Should the NHL take a page from the NBA’s book and start resting its stars?

 

 
 
 
 
The Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, left, regularly leads the forwards in ice time and plays in all situations.
 

The Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, left, regularly leads the forwards in ice time and plays in all situations.

Photograph by: Michael Peake

In hockey, the term used is “maintenance day.”

It sounds a lot like someone is taking his body to the auto shop for a tire rotation and a tune-up, but it mostly means a player was too sore to practise. By now, no one questions it. Hockey is a physical sport. If you need to skip work to soak in an ice bath or get a massage, go do it.

The question is why doesn’t it happen on game days?

Maybe it should. Maybe it is and we just don’t know.

Two days after Auston Matthews was a game-time decision in a 4-3 shootout win against the Vegas Golden Knights, and one day after he missed practice with “soreness,” the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs sat out Wednesday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild. The official word from head coach Mike Babcock is that Matthews is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

The unofficial word was that he needed a break. And few could blame him.

This is a brutal part of the schedule for the Leafs. After playing four games in six nights on the road last week — three in California and one in St. Louis — they returned home for another four games in six nights this week. In total, they play eight games in 13 days, two of which are on back-to-back nights.

If this was the middle of March, perhaps whatever is ailing Matthews wouldn’t have kept him out of the lineup. But if you are going to miss a game to rest a bump or a bruise, better to do it in the second week of November when the points in the standings don’t seem as dire.

“I think you’re never going to feel 100%,” Matthews said after Monday’s win against Vegas, in which he had an assist and logged a game-high 21 minutes and 11 seconds among forwards. “But I felt good enough to play and good enough to contribute.”

It was another way of saying that he had gutted out and played through whatever was bothering him. He might have done the same on Wednesday, except he either couldn’t or was advised not to for fear of it becoming worse.

Whatever the reason, he took the night off and it wasn’t a big deal — or at least it should be. The Leafs won’t play goalie Frederik Andersen in every game this week, because they don’t want him to burn out. But if Andersen needs rest, why doesn’t Matthews, who is averaging a minute more in ice time than any other Toronto forward and plays in all the critical situations?

The answer has more to do with hockey’s warrior mentality than any stats-based reasoning.

Yes, you need Matthews on the ice to win games. He is a top-five scorer in the league with 10 goals and 19 points in 16 games this season. He already has two game-winning goals and assisted on another game-winner. Draw up a list of Hart Trophy candidates so far and his name would be among them.

Even if he is hobbling, Toronto is a better team with Matthews in the lineup. But you could say the same thing about Andersen, who provides Toronto with a far better chance of success than backup goalie Curtis McElhinney.

The only difference is that it’s become acceptable for starting goalies to get the second night of a back-to-back off. Asking a forward or defenceman to do the same runs counter to a hockey culture where players hide concussions and huff smelling salts on the bench. That could explain why the league introduced mandated bye weeks. Without them, players such as iron man Andrew Cogliano, who played in his 800th consecutive game this week, would never sit out. Even Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who admitted some players have taken rest days this season, joked that “everyone would play every night if I was in charge of that.”

“For sure, no question about it,” said Babcock. “But sometimes you get bumped or you get hacked or things happen. The other things we did earlier is we sat out Marty (Matt Martin) and JVR (James van Riemsdyk) one time.

“You’ve got to try to use your head the best you can.”

It’s not like this in the NBA, where resting star players has gone from that quirky thing the San Antonio Spurs did to what’s now become an accepted practice. Every team does it to some extent. Of course, it’s easier to do in a sport in which teams such as the Golden State Warriors have already locked up a playoff spot by November.

The NHL has far more parity to risk going into a game with a disadvantaged roster. Every point, whether it’s in April or October, matters in the standings. At the same time, taking one player off an NHL roster should have less of an impact as taking a player off an NBA roster, since NHL star players are on the ice significantly less than NBA stars.

In the past, the Penguins have gone weeks and months without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the lineup and not missed a beat. The Canadiens are undefeated in the three games that Carey Price has been out, while the Senators were without Erik Karlsson for their first five games of the season and ended up not losing any of those in regulation.

While Matthews is important to the Leafs’ success, this is a team that has so much depth that Mitch Marner was playing on the fourth line and NHL-calibre players such as Josh Leivo and Kasperi Kapanen are unable to get into the lineup on a regular basis.

Toronto should survive. And Matthews, whenever he is healthy — or well-rested — will be the better for it.

Email: mtraikos@postmedia.com | Twitter:

 
 
 
Font:
 
 
 
 
The Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, left, regularly leads the forwards in ice time and plays in all situations.
 

The Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, left, regularly leads the forwards in ice time and plays in all situations.

Photograph by: Michael Peake

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We encourage all readers to share their views on our articles and blog posts. We are committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion, so we ask you to avoid personal attacks, and please keep your comments relevant and respectful. If you encounter a comment that is abusive, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report spam or abuse. We are using Facebook commenting. Visit our FAQ page for more information.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Your voice