The Toronto Raptors were the first Canadian professional team to win a championship since the Blue Jays in 1993. As entertaining as it was for sports fans, I have a question to ask. What did you, as a hockey fan, learned from this basketball team when it came to players and how they were used during the year? Nothing? Ok…you don’t watch basketball, I don’t really either anymore. To be honest, I probably watched 3 games all year and they were in the finals. What realty got my interest was after the finals and a discussion by people on ESPN how the NBA might have to look at the example of how Toronto used their star Kawhi Leonard during the year.
Leonard was traded to Toronto last summer from San Antonio. Leonard had only played 9 games the year before as he an injury. There is a lot of other stories that go with the injury but in the end, Leonard didn’t want to play in San Antonio and was traded. One of the concerns when the trade occurred was the extent of his injury and how much he could play in Toronto. The Raptors management and coaching staff came up with a game plan to limit Leonard’s minutes. But unlike most strategies where the player plays all the games they can and just plays less minutes, the Raptors willingly chose to sit Leonard out of games to reduce minutes.
This strategy may not be new but to use it on one of the best players in the league is something that got the people on ESPN debating on a change coming to the league. The Raptors knew they had a good team and were willing to keep Leonard out of certain games with the expectation that the team could win without him. Leonard only played 60 games this year, but led the league in playoff minutes played. Reducing Leonard’s workload had helped keep him in better shape for the playoffs. Now realize that both parties, Leonard and the Raptors agreed to this strategy. By doing this, the organization knew that it would be disappointing some fans who came to games where Leonard would not be playing because it was a maintenance day. The juggling between keep fans happy and working towards a shot at a championship was a daring move.
When do we get to the hockey part? Right now. The Canucks have a long history with the injury fairies. Sometimes in hockey there are injuries that are just unavoidable. Like when an opposing defenseman hits player and then throws them down, causing a concussion. Hockey is a fast-paced game with a lot of weight being thrown around. Hockey is also a game where the day to day grind may lead to worse injuries. The mindset that the best players need to grind out an 82-game season to prove their tough should start to change if you want them to be ready for the playoffs.
One of the issues for a team like the Canucks is that they don’t have a good team yet, so if playoffs are a goal, then every game is vital. Unfortunately, we always seem to sacrifice what is better for the player’s future for the present needs. People might lose their minds if Travis Green said that Petey was only going to play 60 games this year to protect his health and get him ready for a potential playoff run. But realistically we saw Bo and Brock get tired in their first and second seasons. They could have used some game days off to get their bodies extra recovery.
I point out that this type of system is goal-oriented in the sense that the team and players have to both agree that winning is number one and that the best way to win is to have players close to their peak more often during the season, which means rest has to be inserted more often. Players have to accept that their numbers will go down. Teams have to accept that they may lose some games because some players sit.
This idea will separate fans for sure. Fans who pay money to see players play will be upset. Fans who want their team to win may be more accepting to this idea. I realistically don’t think many, if any NHL teams are implementing a policy a system where healthy players take an extra game off to keep them fresh for the playoffs. But I would love to see if the strategy works in the NHL.
Or shorten the season…but that’s a whole other post.