NHL teams already battling exhaustion in truncated regular season

Mike Babcock watched his Detroit Red Wings lose to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night in the Wings’ home opener, falling to 1-2-0 on the season. Their play wasn’t crisp. Their mental edge wasn’t there.

"You play three games in four nights with five days of training camp and it's a lot different than having five weeks of training camp and playing three in four nights," Babcock said, via NHL.com. "I thought we looked like we were out of gas. The best guys we had were the ones who have been playing in the AHL. Aside from that, we really didn't have much zip in us.”

This would seem to run counter to conventional wisdom: That the players who had long layoffs, practicing on their own rather than playing half a season in Europe or the minor leagues, might be better rested for a 48-game season that sees teams playing nearly every night (or so it seems).

But rest leads to rust; and for some of the most well-conditioned athletes in pro sports, concerns about expending too much energy with little in the tank have become an undercurrent early in the NHL season.

How can teams overcome fatigue in a 48-game mini-marathon?

Adam Oates, the first-year head coach of the Washington Capitals, watched his team lose to the Winnipeg Jets in their home opener in D.C. on Tuesday night. The Caps looked lethargic and flat-footed. The Jets, who played Monday in Boston, were flying around the ice by comparison, smoking a team that had been off since Saturday.

“The guys looked like they didn’t have much in the tank. I’m sure that’s a product of this season and what happened, and their conditioning levels,” said Oates, whose team dropped to 0-2.

The coach said the players are keenly aware of their own fitness levels at this point in the season, which is one reason why we’ve seen some tentative play from the Capitals and other teams.

“You don’t have that reserve tank built in. When you’re not in tip-top shape, mentally you monitor how much energy you’re going to expend on a shift to shift basis,” he said.

“We’re not the only team that’s going through it.”

So what’s the solution?

“Is it more days off? Is it skate more?” asked Oates, rhetorically.

On Wednesday, after the loss to the Jets, Oates gave the Capitals an optional skate, which we imagine will be a term heard around the NHL in this truncated season.

It’s all about trying to strike the balance between break time and go time; about finding a way to fill a tank that’s emptying out faster than it typically does; and about finding a way to get the players’ heads in the game and off their conditioning.

When the adrenaline of a home opener can’t jump-start a team, it’s a cause for concern.

“You brain starts to get lazy. Everything else follows,” said Troy Brouwer of the Capitals.