Thursday, October 30, 2008

Time For A Change

Coach Can We Lengthen The Shifts Now?

With a second article on ice time already this season, you probably all think I sit there with a stop watch analysing line changes all game. I don't, but the length of NHL shifts (and the inherently related topic of player fitness) has been something that has interested me for some time. A recent event triggered a memory and the memory triggered a rant. And so it goes.

Sitting at home watching the final stages of the Canadiens Hurricanes game the other night, I was fully astounded by what I saw. It was something so uncommon, running so purposefully against the grain of ingrained coaching wisdom that one couldn't help but sit up and take notice.

With half the overtime period gone, Mike Komisarek plasters Eric Staal into the boards. As Staal was not injured, the hit was clean. But the separation between the two players and again between player and boards made it an awkward hit. Legal in the eyes of the ref. Obviously not in the eyes of Staal. From his prone position, Staal tangled himself in Komisarek's legs and brought him down. A penalty is called, in overtime. Hallelujah there are rules in OT (that's clearly a topic for another time).

What happened next was the interesting bit.

For the 4 on 3 opportunity, Carbonneau sent out what could only described as the old boys. Well, old boys with Markov instead of Brisebois or Hamrlik. Lang, Kovalev, Koivu and Markov then proceeded to put on the most exciting display of hockey (form a Habs point of view) for the whole 65 minutes. They had sustained possession, pressure and were peppering the net with shots (4 on target, 5 off-target or blocked). For a good minute after winning the puck back, the Habs group had complete possession and control and had no opportunity to leave the ice.


The first stoppage was at 4:26 in OT making the shift 1:51 seconds for all four players. Interestingly (and sensibly), Carbo stuck with the four same players to finish out the game. All told, the three forwards ended up playing the final 2:25 of the game with only a minute or so rest. Markov, who had been on the ice for the infraction before the PP played almost the entire final 4 minutes, in addition to a 40 second shift to start the period.

My point: It is possible!


The fixation on 45 seconds
The basis for a 45 second shift is not random. Average human physiology shows that relatively well-trained athletes can endure about 45 seconds of anaerobic activity in a spurt without inducing the lactic acid system. So players can sprint, check, stop, start, all at full power for about 45 seconds without requiring too much recovery time. If a player slips into the lactic acid zone, the time for recovery is exponentially longer than it would be if he hadn't. Repeat incursions into the lactic acid zone require a good few minutes to shake it out (so not very conducive of good hockey).

So the theory is correct.

The problem as I see it, is that the theory relies wholly on the assumption that players are exerting themselves to the fullest extent (at least 135%, not a mere 110%, if you hear the players) all the time.

I don't know about you, but in watching a lot of hockey, it doesn't seem to me that that is the case. Maybe in the final period of the Stanley Cup finals, maybe for 5 minutes here and there throughout a season. But game in game out, I don't think some of these players are even doing anaerobic exertion for more than a few seconds every other shift. And, if players aren't going all out, then the 45 second reasoning is less valid.

So, is it time for a moratorium on short shifts?

Consider this point of view, which I borrow from a very well hidden article in an IIHF hockey forum:
Short shifts produce two frustrating results. First, teams spend so much time changing lines on the fly that they rarely have a chance to generate momentum or create an offensive flurry. They go up and back, get to center ice, dump the puck in, and head off on a line change.

The second problem is that star players don't play nearly as much today as stars of previous eras, both on a shift-by-shift basis and an overall ice-time basis. Wayne Gretzky routinely stayed out for lengthy stretches, double-shifting at his coach's insistence. Today, Sidney Crosby routinely is on the ice for 30 or 40 seconds and then heads off to allow those proverbial fresh troops on to the ice.

I do sympathise with a coach who needs to impose a universal system, designed so that even the least fit, least intelligent player (lowest common denominator) can adhere, but this guy makes a point. I have at times both recently and in the past been frustrated by what appears to be intense focus on making a line change instead of getting a shot or scoring chance. I've also had moments of annoyance when the stars shifts only last a few seconds, even if 30 seconds of it were spent trading errant passes in the neutral zone.

What Carbonneau allowed us to witness the other night in overtime was the product of letting players do what they do best – play. The forwards knew they weren't going to face the wrath of the coach for overstaying their time on the ice and so concentrated on winning the game (they nearly did). It also showed that the players were fully capable of playing for more than 45 seconds at a time and well into what should have been failure time had they been playing in the lactic acid generation zone. What Koivu, Kovalev, Lang and Markov did was give a clinic in efficient hockey.


Fitness
Every part of this argument is predicated on fitness. Fitness and efficiency.

The 45 second shift rule became popular at a time when it was probably more applicable. A time when players' idea of preparing for the season was drinking 12 beers a day instead of 18 for the month of August. Nowadays, there is much more of a focus on fitness throughout the league. The Senators are always, always on those bikes. And overweight players are even frowned upon – you must now come to camp ready to go.

In this league with fitter players, the question of shift length becomes more flexible. Because not only can players now actually do a full 45 seconds of anaerobic activity (I doubt most players of the 70s could have if asked), they can also do a lot more at an aerobic level because that system is fitter too.

The greater fitness around the league to me means that physiologically-speaking, the 45 second premise is out of date. All averaged in (part of the shift being aerobic that is), I bet most players would be comfortable over a minute with the next two and half off. The thing keeping the system in place is strategy and man management, and of course unfit players.


Strategic line deployment
I've learned it's never a good idea to criticise all the time if you don't have something useful to propose as an alternative. So, I do. I call it strategic line deployment.

On any team in the NHL, you will have very fit players and relatively unfit players. Some unfit players are well known (Jason Allison) as are fit ones (Rod Brind'amour, Chris Chelios). Seeing as even I know this kind of stuff, I am going to make a leap of faith and bet that an NHL coach will have some idea of how fit every player on his own team and the team he is about to face is.

Based on this knowledge I would suggest not only a system of line matching to exploit differences in fitness, but also a plan to extend shifts beyond the 45 seconds in order to exploit the gulfs. In fact some teams are already doing this (like the Canucks).

From watching the Canadiens a bit, I don't think it would be wrong to suggest that they are a pretty efficient and fit group (exceptions of course). As such, I think it would be wise for the team to start taking advantage of fitness mismatches in the way proposed as much as they can. In doing this, Carbonneau could potentially leave out the efficient line of Plekanec, Kostitsyn and Kovalev for say 1:30 seconds to push the checkers into fatigue. Thereby forcing the checkers to either change or play on at half strength – either way you can create a temporary advantage by getting second choice checkers or by playing against a fatigued line.


Ever since the salary cap, teams have become closer in terms of quality and personnel, so it is important to look for any little advantage to stand above. The Red Wings have chosen to focus on passing and patience. This would still be a good idea for us, but why not also the strategically employed long shifts like OT two nights ago?

In the old days there was a term in the old days to describe a star player. He was known as a 60-minute man. This was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Perhaps with a little irreverence to the established norms we can evolve a modern alternative, the 60-second men...

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