SAN JOSE, Calif. – Throughout their careers the San Jose Sharks veterans believed the more they skated and practiced during a season the more they could sharpen their skills.
They never thought that fewer practices could equate to more wins – until Peter DeBoer arrived as coach for 2015-16.
DeBoer looked at the team’s travel-heavy schedule and his roster laden with core players in their 30s and made the choice to cut back on practices.
His players have seen major results since January. While other teams have fought fatigue the Sharks have almost all openly spoken about how they feel fresh and energized.
Since January 1, the Sharks have lost three games in a row just once and so far this playoff they've played some of the most consistent hockey in the Western Conference.
San Jose leads 2-1 in their Western Conference Final series with the St. Louis Blues.
“At the start of the year, he got a good feeling that the older veteran guys, or whatever you want to call them, we were out there early for practice and staying out late. He wanted us to save that more for games,” forward Patrick Marleau said. “As a group we were used to putting in that work and that little extra effort but I think it’s paid off for us taking that little extra rest and having it for games.”
When DeBoer was head coach of the New Jersey Devils, then team-GM Lou Lamoriello told the coach to find more ways to rest his players.
Throughout the years as the NHL expanded to more teams in more time zones the belief that on-ice practice made perfect didn’t carry as much weight. So DeBoer needed to find the right balance of off-days, off-ice workout days, on-ice workout days or video days.
“Lou Lamoriello was the guy that enlightened me that you don't have to coach just to coach, or because you feel you should be doing something, to try and get the group to the game with as much energy as possible, especially some of the older guys in the league,” DeBoer said. “Coming out here, we had a veteran team, most travel in the league. It just made sense.”
Early on, some of his players were confused. The belief is always that hockey players who are ‘first on ice, last off ice’ are harder workers and will find success. DeBoer had to convince his players that this wasn’t beneficial to them or the team. Working smarter over a regular season that stretches from October to April could mean more wins than working harder.
“It’s a little different. But you know where he’s coming from,” Marleau said. “He wants everybody fresh and everybody to have their energy for games."
Part of this was necessitated by San Jose’s travel schedule. According to On The Forecheck, the Sharks traveled 50,362 miles, most in the NHL, and had 14 back-to-backs. The team had to limit practices sometimes just because they didn't have time that day to skate because they were traveling.
“I think the way our schedule was this year, I think it was the weirdest, craziest schedule for the amount of miles we traveled,” forward Joel Ward said. “We definitely had a lot of off days.”
According to Ward, players started to really buy into the rest days during a six-game road trip in November. The Sharks went 6-0-0 on the voyage that included two sets of back-to-back games.
“I think it was a group where we came together of 'just make sure you’re doing the right things and taking care of each other and taking care of yourself,'” Ward said. “I think we kind of earned that respect from the coaches.”
There’s still a finesse to it to some degree at choosing what type of practice could work best. Marleau said players wear heart monitors to determine how much energy they’ve exerted, which helps the coaching staff figure overall practice strategy.
“He measures how hard practice is, if guys need a break,” Marleau said. “We have a lot of options so guys can get into a routine. It’s been good.”
Said defenseman Paul Martin, “I think part of it is finding that balance. I think Pete has done a good job of ‘OK, we need a skate’ or ‘a hard skate’ or ‘an easy skate’ or ‘a workout.’”
The rest days also helped older players buy into DeBoer and his systems. They appreciated the trust the coach placed in them by not being overbearing presence and forcing them to practice when the benefit could be marginal at best.
“For the guys we have in here, he trusts the leadership and the character we have in here. Guys take that and respect that,” Martin said. “When it’s time to work, you work and when it’s time to rest, you rest. I think what he’s put in place plays into a lot of guys and how they like to play and I think that benefits the team.”
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