With the USA Hockey and Hockey Canada Olympic orientation camps ready to take place over the course of the next couple of weeks (U.S. from Aug. 17-19 and Canada Aug. 24-28), ESPN.com contributor Terry Frei, a great writer from the Denver Post, took the time yesterday to examine the impact the Winter Olympics may or may not have on the 2009-10 NHL regular season.
The NHL will take a two-week break so its players can compete at the Olympics in Vancouver in February. This will be the fourth time such a break will occur to accommodate the Olympics.
“Disregarding last season’s four-team, four-game opening show in Europe that preceded the North American portion of the schedule, and also the five-day All-Star break, the NHL’s 82-game season was stretched out over 181 days in 2008-09. Sticklers can add five days for the Senators, Lightning and Penguins, and four for the Rangers.
“This season’s schedule, not counting the 14-day break, will take 179 days. The season-opening European games in Helsinki (Panthers versus Blackhawks) and Stockholm (Red Wings versus Blues) are built into the same period in which all teams are playing.
“The two fewer days doesn’t qualify as significant compression.”
So, overall the Olympic break doesn’t condense the schedule all that much. But what about back-to-back games? Frei uses the Vancouver Canucks as an example, and they actually play three more back-to-backs than last season. As for the Boston Bruins, they played on two consecutive nights on 16 occasions last season. This year, they’re scheduled to play only 14 back-to-backs. Some might say that’s a bit of a bummer, considering the Bruins in 2008-09 were 12-3-1 in the first half and 11-3-2 in the second half of their back-to-backs. But I’m sure head coach Claude Julien and his troops will just as gladly take less rigorous schedule.
The other item of interest to the Bruins and their fans in Frei’s piece is a little something he calls “The Carolina Factor.” In each of the last two Olympic seasons, the Hurricanes have won the Eastern Conference title. That might be just a coincidence, however, when you consider that in ’06, when the ‘Canes won the Cup, they had five Olympians. In ’02, when they lost in the Final, they had just one player in the Salt Lake City Games.
Obviously, the wear and tear that goes along with playing in the Olympics can affect different players different ways and sometimes major injury can occur. That’s the price the NHL pays for trying to gain exposure by permitting its players to go and one reason why the league is hedging its best for 2014. In the Bruins’ case, depending on regular season health there could be as many as a half dozen Boston players representing their countries. To me, the only real concern should be in goal, where Tim Thomas should be the No. 1 for Team USA.
The Bruins are banking on Tuukka Rask being ready to be their No. 2 or for Dany Sabourin to hold down the fort if Rask needs more seasoning. Should Thomas go through the Olympic tournament as the main man for the U.S., Rask or Sabourin could be asked to do more to contribute in the second half of the NHL season. That could be a bump in Boston’s road should whoever the Bruins are using as a back-up falter with a little more responsibility on his shoulders.
Historically, the Bruins have struggled coming out of Olympic breaks, so that’ll be a puzzle for Julien and his staff to solve this winter. In ’98, things didn’t turn too sour. The Bruins had lost two in a row and were winless in their previous four before the break. Out of the layoff, they won three of five and picked up points in all those games.
In ’02, the Bruins won six of their last eight before the Salt Lake Games. That momentum, however, hit the wall with a 0-4-1 stretch to start the post-Olympic schedule of the season. Then the disastrous ’06 season severely turned after the Olympic break, as the Bruins lost seven (one in overtime) of their first eight post-Olympic games.
We don’t know how the Vancouver Games will affect the 2009-10 Bruins. All we know is that the last couple of seasons, the Bruins have proven a resilient bunch. We also saw how a long layoff affected the club before the playoff series with Carolina last spring. It’s never too early to start looking ahead and imagining the possibilities and plots to deal with the downtime.