For a team like the Washington Capitals, it’s no secret that the regular season does not mean all that much.
Since 2007, the Caps have won six division championships and two Presidents’ Trophies. Alex Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals in the NHL six times and the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP three times. Braden Holtby is the defending Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goalie and tied Martin Brodeur’s record for most wins in a single season with 48 in 2015-16.
There’s just not that much left to accomplish.
When it comes to the playoffs, however, the Caps have not been able to find the same level of success. Changing that is the task of head coach Barry Trotz and that means approaching the regular season in a different way.
One of the biggest changes Trotz is making this season is limiting the minutes of his top players to try and keep them fresh for a playoff push in the spring.
“The adjustments that everybody has to make...is that their minutes come down,” Trotz said to reporters after Thursday’s practice. “Some guys don't like it because they're used to being out lots and they're used to playing big minutes and they define themselves just in minutes. Where you had all those minutes over 90 games and then you start going into the hundred-game area, that's a lot of extra minutes and that's a lot of wear and tear on your body.
“By giving less minutes now, you maybe have a little more wind at the end of the year.”
Through 10 games, Ovechkin is averaging 18:25 of ice time per game, the lowest average of his career. Nicklas Backstrom is averaging 18:00 per game, the same average he saw in his rookie season. Matt Niskanen is averaging more than two minutes less than last season while Brooks Orpik is averaging nearly three minutes less.
Even Braden Holtby, the team’s workhorse in net, was given the night off in the two of the team’s first seven games.
While a few seconds or minutes may not sound like a lot, that certainly has an impact on the players who are used to getting a certain amount of time per game. For those players, playing fewer shifts takes some getting used to.
Said Trotz, “When you're just passing and say hey, yesterday it took you awhile to get going and guys will say I couldn't get into it because I'm used to going out a bit more, that's where you have to change a little bit and there's going to be an adjustment period.”
But does limiting the players’ ice time signal to the team that the regular season doesn’t matter? So far it has not had that effect as the Caps have jumped out to a 7-2-1 record. In fact, it may actually be better for the team as, in today’s NHL, the most successful teams are the ones with enough depth to consistently roll four lines.
Preparing the team for better playoff success without devaluing the regular season completely, however, is important. Teams that take too much of a relaxed attitude toward the regular season end up playing their way right out of a playoff spot. The Los Angeles Kings did just that in 2014-15 as they missed the playoffs despite winning the Stanley Cup the season before.
It’s a delicate balance, but one Trotz is acutely aware of.
Said Trotz, “Really the goal of our staff and for players is to make them as good as they can day in and day out. But also with our team, if we can play and keep everybody healthier a longer period and have more in the tank when we need it most, that's probably the most important.”
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