In shortened NHL season, effort beats aesthetics

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2013 - 11:41 AM

All the traveling and all the games leave little time for dizzied NHL coaches to work with players on finer points.

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Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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ANAHEIM, CALIF. - Ken Hitchcock calls this NHL season the "Write Your Room Number On Your Key" season.

Teams will play 48 games in a 99-day stretch that might leave them, at times, confused.

"How many times do you not have a clue what your room number is?" the St. Louis Blues coach said. "How many times do you walk out your door and don't know if it's left or right to the lobby?"

The Wild, for instance, will begin a stretch of eight of 13 games on the road in 29 days at Anaheim on Friday night. Those eight road games come by way of four trips west of the Central time zone.

Less than two weeks into this lockout-shortened season, NHL coaches and players still are trying to catch their breath.

Players arrived to a six-day training camp in all varieties of fitness. Some were playing elsewhere, some weren't. There were no exhibition tuneups. The condensed schedule means little practice time. So coaches are trying to learn how to best prepare their teams.

"You're constantly hitting the reset dial," said Hitchcock, whose team started 5-1. "Like I've never had such brief preparation for the opposition as I've had this year. Your focus is all on yourself."

The Wild has played seven games but had only four practices in that time. On Tuesday, Columbus coach Todd Richards said the next Blue Jackets practice wouldn't be until after the Super Bowl.

It makes it challenging for coaches.

"There's no practice. There's no practice time," said Richards, the former Wild coach. "The line you're trying to find as a coach is when to go out on the ice, when to rest, and so much goes into that. So a lot of the teaching is through video."

Tuesday, the Blue Jackets played in Minnesota. They played at home the night before against Dallas. So Richards' entire pregame prep with his players was reviewing the Dallas game on video in order to address mistakes and reinforce things executed well.

"It's about patch-working your team," Richards said. "After every game, there's leaks. It's about patching those holes, and sure enough as soon as you patch one hole, another hole pops up. But it's going to be like that the rest of the year. Coaches want to practice. In practice, you can do repetition and create scenarios you'll see in the game instead of just trying to do it through video."

Said Wild coach Mike Yeo: "Thank God for assistant coaches. I've spent very little time in the pre-scout because I've had to spend so much time on ourselves. If it normally takes 3 1/2 hours to break down a game; right now it's taking more like five hours. There's so much more reinforcement with guys."

Hitchcock said he feels the teams that had the fewest players playing elsewhere during the lockout have looked the sloppiest, especially in the defensive zone.

"The comment you hear from the players is they feel like there's 12 players on the other team," Hitchcock said.

The Wild had no one playing consistently during the lockout. This is why Yeo said after last Friday's loss to Detroit that he didn't want to "overreact."

The lack of practices coupled with tired bodies will, plain and simple, lead to mistakes all year long.

"You've got to be realistic that the score on the scorecard matters more than the way you play the game right now," Hitchcock said. "We're trying not to overreact to some of the bizarre things we see in a hockey game. You've just got to burn segments of the tape and don't worry about it."

In St. Louis' 3-2 loss to Chicago on Jan. 22, the Blues gave up a 3-on-0 -- unheard of in the NHL. Hitchcock claims he brushed it off.

"If you overreact to that, you freeze them up to everything else," Hitchcock said. "Energy and spirit is going to get you more points than precision and exactness this season. Six weeks. In a normal 82-game hockey season, it's three weeks of training camp and the first three weeks of your schedule before you find out the tempo of your hockey club.

"But we don't get the first three free weeks this year. So we're going to have to weather this storm."

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