People love to celebrate the toughness of hockey players, but sometimes, there comes a point where it’s better to be smart.
There’s an “easier said than done” element when it comes to considering “best practices.” For instance, if your team is barely holding onto a playoff spot, it might be tough to rest that crucial starting goalie.
The San Jose Sharks aren’t really in that position, though. While they’d like to catch the Calgary Flames for the top spot in the Pacific, a round of home-ice advantage looks pretty safe for them as of Tuesday, so they have the luxury to make wise decisions.
And here’s the wise decision, if you ask me (among others, including PHT’s Adam Gretz): the Sharks need to rest Erik Karlsson.
So far this season, Karlsson’s missed 10 games thanks to a nagging groin injury. Via The Sports Forecaster’s helpful listings, nine of those missed games came from mid-January to mid-February, and then the issues cropped up again right before the trade deadline.
After missing one more game, Karlsson returned for Tuesday’s contest against the Boston Bruins, and seemed to tweak that injury once again.
Now, it wouldn’t be surprising if Karlsson gritted his teeth to return to that game against the Bruins, or miss minimal time. But this issue sure seems like it’s lingering for the 28-year-old star.
If the Sharks were desperately fighting for every point, resting Karlsson would be a tougher sell. Instead, San Jose’s pretty comfortably placed in second place in the Pacific, while leaping to first would be a challenge:
Standings heading into Tuesday’s action
Three points is a tougher hurdle to clear than you might think, at least this late in the season, particularly since the Flames also hold a game in hand on the Sharks. Vegas is much more likely to fall out of the Pacific’s top three than catch San Jose.
So why not rest Karlsson, a player who’s clearly struggling with groin issues?
Really, the Sharks should be especially interested in the advantages of rest that we’ve seen embraced in other leagues, such as with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich deployed such methods during their most competitive days, and that seemed to pay off.
The Sharks have a lot going for them, but aside from a few exceptions like rising 22-year-old winger Timo Meier, this isn’t a young team. Brent Burns is older than casual fans might think at 33. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 31, and Karlsson is 28, and both of those defensemen have accrued a ton of mileage for their age. Joe Pavelski is somehow 34. Even Gustav Nyquist isn’t a spring chicken – at least in a league that demands speed like the NHL does these days – at 29.
(In other words, 39-year-old Joe Thornton isn’t the only guy battling Father Time in San Jose.)
At minimum, it just makes overwhelming sense for the Sharks to play it safe with a player who’s clearly not at 100-percent in Karlsson. Would you rather risk burnout to marginally improve odds of winning your division, or would you rather give your talented – but aging – roster as good a chance as possible at being fully healthy during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when you’re in for grueling battles every other night?
Plenty of other teams should be thinking about resting their big-minute guys (looking at you, Lightning), but the signs are basically neon flashing lights for the Sharks with Karlsson.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.