Hockey is a tough sport. This is not news to the players who’ve donned the black and gold over the past decade or the fan base that follows this team.
The current Boston Bruins are already beaten up, much like Bruins teams have been over the past two years. Add that to the fact that the core of the 2019-20 Bruins has seen a lot of hockey over the past 10 years or so, with a lot of that hockey taking place in grueling playoff runs, and it makes you wonder how long this team can continue playing at such a high level.
Taking all of this into account, and with the recent injury woes to Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Torey Krug, should the Bruins emulate the NBA and employ a load management strategy for their top players this season?
What is load management?
A International Olympic Committee Consensus statement on load management published in 2016 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine states:
The aim of load management is to optimally configure training, competition and other load to maximise adaptation and performance with a minimal risk of injury. Load management therefore comprises the appropriate prescription, monitoring and adjustment of external and internal loads.
Load management has probably gained its most notoriety from its usage in the NBA, with many teams now choosing to keep star players out of games and practices, and even from travelling with the team on road trips, in hopes of having them in their optimal shape when the games really matter.
While the brass at the top of the NBA frowns upon this strategy, feeling load management should only be used to deal with injuries, the practice of sitting star players continues to happen on a regular occasion.
The debate around load management
The advantages of load management seem quite apparent. If your best players are rested, thus at their peak level of performance, your team has a better chance of winning. And since everybody (players, coaches & management, and the fans) wants to win, what’s the big deal with load management?
Well let’s imagine this following scenario: You and your family are huge Bruins fans. In September, you decide you’re going to shell out the $1000+ to bring your wife and two kids to the TD Garden to see the Bruins play the Sabres in March. As the date of the game gets closer, the excitement grows, and you buy your family some new Bruins gear to wear to the game, including a new Brad Marchand jersey for your son because his favorite player is #63.
Finally game day arrives! You’re following the recent Bruins news on SCoC, when you find out that the Bruins, easily sitting in a playoff position, decide to sit their top line of Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak because the game is not deemed important enough and the Bruins want to rest their star players for the upcoming playoffs in April.
If you’re that family you’re obviously going to be pretty disappointed that you don’t get to watch the most dynamic line in hockey. Now imagine that this starts happening on a regular basis, and fans like this family start deciding its not worth the risk of spending so much money for B’s tickets and they choose to watch the game from home instead.
Obviously, empty seats in TD Garden are not going to go over well with the Jacobs family and this idea of resting players might have to come to an end.
The scenario above outlines just one of the debates that surround load management. There are also many questions about whether this strategy works at all, and if it could in fact have a detrimental effect on a team’s chemistry and performance.
To look at this issue a little further let’s examine a couple of recent load management examples.
Kawhi Leonard (2018 – 2019 Toronto Raptors)
As a Canadian, the Toronto Raptors’ success story last year was impossible to avoid in the media, and for good reason. After years of dressing a competitive squad, only to run into LeBron James and the Cavaliers year after year in the playoffs, the Raptors pulled it off and were the first Canadian basketball team to ever win an NBA championship.
At the heart of the championship was Kawhi Leonard. Ask any Raptors fan if this championship would have been possible without Leonard, and I’m sure any sane fans would say no.
The thing about Leonard is that he is probably the “poster boy” for load management in the NBA. Leonard was sitting out games and practices before load management was even a thing in the NBA. The Raptors, of course, knew this when they traded for Leonard and were willing to go along with sitting Leonard for future success…and it worked.
Leonard only played in 60 of Toronto’s 82 games in the regular season, was absolutely dominant in the playoffs. Just ask the Magic, Sixers, Bucks and Warriors about this. Leonard not only drove the team’s offence night after night, but was also a force on the defensive end (sound like anyone familiar on the Bruins?).
Given Leonard’s injury background, would this have been possible if he played in all of the Raptors’ regular season games?
Tuukka Rask (2018 – 2019 Boston Bruins)
Another example of the possible benefits of load management (one that’s much more directly related to us on this site) is the play of Tuukka Rask in the B’s playoff run last year.
When the Bruins signed Jaroslav Halak, many people weren’t sure what to think. Coming off some brutal times with the Isles, it wasn’t clear what the veteran goalie could bring to Boston. Then, Halak showed us what he was capable of by perhaps being the best back-up in the NHL last year.
Perhaps even more important than Halak’s play itself was the fact that Rask didn’t have to play as much. For all those Rask haters out there, Rask’s play all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final clearly gave them nothing to chime in about….at least for a little while.
It could be legitimately argued that the Bruins would not have made it past the Leafs and Blue Jackets if it wasn’t for Tuukka Rask’s performances in net. This brings up the same question: would this have happened if Rask had played 65-70 games last year in the regular season?
I hate to write this, but it’s worth wondering too: if the Bruins had been a little more rested/healthier against the Blues, would they be Cup champions? How about in 2013 as well, when the Bruins were so beat up that their best (and healthiest) line in the Final was comprised of Chris Kelly, Daniel Paille, and Tyler Seguin?
The 2019-2020 Bruins
As mentioned at the top, the Bruins have already faced significant injury problems this season. Some are lingering injuries from the previous year, while others occurred at some point between training camp and now.
Some of these injuries also keep flaring up (e.g. Brett Ritchie) and perhaps require significant time off to fully heal. The Bruins’ core is also one year older, which after 30 typically doesn’t translate into becoming better (unless your name is Brad Marchand or Patrice Bergeron, apparently.)
Despite all of these injuries, the Bruins find themselves currently at the top of the Atlantic Division and only 2 points out of top spot in the league, behind the Washington Capitals, who have played two more games than Boston. With all this in mind, is now the time for the Bruins to consider resting key players at various points over the course of the season?
Would you, a fan of the Bruins, be willing to stomach seeing some of the team’s marquee players sit once in a while to see greater playoff success?
It’s worth wondering what the practice of load management would look like in the NBA. Sitting players on the second half of back-to-backs? Sitting players against weaker teams? Sitting players only on road games (to appease the fans and ownership)? Giving players random weeks off?
A lot of questions to be answered, but not many answers to be given at this moment. Thoughts?