, he never seemed to be quite, noticeably struggling for much of the season. Whether that was due to his injury or an inability to adjust to the team’s new system is unclear, but if it’s the former, time was likely a good thing for him to get back to where he was in 2018.

Right behind the bruised and battered would be the big-minute players, especially those who are over 30 years old.

The face of that group is definitely Alex Ovechkin, who is creeping up on 35 years old and yet has not pulled back much on the bone-crushing style he’s played with since his rookie season. Considering the fact that his production hadn’t exactly slowed when the season came to a stop, a few months off to recuperate and get fresh legs could only help (and should put the fear of god in the rest of the League).

Nicklas Backstrom would also fall into that category; while not the hard-hitting type like his Ovechkin, he’s continued to play big minutes - including a significant amount of time on the penalty kill - and would definitely benefit from a rest heading into the postseason. Ditto someone like John Carlson, who leads the team in ice time (and is in the top-10 among NHL defensemen) and is counted on to not only anchor a sometimes suspect blueline but also produce offense at a high rate. Both veterans were key to the Caps’ Cup run two years ago - and the team will need them to be at their best when games resume next month.

And while he wasn’t logging huge amounts of ice time upon his arrival, new addition Ilya Kovalchuk (remember him?) is 37 years old and is about to embark on his first postseason run since going to the Stanley Cup Final with New Jersey back in 2012. He may have been waiting for this opportunity for eight years, but it’s probably good that he gets a little breather before it actually arrives.

The center of that Venn diagram between injured and aged (in hockey terms, at least) is someone like T.J. Oshie, who skates top-six minutes and does so with an energy level and a bit of recklessness that undoubtedly leads to ailments of all kinds (whether he owns up to them or not). The Caps’ little wrecking ball could certainly benefit from those months away from hockey to let his bruises heal before he goes out and gets new ones.

Finally, one could see this as a positive for the team’s two new deadline additions. Kovalchuk’s age is certainly good enough reason to appreciate a bit of a break, but both he and Brendan Dillon also get an opportunity that traded players don’t usually get: they get to have a full training camp with their new team before the playoff run.

Neither one had much time with the Caps before the season ground to a halt — Kovalchuk played in just seven games, Dillon in 10 — and while they’ve had plenty of time to forget anything they might have learned in recent months, they get time to relearn it with everyone else instead of being thrown right into the fire.

It’s been a long wait for hockey to come back, and first and foremost the hope is that the break (and the new protocols for health and safety that came out of it) will result in the safest possible atmosphere for its return. But there’s also a potential silver lining to taking an unexpected breather - and gearing up for what could be another Cup run.