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Alex Ovechkin and Load Management in the NHL

A look at how to keep old dudes fresh for the playoffs... maybe

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Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Back in November of 2012 (or 433 Alex Ovechkin goals ago), San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich sent star veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home early from a November road trip. The trio hadn’t been guilty of any misbehavior and were perfectly healthy. They were just, well, older. And Popovich - one of the most astute and successful coaches the sport has ever seen - was more interested in having his best players fresh come playoff time than in having them play a fourth game in five nights for the 13-3 Spurs against the Miami Heat.

Fast forward nearly a decade and “load management” as it is now known, has gone from finable offense to curiosity to accepted practice in the NBA. Heading into the condensed 2020-21 season, it was considered an absolutely critical part of planning for players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard:

Medical experts and coaches around the league, unsure of the effects of an unconventional offseason, are expecting teams to be as cautious as ever with their most valuable players.

“COVID is the most obvious concern both for the players’ health and for the integrity of the game but one of the things that is also in the back of my mind is has there been enough time for the players to rest and recover? Especially those teams who were in the playoffs and went deep in the playoffs,” Dr. T.O. Souryal, who spent more than two decades as the Dallas Mavericks’ team doctor, said. “... I am a bit concerned about how they’re going to manage that. The good news is it is a 72-game season, which is shorter. The bad news is it’s somewhat condensed.”

But in hockey, load management is still a pretty ignored concept, save, generally, for goaltenders (gone are the days of a team’s number one goalie starting 72 games, as Braden Holtby did in 2014-15; this year’s top in starts will probably come in around 65 at most). Why? The Atheltic’s Dom Luszczyszyn points to parity:

In the NBA, elite teams can afford to take the risk of resting star players, even very early in the season, as it usually doesn’t affect the big picture. The risk is worth the reward for some teams where the playoffs are a foregone conclusion. In the NHL, playoff races are much tighter. Even for the teams at the top, a division win could be the difference between a Round 1 minnow and a legitimate contender. There’s also the matter of games being inherently closer in the NHL, where very few games ever top 70 percent in win probability, a high mark that’s much more common in the NBA.

In the NHL, there’s a cultural tendency to be more risk-averse and with regards to load management, parity appears to be a legitimate reason for it. No coach wants to explain a loss after a star player rested, especially if there’s even the slightest chance that it might mean the loss of a playoff berth. A team is not in until there’s an “x” beside their name.

It’s hard to imagine any NHL coach resting a healthy star player in November - those two points are worth the same as two in April, and they might be the two that keep you out of the postseason or force you to play Game 7 on the road in the third round. But is that an accurate risk assessment? Not really.

[I]t overstates two things: How large of an effect a player has on a single game, and how likely a team with a substantiative edge in the standings is to miss the postseason. It’s those two things that might have teams missing the mark when it comes to resting players down the stretch: For some teams that have a comfortable place in the standings, it’s probably not a big deal.

Like many things in hockey culture (and putting aside the marketing aspects of the issue, which are real when fans and television networks are paying big bucks to see marquee players), a reluctance to actively engage in load management represents an over-reliance on dated orthodoxy.

Then again, load management can mean more than sitting out games. It can mean reduced minutes in games, fewer practices, any number of things. Take, for example, Alex Ovechkin’s 2016-17 season:

Ovechkin’s ice time has been down roughly two minutes per game this season (18:23) as a way to enable him to feel fresher in the playoffs. That change, going from consistently playing 20 minutes a game to less than 16 some nights, got Ovechkin out of rhythm initially. But it’s also helped him to be his most productive self when Washington needs it most. Ovechkin’s averaged a career-low 0.41 goals per game this season, but in the past 12 games, he has six goals and six assists, rounding into the point-per-game pace he’s displayed in the playoffs throughout his career.

It’s not just the uptick in scoring that has stood out. After the Capitals’ 4-1 win in Toronto on Tuesday night, several players referenced Ovechkin setting the tone of the game with a big hit on his first shift and Trotz said he’s noticed Ovechkin playing a more physical style lately.

We’ll never know if the Caps’ gamble would’ve paid off - Ovechkin limped through two rounds after Toronto’s Nazim Kadri submarined him in the first. But he sure seemed fresher up to that point, with goals in three-straight games after a Game 1 goose egg.

All of this, of course, brings us to the 2021-22 Capitals, the League’s oldest team...

via HockeyViz

..., and one that would seem to be pretty entrenched in a wild card spot (as they have been for weeks).

“For some teams that have a comfortable place in the standings, [load management is] probably not a big deal.”

Now would seem to be the time to be resting players and preparing for Florida or Carolina. But what would that even look like? The Caps are right up against the salary cap, so it’s not as if they can just sit a few veterans and play more kids from Hershey. Also, without an All-Star Game to skip, it’s unlikely they’re going to voluntarily sit Alex Ovechkin at this point, either, especially as he continues his chase for the all-time goal-scoring record.

Realistically, it’s probably a few nights off for key players (Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie) here and there and a more even distribution of minutes with games otherwise. And that latter part? Whether consciously or not, they’re already doing it. Here’s a look at the Caps’ forwards’ five-on-five ice times (minimum 100 minutes) in three different segments of the season: the first 34 games, the next 17 and the last 17:

data via NatStatTrick

What immediately jumps out is the drastic reduction in ice time for Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson. Ovechkin’s five-on-five ice time is down over 17 percent in the last 17 games versus the first 34 (when he was carrying the team on his shoulders with the entire second line out, and the playoffs and positioning therein might have been in doubt). Anthony Mantha’s return has provided a big minute-muncher, and Connor McMichael is earning more and more (but still not enough!) time. Overall, though, you see a much tighter spread in the distribution of minutes now than early on, and that’s balancing out the workload - only two of these regulars (Mantha and Conor Sheary) is playing more at five-on-five now than he was over the season’s first 34 games.

If we look at all-strengths, it’s a similar story:

Note the different scale on the y-axis
data via NatStatTrick

Special teams time props that first power-play unit up a bit, but those are relatively easy minutes (though not always easy to watch).

Do the math and things start to add up: if Alex Ovechkin is playing 19 minutes per game over 17 games (323 minutes) versus 22 minutes per game (374 minutes), that’s 51 fewer minutes... or more than two fewer games’ worth of minutes, of shots attempted and blocked, of hits given and received and so on (and with nearly all of it coming at fives, the impact is even greater). That looks like a form of load management from here.

On defense, things look a little different.

via HockeyViz

The Caps have had a pretty consistent top-six throughout the year, and it seems unlikely to change (even if that could probably help). Carlson plays in every situation (and better than he’s given credit for), Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen have been terrific, and the third pair is much less reliable with Trevor van Riemsdyk out, so it’s hard to see any increase in minutes there. Could Orlov-Jensen play more at five-on-five? Maybe... but you’d probably be surprised to find out that Orlov is already the team leader in five-on-five ice time per game, getting a full minute-and-a-half more than Carlson.

The bottom line here is that the NHL, as it is wont to do, is glacial in adapting widely accepted practices into its toolkit (and those early adopters are likely to gain advantages when they do), be it analytics or load management or any number of other examples. But that doesn’t mean that some of the underlying common sense principles aren’t already in use. And it doesn’t mean that just because Connor McMichael isn’t playing 15 minutes per night, that Peter Laviolette has no clue how to manage Alex Ovechkin’s workload... because he sure looks like he’s doing just that.