The Nashville Predators announced on Thursday afternoon that forward Calle Jarnkrok will be sidelined for the remainder of the regular season due to an upper-body injury.
Given that Jarnkrok has 16 goals and 35 total points in 68 games this season it is not an insignificant injury for the Predators. But as long as he is back for the start of the playoffs it really is not going to be all that damaging of a blow because of their current place in the standings.
As of Thursday they are in first place in the Central Division (eight points ahead of the second-place Jets) and five points ahead of Vegas for the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference. Barring a major collapse down the stretch they should be in a pretty good position to wrap up both spots.
All of that brings us to something teams like the Predators — who have been doing this already — and Tampa Bay Lightning should consider down the stretch run of the regular season: Giving some of their key players an occasional night off.
This is taking a page out of the NBA playbook, but NHL teams that are pretty secure in their playoff spot should do it a lot more often. The NHL season (including regular season and playoffs) is an intense physical and mental grind, and lot of times the playoffs don’t just come down to the best team, they come down to the healthiest team.
Nashville is a team that has already played a ton of hockey the past two seasons given its run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago and it doesn’t exactly have a light schedule coming up down the stretch.
Eight of their remaining 13 games are on the road.
They have two sets of back-to-back remaining.
Along with that, they have a couple of stretches where they play four games in six nights.
[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]
That is a lot of hockey down where they don’t really have a ton to gain. What would it hurt to sit a different key player or two each game during those stretches? Just to keep their legs fresh, maybe reduce even a little bit of the wear and tear that goes along with the grind of playing in the NHL. It is a given that starting goalie Pekka Rinne will sit on those back-to-back nights and probably a few more games here and there.
But it does not have to stop there. Pick one night, give P.K. Subban the night off. Do the same for Filip Forsberg on the next night. Will it make a huge difference in the end? Probably not, but it can’t hurt, either, especially when there is very little to gain in the standings.
Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, there’s already been talk about fatigue setting in for starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, going through his first full season as a No. 1 goalie and the Lightning have tried to schedule some spots where he can get some additional rest. As good as the rest of the Lightning roster is it is going to need a healthy and productive Vasilevskiy in the playoffs if it is going to go on a deep postseason run.
Tampa Bay’s schedule isn’t quite as grueling as Nashville’s down the stretch in terms of travel, but it still has a four-game-in-seven-night stretch at the end of the month and three more sets of back-to-backs. There is no reason that a player like Victor Hedman, for example, should be playing 26 minutes a night in all of those back-to-backs.
When it comes to the subject of rest there is always a bit of controversy that goes with it because fans pay a ton of money for tickets and expect to see star players in action. If you buy a ticket to a Lightning game you want to see Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Vasilevskiy on the ice playing at their best. But the team’s biggest obligation to the fan base is to put itself in the best possible position to win a championship. Hockey is probably the last sport this sort of strategy would be widely implemented (“resting” players seems to run counter to the grind it out, we’re tougher than you mindset the sport likes to sell), but it’s probably the sport where it would make the most sense given the length of the season and the physical nature of the games.
If giving a couple of star players an occasional night off down the stretch for a regular season game that probably does not have a ton of importance in the standings helps improve those chances even a little bit, it is something that is worth considering.