As the season progresses, we're finding out how poorly executed the new five-day bye week has been for NHL teams this season. It's compressed the schedule and eliminated quality practice time to the point of absurdity.
The Sabres' game Sunday night against Chicago, for instance, will be their 11th game in an 18-day stretch. It's downright amazing they haven't had a major rash of injuries during it. The league has to rethink how the bye is used in the schedule next year.
The bye was instituted after the players agreed to the 3-on-3 format for the All-Star Game. It will continue next season if the NHL doesn't go to the Olympics in South Korea and would then be re-evaluated.
Teams have no games and are not permitted to practice for the five days, although an on-ice session is permitted after 4 p.m. local time if the team has a game on its sixth day. The Sabres open their bye week Monday and will have that fifth-day practice Friday night in Denver at 6 p.m. local time. They return to game action Saturday against the Avalanche.
The Sabres are like most teams in the league, in that they've been lucky to get in one real practice a week. Coach Dan Bylsma has been left with little choice but to go with more days off and to get some quick on-ice work in during gameday morning skates. Because of travel and the accompanying mandated days off previously in the players' contract, it's been almost impossible for Western Conference teams to practice much at all since the bye weeks started after the new year.
"It feels like even less practice, fewer days than an Olympic year," Bylsma said last week. "It is a little bit tougher to get a feel for where you're at, how you're feeling. "
Coaches and general managers all over the league have been unhappy with the schedule most of the season, which already started a week later than normal because of the World Cup. While players who don't go to the All-Star Game certainly love the idea of being able to find a beach for a second time in a few weeks, is that really worth damaging the schedule for the entire season?
"We’ve had fewer practices than any time I’ve ever been a coach in this league,” Minnesota boss Bruce Boudreau said during the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. “We finished nine games in 15 days and we never practiced the other six days because you can’t kill the guys, especially your better players."
Boudreau's team really pays the piper at the end of the season, with its final 20 games coming over a 35-day stretch. That's brutal. If the Wild have things wrapped up in the Central Division and Western Conference, you wonder if some of their players might get NBA-style rest days. That's generally not done in the NHL, but bet on teams pondering it.
"I think it's 100 percent wrong for player safety," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the schedule compression. "You've got so many games in such a short period of time and you're jamming in more. To me, the more days rest you can have by not playing back-to-backs and jamming it in, the healthier you have a chance to be."
Then there's the matter of how the bye impacts the schedule when a team returns. Five days is a long time to be off the ice. After the All-Star break, teams are on equal rust factors. Not so after a bye.
Said Capitals star Alex Ovechkin to Washington reporters: "Five days break, sometimes it feels like, ‘You ever play hockey or not?’"
The results bear that out. With an 0-3-2 performance on Saturday, teams coming off their bye entered Sunday 0-8-3 in February in their first game back on the ice, and 3-12-4 overall. Only Pittsburgh, Arizona and Toronto have won their first game. Remember that Saturday night for the Sabres in Denver.
Caps coach Barry Trotz suggested the bye weeks be done among groups of teams, who would then play each other during the first night back into the schedule. Bylsma seconded that notion.
The Sabres get no favors done by the league out of the bye. They have to take the long flight to Denver on Friday, play the Avalanche and Arizona in a back-to-back Saturday and Sunday, then fly all the way back from Phoenix to play Nashville here on Feb. 28. Ridiculous.
The Sabres and Columbus are the Eastern Conference teams starting byes on Monday. They've got a back-to-back against each other March 10-11, and it would have made far more sense to pit those two teams in that mini-series coming out of their shared bye weeks. The Blue Jackets return to play with a home game against the Islanders, while the Sabres getting sent all the way t0 Denver really seems extreme.
"We're now getting to look at the bye week over the course of the last three weeks and it's not a very pretty picture," Bylsma said. "We can all sit on barstools and figure out what's the better way to do it and how we would do it differently and that idea right off the hop is the first one. If teams had the same bye week, they'd be in the same boat coming after the break. It's just for one game, but you'd be back into the schedule."
The New Jersey Devils, for instance, wrapped up a 3-0-1 stretch with their 2-1 win over the Sabres Feb 6 in Newark and then went on their bye. They were completely flat in their return Feb. 12, a 4-1 home loss to a San Jose team that was in the middle of a road trip and playing its third game in four days.
"You want to get right back in the thick of things," Devils forward Taylor Hall told the Newark Star-Ledger. "But against teams that are hockey-ready, teams that are playing a ton of games when you're on vacation on the beach, it's tough. Over the course of time, it helps out, being able to rest and heal injuries. But certainly a first tough game back."
Added Devils coach John Hynes: "You're in a situation where you go from full tilt on the treadmill -- practice, games, competition, meetings, workouts -- to nothing. To being on vacation, and even the players, as much as they try to eat well, try to keep themselves going, it's different."
The NHL's television deal with NBC continues to be utterly baffling. The peacock shows Sidney Crosby and the Penguins to the point where it's total overkill. But on Thursday, with Crosby at 999 career points and fans more than ready to check out his quest for 1,000, what did the national audience get?
