Growing up I was more of an NBA fan than an NHL fan until around the time of this famous SI cover in 1994. It was around the timeperiod where the Nets had young, exciting teams with stars such as Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson and the late, great Drazen Petrovic. Until the mid ’90’s it was easier for me to get into the Nets than the Devils for the simple reason that I couldn’t watch the Devils while I certainly remember seeing some Nets games on channel 9 (WOR). The Devils’ playoff run in 1994 and getting SportsChannel the following year meant I got to see more of their games, and what an exciting sport the NHL was. That, combined with the Nets falling on hard times made it easier for me as a teenager to fully gravitate toward the NHL. It’s hard to be a true fan of two sports teams that play by the same calendar so I’d describe myself as more of a casual Nets fan these days. I still hope they win a title this year though, despite the fact they moved out of NJ it’s not like Brooklyn is in another timezone.
I highly like and respect Nets GM Sean Marks for the way he was able to turn that team around after they were stuck without picks for years and up against the cap, they became a playoff team inside of three years and suddenly were a destination for a lot of NBA stars to want to go play for. I use him as an example for fellow Devils fans who actually think our rebuild should be taking 8-10 years. That said, stuff like what happened last night makes me glad I’m an NHL fan over being an NBA fan. A cliffnotes version of it is this – the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers went into last night tied with the same record and in the season series. Last night’s matchup on national TV determined who would get the tiebreaker for the #1 seed. And the Nets somehow picked last night to rest star forward Kevin Durant and some other players over doing it the previous night against a weak Minnesota team they beat by about forty points. It basically seemed like Marks intentionally picked the more marquee game to rest players just to tweak the league.
I get the concept of load management in spite of the fact I’m about to mock it, but when you do it in games that ostensibly have meaning and the fans want to see, that’s offputting to anyone who roots for your team and watches your sport. You’re still in the entertainment business here, guys. I get the NBA regular season is the most meaningless of all regular seasons for an elite team like the Nets, but it’s not like load management is confined to the NBA alone anymore. Baseball teams are sitting guys left and right the first week of the season for no reason other than the mythical belief you’ll get peak performance if you play someone 130 games in a season instead of 155. Maybe it’s actually true, but how do you actually know the player will still be there in August whether you ‘preserve’ them now or not? Or that the five extra games you’re sitting someone out now won’t cost you the playoffs later on, in a sport where you still only get 33% of the league in? It’s just plain arrogance trying to reinvent the wheel. That’s actually nothing compared to what teams are doing vis-a-vis pitching but you could write books about that one, just ask Blake Snell.
Not counting the NFL (which because of the small number of games is ironically the other major sport that doesn’t have load management), I’m glad the NHL is one of the last holdouts on teams just resting their star players for no particular reason, or worse picking the most marquee game to do it out of plain spite. You think the Penguins would ever scratch Sidney Crosby against the Capitals on NBC whether they were in a playoff spot by ten plus points or not? I don’t see Connor McDavid sitting against the Flames on any HNIC weekend broadcasts in February. Thankfully the only time you see any form of load management in the NHL is vis-a-vis goaltenders. Whereas in the past goalies would play 65-70 games, now the number is more like 55-60. Still, it’s not like Carey Price is gonna sit against the Bruins while playing against a second-division club in a back to back or Henrik Lundqvist will randomly leave the Rangers two or three times a year – cough Kyrie Irving cough, or Dennis Rodman if you want to go back further for another nutcase that had to be managed.
The only time teams themselves start resting guys en masse in the NHL is either a week before the playoffs (assuming they’re already in) or holding guys out before the trade deadline in anticipation of a deal. That’s an acceptable risk baked into the end of a long regular season and just before the beginning of a grueling playoffs. Barring injury, Crosby looks to play the same 82 games per season Wayne Gretzky did in an earlier generation. I realize a lot of this is team-driven as opposed to player-driven, so in spite of all my kvetching over the NHL’s analytics nerds, I’m thankful they haven’t talked front offices into playing the load management game yet. I hope it lasts but I can’t be sure it’ll never happen. All it takes is one team to win games while showing that rotating guys in and out of the lineup is a viable strategy and you’ll get copycats.
Ironically, I actually kinda wish the Devils (and other teams with a similar schedule like the Sabres, Stars and now Canucks going forward) HAD started load managementing the back end of their roster for this season only – especially with the advent of taxi squads, and controlling minutes for their top players during an insane schedule. It’s just not in the culture of the sport though, and I’d rather have that, than the alternative of other sports. I do get the nature of rosters probably makes it inherently harder in the NHL than it is in other sports, where if you sit out 3 or 4 guys in the NBA you can still rotate 10 or so, since only five play at once. Baseball eight guys out of twelve or thirteen position players play so it’s easier there than it is when you have twenty guys out of twenty-three on an active roster playing, not to mention the salary cap machinations of trying to shuttle guys with and without options down to the AHL and back.
It also has to be said hockey has the most parity of the three non-NFL seasonal sports. Basketball you obviously need star power, without it you’re an also-ran while in baseball there’s a huge disparity in spending and because so few teams make the playoffs you have more teams selling off at the deadline and taking a pass on being competitive at all. As annoying as the whole two point-three point system can be at times, the loser point probably does increase the perceived parity in the NHL. For that and other reasons (like the cap and the fact half the league makes the playoffs) that help drive parity, it’s harder for teams to just flat out assume they’ll be in the postseason enough to make presumptive moves.
Whatever you want to attribute hockey’s lack of load management to, I just hope we don’t come on the day soon where hockey joins the crowd on this issue.