NHL on NBC: Lightning should already be mulling rest vs. rust (and playoff positioning)

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings. Lightning-Red Wings stream coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

In a parity-packed NHL, few teams enjoy the luxury of mulling over the “rest vs. rust” conundrum. For some time now, the Lightning have been one of those teams with a playoff ticket punched earlier than just about everyone else, so it’s really never too early to at least mull over such decisions. In facing a Red Wings team pondering an even-more-far-flung future, this is actually a great opportunity for the Lightning to strategically rest key players.

If history repeats itself, they might not be all that interested in resting the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, and other key veterans, though.

Let’s unpack a variety of factors that the Lightning should at least consider, particularly on games like Sunday’s match with the Red Wings: back-to-back sets with limited playoff implications.

Changing stakes in the Central Division?

Before Aaron Ekblad‘s stomach-churning March 28 injury, the Lightning had more than just pride driving them to win the Central Division. Falling into the No. 2 vs. No. 3 series meant facing either a loaded Hurricanes team, or a rising Panthers team that probably doesn’t deserve the skepticism it receives.

While the Panthers have the sort of talent and coaching that could keep them viable, Ekblad’s injury does make the Cats a bit less ferocious.

By no means should the Lightning totally relax. But could it make the drive to win the Central Division a bit less desperate? The Lightning are probably too proud for such thoughts — at least to air them publicly. It’s still a new factor that’s at least worth mentioning.

(Again, none of this should take away from the Panthers entirely. Credit them for taking care of business after seeing Ekblad go down with an injury that you seriously shouldn’t watch if you aren’t required to.)

Now, with that esoteric bit out of the way, here’s more on the rest vs. rust conundrum.

Lightning might have mixed feelings about rest vs. rust based on recent playoff experiences

During the Lightning’s historic 2018-19 regular season, they clinched the Presidents’ Trophy weeks before the season was over. It was obvious far before that, but they had home-ice advantage locked up with nine games remaining.

Yet, even in late March, Jon Cooper shrugged off the idea of resting players, as the Hockey News’ Ken Campbell noted.

“There’s integrity in the game and I 100 percent believe that comes into play,” Cooper said in March 2019. “I know we’ve put ourselves in a position where you don’t have to care, but I don’t think you can switch it on and off. And people say, ‘Why don’t you rest guys?’ But resting might be instead of playing 26 minutes, you play 18 minutes. To me, if you start sitting guys out, you’re telling your guys, ‘This player means more to the team than another guy,’ and I don’t ever want to do that. Nobody’s above our team.”

[RED WINGS- LIGHTNING COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

Now, the “playing 18 minutes instead of 26” bit seems promising … but even then, it’s unclear if that was really Cooper’s M.O.

Victor Hedman is the go-to example there. While he didn’t even play eight minutes during the Lightning’s season-closer, Hedman’s ice time ranged from 25:42 to as much as 28:35 during the Lightning’s last four games (March 20-25, 2019) before they ended the season.

It’s hard not to think of that usage when you recall that Hedman was far from 100-percent when the Lightning suffered that humiliating first-round sweep against the Blue Jackets. Hedman only played in two of those playoff games, and didn’t look like himself. We’re talking “David Savard looking like a silky scorer” Hedman not looking himself.

Of course, Cooper might point out that the Lightning won their last Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos barely playing. Add a dash of hindsight-based narratives about that Blue Jackets sweep being necessary, and boom, maybe the Lightning don’t revisit the “rest vs. rust” debate.

But they should at least think long and hard about it.

(After all, if they’re so concerned about hurting players’ feelings, would they have put Tyler Johnson on waivers? Seemed a little, you know, cold and business-like.)

The Vasilevskiy example

Truly, it’s been remarkable to see Andrei Vasilevskiy grow from a goalie possibly propped up a bit to one who outright belongs among the elite. So maybe he’s totally attuned to life as one of the NHL’s true workhorses, which he’s absolutely been for some time.

It might be worth recalling that Vasilevskiy once spoke of being worn out by the workload of a No. 1 goalie.

“Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” Vasilevskiy told Joe Smith in March 2018. “I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.’”

Again, the Lightning could offer the rebuttal that Vasilevskiy has adjusted. And with backup Curtis McElhinney at age 37 and with a poor .882 save percentage, they might not feel like they have much of a choice.

That’s where that rest vs. rust debate expands into sacrificing some of the present in hopes of giving yourself a best chance for future playoff success, however.

Players the Lightning may want to rest (vs. Red Wings, and others)

Here are a few players the Lightning might want to rest, who might benefit, and why.

  • Victor Hedman: It may be hard to believe, but Hedman’s already 30. Sunday’s Red Wings – Lightning game would be his 800th regular-season contest. He’s averaging 25:31 TOI per game, three-plus minutes more than any other TBL skater.

The Lightning may also want to give Ryan McDonagh, 31, the occasional breather. Tampa Bay’s finally unleashing Mikhail Sergachev (22:11 TOI average), but hey, why not see how he deals with even more minutes? Granted, this would be easier with a healthy Erik Cernak. Then again, who knows what will happen during what the Lightning hope would be another long playoff run?

  • Andrei Vasilevskiy: Again, he’s acknowledged fatigue before. He’s been a workhorse this season. While he’s chasing another Vezina Trophy, the Lightning can probably thread the needle between his individual aims and getting rest. (That might require either eating some losses, or getting a goalie via trades or waivers, though.)
  • Steven Stamkos: Another player who’s 30, and might prompt you to meme about your age.

One player’s rest is another player’s audition

One could also counter many potential Cooper arguments.

If Cooper’s worried about favoritism (*snickers*), they can rotate multiple players. From Alex Killorn (31) to Ondrej Palat (29), there are plenty of players who might benefit from some R&R (aka jet ski time).

Beyond that, there’s something to be said for “gathering intel.” If Hedman, Vasilevskiy, or others get hurt or hit a cold streak, don’t you want to know who might step up? Maybe you’d find a Plan C or D to go with that Plan B.

In the past, Cooper and the Lightning chose to shake off rust instead of getting that rest. And that was a case where it made even more sense than now, when the Lightning are by no means guaranteed home-ice advantage.

The Lightning are generally a smart team — maybe the brightest in the NHL — so they should at least be thinking long and hard about these questions. Yes, even now.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.