Shortened season comes with more pressure and urgency
Kelly Hrudey was not accustomed to being pulled into his coach’s office for a chat after the first game of the regular season. But this wasn’t a normal season.
The Los Angeles Kings goaltender could probably have been excused for showing a little rust when play resumed in January 1995 after an extended lockout and an abbreviated training camp. After all, it was essentially his first meaningful game in eight months when the Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Kings at the Great Western Forum on opening night.
“We tied 3-3 and I had let in a really bad goal,” Hrudey recalled in a recent interview. “I remember (coach) Barry Melrose said ’We just can’t have that in this season because it’s so short and we can’t give you two weeks to get ready.’
“I remember that part about it, there was a real sense of urgency which you don’t normally have for a season.”
The 48-game schedule was crammed into 104 days that year and saw NHL teams play only opponents within their own conference. There had never been anything like it before. And it proved to be a pretty wild ride.
Like many coaches who currently find themselves preparing for the start of training camps on Sunday and a Jan. 19 puck drop, Melrose felt he had done everything he possibly could to hit the ground running when the lockout ended.
Once the deal was finally signed, he was instead hit with a reality check.
“All of a sudden when it happened everything just accelerated, just blew up,” said Melrose. “You went from nothing to knowing you had to start the season in 10 days. We’d been preparing for a long time but we were not really prepared.
“Things happened very quickly.”
Melrose didn’t finish the season behind the Kings bench. He was replaced by Rogie Vachon with just seven games to play and Los Angeles floundering in the standings at 13-21-7.
It proved to be a difficult year for coaches around the league, with nine of 26 teams making a change either midway through the season or immediately afterwards.
Melrose believes the shortened schedule put teams under the microscope and left players more susceptible to injury. And with playoff races essentially starting from Day 1, the pressure was even more intense.
“A losing streak was bigger than it would normally be, a winning streak was much bigger and an injury was much bigger,” said Melrose.
With another short season on the horizon, the scenario could repeat itself.
“I would definitely think that a lot of (coaches) would be on the hot seat again,” said Hrudey, now a CBC commentator. “Just because you’re playing a shortened season doesn’t mean that anybody’s off the hook, either.”
There were plenty of aspects that players enjoyed about their experience in 1995 — “all of us were glued to the standings,” said Hrudey — and Melrose felt the heightened intensity underscored that the normal 82-game format was too long.
With the new tentative agreement — which was reached by the league and the players’ association last weekend — expected to be ratified on Saturday, general managers are currently trying to get a handle on how a short training camp and 48-schedule will impact their teams.
“Probably the biggest issue is not having any pre-season games,” said Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. “It is one thing to skate and check out (the players’) conditioning, but you don’t get a chance to experiment much with lineups and lines and combinations. I think that’s the hardest thing for managers right now.”
There won’t be much time to dig out of an early hole if a team struggles out of the gate.
“A 5-0 start could be golden and an 0-5 start could be deadly,” said Nashville Predators GM David Poile.
Steve Yzerman was in the middle of his long run as captain of the Detroit Red Wings in 1995 and saw his team advance to the Stanley Cup final before losing to New Jersey that spring.
Now the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he struggles to recall the keys to success in a condensed year.
Asked whether it benefits a youthful or veteran lineup, he said: “I’ll answer that for you in about four months.”
“Whoever wins the Stanley Cup we’re all going to look back and say ’That was the way it should be done,”’ he added.
Having lived it the last time, Melrose feels he has the answer now.
The key for the coach-turned-ESPN-commentator is realizing how important it is for everyone to be as committed as possible from the moment training camp starts. Teams won’t have very long to find mid-season form.
“It’s sort of a new mindset for everybody,” said Melrose. “That’s going to be something the coaches have to get through to the players too — you don’t have a cushion this time. You can’t slowly get into the game mentally and physically.
“You’ve got to be ready at the drop of the puck in the first game.”