With the introduction of bye weeks into the NHL schedule beginning in the 2016-17 season, thanks to a bargain that brought about the much-improved NHL All-Star format, scheduling the season has had to become a little bit more difficult for those who are shouldered with the responsibility. The crunch of games that we sometimes see when the NHL actually (and wonderfully) sent players to the Olympics now happens on a yearly basis, thanks to players being given long stretches of time off in January.
This season, the New Jersey Devils did not play a game between January 20th and the 27th, an 8-day stretch, something basically unheard of before except in Olympic years. However, with the regular season starting and ending around the same time each year, those missed days for games need to be made up somewhere. The Devils did have a crazy stretch before that break too, playing 11 games in 20 days between December 31st and January 19th without having 2 consecutive days off. However, the stretch the team is currently in is even worse.
Between February 5th and March 2nd, a stretch of 26 days, New Jersey will play or have played in 15 games with only 11 off days, again none of those coming consecutively. Conversely, they have two back-to-backs, the one they just completed, on the road against Chicago and Minnesota, and again March 1-2, at home against Philadelphia and on the road in Boston.
In terms of who they are facing during this stretch, of course everyone apart from Ottawa, who they play on the 21st, is above them in the standings. Every team is above them in the standings excepting the Sens. However, most of their opponents are sitting in playoff positions or are just barely out. The initial four game home stretch had NJ playing the Isles, the best team in the division, Minnesota, a wild card team currently, and Carolina, the first team out of the playoffs in the east and only three points out at that. This three game road trip they just completed then had them play St. Louis, sitting in a divisional playoff spot in the Central as of last night, Chicago, only two points out in the West and on a roll, and Minnesota again. Coming up, the Devils still have to play Pittsburgh, Montreal, Calgary, and Boston, all playoff teams as of this writing.
I understand that the Devils are a bad hockey team, so anyone coming up on the schedule is a tough team to beat. And granted, a lot of you probably don’t want the team to win these games. The odds aren’t looking so bad at a second lottery win since Taylor Hall came to New Jersey at the moment. But my point does not really rest on how it affects the current team today. Instead, it really is a discussion of both what if, and the benefits/drawbacks of the current setup.
First, yes this brutal stretch of schedule does not mean anything to a team crashing badly. In fact, for anyone wanting them to lose, it is a blessing. But what if this were the Devils of last year, needing every point to remain in a tight playoff race? We would be looking at this quite differently, just praying for them to get through this stretch with their heads still above water, looking for any point possible each and every night, wondering when they could finally rest a couple days and recover. For any current teams in playoff contention, I am sure some have similar stretches, if not many considering the bye weeks now. The way the schedule is set up, it could make or break some teams in the long run.
That of course leads to the drawbacks that these bye weeks bring. I understand fully the players’ desire to have time off during the season. Just like the dog days of summer for the baseball season is brutal for players, I can imagine the dead of winter being the same for hockey players. Having that break to look forward to can keep people energized and fighting, even when it seems like motivation should easily be intrinsically found.
But the drawback to that break is easily found, and the Devils are in the middle of it right now. The break might be a haven for players, but when it is followed up by 15 games in 26 days, with back-to-backs to play but never consecutive days off, that has to make the bye week seem like a distant memory. To me, it just seems like the price to pay is rather high, especially if it creates issues with competitive balance. I can’t say whether it does or doesn’t with the new format of having everyone have off around the same time, but the possibility is there for teams to get worn down during these long stretches, and suffer for it.
Of course, I am not a player, and if the players are happy with having these tough stretches if it means a break in January, then what can I really say? However, what bothers me the most is that this will now happen yearly because of the new scheduling, but not with respect to the Olympics. The League was willing to concede more awkward scheduling to allow a bye week mid-season, but won’t do it in an Olympic year for those two weeks. I get the reason they didn’t send the players last year was for a different reason than scheduling, but it still bothers me nonetheless.
Regardless, the Devils are currently 2-4-1 during this 15-game stretch. We’ll see how they end up on March 3rd. While it cannot get too much worse than that in terms of a record, I am not sure if it will be much better either. We shall see.