In pandemic-condensed season, NHL morning skates mount comeback
Staple of bygone era has become precious teaching time in COVID-19 era
D.J. Smith knows what the data suggests.
NHL players strapping on their gear for a morning skate seven or eight hours before a game probably isn't the best use of energy.
But in an abbreviated, pandemic-condensed season where practice time is limited and days off priceless, the Ottawa Senators head coach sees benefits in a hockey tradition that, for many in recent years, has come to be viewed as nothing more than an archaic nod to the past.
And he's not alone.
One of the sport's staples from a bygone era, morning skates that see players handle the puck for roughly 15 or 20 minutes were often used as a kind of roll call to make sure everyone was out of bed and in the right frame of mind.
In a 56-game campaign brought on by COVID-19 where teams might suit up for as many as five games in seven nights — with travel mixed in — those brief on-ice sessions could be more important than ever as coaching staffs look to find a balance between rest and instruction.
"They're going to have value," Calgary Flames bench boss Geoff Ward said. "We have to use them as practices."
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Schedule changes due to coronavirus outbreaks in various locker rooms across the league have already compressed things even further. For example, the Florida Panthers will play 54 games in 102 days, while the Dallas Stars, who previously had 17 players test positive, have the same number of contests stretched over 104 dates.
"You may see that there's going to be some teaching and some structure [the morning of a game]," Ward said. "You could see it in terms of reviewing one or two things on top of what you normally want to accomplish in a morning skate, just to prepare yourselves because practice time is going to be at such a premium."
A creature of habit and routine like most hockey players, Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares is a fan of hitting the ice in the hours before puck drop during a normal season, but also acutely aware of the other side.
"Morning skates are something that have been around for a long time and have been so integrated in the game," he said. "A lot has been looked at in terms of the volume [of work] you're putting yourself through — sports science has become a big part of that.
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"When you're playing four games a week, having to put your gear on again and have meaningful stress on the body, when you're preparing yourself, sometimes it's going to be necessary. But other times you're going to be in such a rhythm of the season that I'm sure it will still be a balance of trying to find what's best and keeping players fresh and healthy."
Edmonton Oilers winger Zack Kassian said it's crucial NHLers manage their energy levels, especially in a season that's been likened to a sprint.
"Morning skates are important," he said. "Are they beneficial? Depends who you ask. Some guys like to go out and feel the puck. Some prefer to stay off the ice and do a lot of stretching."
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said his philosophy on what he wants out of pre-game workouts will depend on the schedule.
"If we don't have a practice [the previous day], that's when you would see us have a full team skate," he said. "A little more teaching and little bit more structure-based rather than just getting them out and getting a little bit of a sweat.
"We'll adapt to it."
'Teaching all the time'
New York Rangers head coach David Quinn agreed schedules will play a role, but added in general, morning skates should hold more weight in 2021.
"Without question I think they are going to be more important," he said. "When you do use them, you're going to have to use them from a teaching standpoint — work on some of the things you wouldn't normally work on at a pre-game skate."
But not everyone is one board.
Philadelphia Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault has never been a fan of morning skates, and doesn't expect that opinion to change or his teaching to increase.
"I think players need to touch the ice once in between games," he said. "That should permit them to have their timing and their energy level right."
Smith, whose roster is sprinkled with young players still getting their feet wet in the NHL, expects to use morning skates as a tool all season long.
"Some people believe in them, some don't," he said. "But with a team like ours, I think we've got to be practising and be teaching all the time."