Even during a relaxed stretch of seven games in 22 days, Jake Muzzin tries to keep his mind at ease amidst the rigors of an 82-game schedule.
“I honestly don’t think about hockey at all. Even when I’m here, I don’t think about hockey,” he joked.
That’s funny, and it speaks to the efforts players make to ensure a healthy mind in their healthy body. For some, that may come from avoiding hockey coverage or televised games at home. At the rink, it’s time to work, focus, prepare for the next opponent. Once players leave the rink, it’s not uncommon for them to flip a switch and steer clear of the reminders of an NHL season’s length.
It’s an environment the Los Angeles Kings have found themselves in quite a bit recently. Since November 16, and continuing through the night of Sunday, December 11, the Kings will have spent 25 out of a possible 26 nights sleeping in their own beds. Not only have they been home, but the regularity with which they’ve skated on the Staples Center ice has eased. Since the back-to-back games against New Jersey and at Anaheim, they’ve had the same number of recovery days (or days in which a community event, but not a practice was scheduled) and actual games: five.
“It’s just the way the schedule is, and guys have got to handle it,” said Darryl Sutter, who on Wednesday conducted his first on-ice practice since Saturday. “We give ‘em as much as we can in terms of making sure the energy and all that’s there for the game. But the preparation, focus ultimately is on the player.”
The CBA requires that teams have four recovery days per month, and the Kings generally avoid scheduling an off-day the day before a game. Under Sutter, the captains and members of the team’s leadership committee communicate upon the schedule’s release and get together in training camp to map out the planned days of rest over 82 games, and the absence of several key figures because of the World Cup put a twist on Los Angeles’ planning this year.
But with the Thanksgiving holiday and the seven-games-in-22-nights stretch that the team is on, it wasn’t too hard to cluster a group of off-days in advance of the nine consecutive road games the team is about to play. Because the season started a week later this year, and because the team will have a bye week from February 10-15, the schedule will quickly and profoundly tighten up.
“Even in Manch[-ester], you knew it’s usually Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and you have those four days [off],” Tanner Pearson said. “When you come up here you get used to the compact schedule and especially now since the World Cup and then the five day break we get now too, which makes everything a bit more compact. But then we get this little stretch, it’s definitely nice, but at the same time you’ve got to stay focused, and it’s pretty easy to let your mind wander off and not stay into it.”
Not surprisingly, many players see this current stretch – one in which the Kings have activated Marian Gaborik and Andy Andreoff, and have seen Brayden McNabb return to the ice in a limited capacity – as therapeutic and prime to be taken advantage of. Los Angeles is 6-1-1 since returning home from its six-game road trip last month.
“Obviously you’ve got time off, which is always nice – let the body and mind kind of get away with it,” Muzzin said. “But be a good pro. When you come to the rink it’s time to work and get back at it so we’ve done a pretty good job at it. The test will be tomorrow night making sure our execution and our mental side of the game is there tomorrow to start.”
And therein lies another challenge: Thursday’s game is against Carolina, a team that they see only two times per season. Players like Victor Rask (18 points), Sebastian Aho (11 points) and Jaccob Slavin (23:01 TOI) aren’t exactly household names but are occupying important roles for a well structured team that should be on the rise under Head Coach Bill Peters. It’s the second of eight straight games against the Eastern Conference.
“I think every team has these young guys to talk about, so I’m sure they do the same thing when they see Forbort, Dowd, Gravel,” Sutter said. “I’m sure they do the same thing, so we have four or five guys every night where you go ‘Who are these guys? This is where they play.’ You see somebody played against them somewhere – you guys talk about ‘em, things like that. It’s pretty much the same, every team now. There are probably four or five guys that guys haven’t played against much, or if you even look at it, players total – I’m sure if you do our lineup tomorrow versus Carolina, how many games they’ve actually played [versus the Hurricanes], it’s pretty shocking sometimes.”
Los Angeles looked inwards on Wednesday – “Today we looked at some stuff we can get better at, some transition stuff that we’ve got to clean up and that will allow us to have more o-zone play and more forecheck,” Muzzin said – and will turn its game-day attention more attentively towards Carolina on Thursday. There will be video sessions, individual meetings between players and coaches, and special teams meetings and the like, which all allow the team to be as prepared as possible to face an opponent on Thursday that also has more skilled and recognizable pieces in Jeff Skinner (team-leading 20 points), Justin Faulk (team-leading 23:14 TOI) and Cam Ward (2.09 GAA, .924 Sv%).
“We’re well rested, we’ve had enough time off here,” Kyle Clifford said. “It’ll be good to get playing a lot of games and you don’t practice much [during a heavier schedule], you pretty much just get ready for the game and be prepared to play. That’s pretty much it, you’re just playing hockey.”
Kyle Clifford, on whether he enjoys being able to play every team in the league at least once:
Yeah, I think it’s good. You know obviously you get a good feel for the East but the important thing is taking care of the West and our division.
Clifford, on how preparing for Eastern teams is different than divisional teams such as Anaheim:
Anaheim you just get a little more familiar with their personnel. Some of these teams on the West, they get young guys that you’re not really familiar with or the systems might be a little different but after you see them once or twice you kind of get a feel for it. We did a good job in preparation with video and being aware of personnel.
Clifford, on any difficulties when going three or four days between games:
Yeah, it’s just mental preparation. Obviously your body is well rested, it’s just mentally being sharp and attention to detail, execution, and just bringing it all together.
Tanner Pearson, on what Sutter does to keep the players focused between games:
I think we do a pretty good job. He talks to the captains to try to figure out what to do on which days, like yesterday was a workout day, you know come back and get that going again. It was a good practice for the guys and get back ready for tomorrow.
Pearson, on whether he’s aware of the challenging schedule ahead:
Oh yeah, the next road trip is pretty hectic and then you’ve got Christmas there and I think January we have a good road trip and then February we have a good road trip right before that week there. So it seems like everything that we get comes back and we get a bit of a break [in the bye week], which is kind of nice.
Pearson, on playing in the Western Conference and going on extended road trips:
Yeah I think I’d rather be over here and knock out, like our next road trip is seven games in however many days, just knock them out. … You talk to Carts when he played in Philly, and you know, travel and then back, travel and then back, travel and then back. So it’s nice to just go and you get to enjoy each city too and see what’s out there, it’s kind of cool.
Jake Muzzin, on preparing for eight straight games against Eastern Conference teams:
Well you’ve got to get ready, I mean, you’re playing teams you don’t see that often. [You prepare] with video and personnel [for] a little bit different style of hockey compared to the West, so you’ve got to prepare yourself for that.