The Sabres and Avalanche.
Did anybody from sea to shining sea care about that game other than folks in Buffalo and ex-pats? No chance. And it was a snoozer. Yet another example of how NBC doesn't adjust on the fly when it should, at least for games not on its bevy of Comcast-related networks. Was NBC shaking because the Penguins were playing Winnipeg? Would it be bad for Americans to see Patrik Laine play? Not only did NBC miss Crosby's 1,000th, it almost missed him scoring an overtime winner in what was a terrific game. Good job, good effort, NBC.
And then there's the issue of studio shows. The NHL's version on NBC is by far the worst of the four major sports. Mike Milbury is a dinosaur who should have been kicked to the curb a long time ago. Former NHLers Scott Gomez and Jeremy Roenick completely embarrassed themselves on Thursday's pregame show prior to Sabres-Avs.
Gomez talked about Evander Kane's problems being about social media exposure -- an issue that hasn't cropped up here since last summer -- and never mentioned how the Buffalo winger was leading the league in even-strength goals since Dec. 1.
Gomez then said Jack Eichel isn't at the level of Auston Matthews or Laine because "his excuse right now is maybe he's not playing with certain guys he wants to." Excuse me? Eichel is playing with Kane and Sam Reinhart, who are exactly the two guys he wants to be with.
Meanwhile, Roenick said of the Avs: "This team is so out of my realm of knowing what's going on." Excuse me, that's your job to find out and inform the viewer. Shameful performance by both ex-players.
NBC could use some journalists helping them out on the air in more than just intermission "trade insider" segments, especially since the salary cap is making that wasted air because almost no trades happen in the league anymore until the week before the deadline. Think Tom Verducci and Ken Rosenthal on baseball, David Aldridge on the NBA or the myriad of writers who contribute to NFL pregame shows. They would all add some real information. They might even do a little homework.
---Tim Murray and Minnesota counterpart Chuck Fletcher love to do deals and they might be at it again. There's been several reports the last few days about the Sabres hanging around the Wild, and around Minnesota's Iowa affiliate. The Sabres, of course, need defensemen, both at the NHL and prospect level.
---Babcock, speaking to The Fan 590 on his team's plans the next couple weeks: "If anyone's looking for us to be the news on Trade Deadline day, I'd find something else to do."
Reaction: I don't believe that statement for a second. The Leafs will make a move, and perhaps multiple moves. They're ahead of schedule. No reason to not keep pushing.
---If Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog want to get out of Colorado, it would be nice for them to do something to prove all the interest of other teams is worthwhile. The Avs' stars were both invisible here Thursday. Duchene simply skated around, playing 19:47 without a single shot on goal, but did go 17-6 on faceoffs. Landeskog played 20:11 with one shot on goal.
Colorado GM Joe Sakic is reportedly setting an overly high price for his players and Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion admitted during an interview on his team's flagship radio station that he's talked to Sakic. There was no indication who the talks were about but it's likely at least one, if not both, of the marquee names came up.
"Joe and I talked and, at this point in time, I can’t see us going in that direction," Dorion said. "It wouldn’t make sense. We want to do something to try to improve the team and making deals is very difficult to do. ... I can’t see us mortgaging everything in the future and some stuff in the present to get one or two or whatever players are out there.”
---Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly on the Avalanche, his old team, dealing the likes of Duchene and Landeskog: "When your team is struggling, you know certain guys are most likely going to be moved. I just hope it's not to our division. I don't want to have to play against those guys all the time. They're good players that will help any team."
Around the boards
---It's interesting to hear about the byplay in Ottawa between Bobby Ryan and coach Guy Boucher. Ryan, making $7.25 million on a deal through 2022, has been relegated to third-line duty but hasn't crabbed publicly about it. Or about fans telling him the reason he's stuck at 11 goals is that he passes too much.
"I hear that at the grocery store, I hear that at the movie theater, I hear that at dinner," Ryan said. "I tell people all the time, 'If the right play is to shoot the puck, then I'm going to shoot it. But if the right play is to pass it, then I can't help ya."
For his part, Boucher said he's just trying to get the best out of his players and noted, "I don't coach contracts."
---Robin Lehner vs. Ottawa: 4-0-2, 1.30 goals-against average, .959 save percentage. Boucher's comment: "He might have left some voodoo dolls in the back lockers there. We've got to find them and get those pins out of them."
---Things might be going bad for the Islanders off the ice in Brooklyn but they're just fine on the much-criticized Barclays Center sheet. Thursday's win over the Rangers gave the Isles a point in 10 straight home games (8-0-2) for the first time since going 9-0-1 during the 1989-90 season. They host the Devils there Sunday night.
---The Oilers finished last in the West in 2015-16 but have made a big jump this year with Connor McDavid available all season. In just their 58th game of the season, Thursday's 6-3 win over Philadelphia allowed Edmonton to tie both its totals in wins (31) and points (70) from all of last season.