Early-season player usage surprises
October, 8, 2013
By Craig Custance | ESPN Insider
Getty ImagesHenrik and Daniel Sedin have seen an increase in ice time under John Tortorella.Every coach and GM has his own barometer for when he starts making judgments on how the team is shaping up during a season. The Philadelphia Flyers, as we learned, might be the least forgiving.
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock prefers to reach double digits in the games played department.
"I judge it after 10 [games]. I think you get an evaluation on your whole team game. You get an evaluation on where your buy-in is," he said.
For Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates, the evaluation is ongoing.
"In all honesty, you're evaluating your players all the time. One game, two games, 20 games, 40 games," Oates said when we chatted Monday afternoon. "A coach got fired today; I think it's endless. Everybody has a leash, I'm sure the leash changes for everybody."
The season is young, but we're already seeing interesting player usage trends as coaches try to figure out what they have. In some cases, it's new playing time on special teams; in others, it's more time in the press box than they might have expected.
Here are some of the most intriguing usage developments in the early going (advanced stats per behindthenet.ca and extraskater.com):
Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames. Backlund impressed Flames coach Bob Hartley during Hartley's first season in Calgary with his willingness to work and overcome the slow start to his NHL career. He also hasn't forgotten Backlund defending teammate Curtis Glencross in April by fighting Ben Lovejoy after a knee-on-knee hit, when fighting clearly isn't a part of Backlund's game.
Backlund's relentless video work and conditioning (he finished first in the Flames' fitness testing) is paying off this season, and he's being rewarded with ice time from a coach who is loyal to players who put in the work.
"He's becoming a big part of our team," Hartley said in a Tuesday morning phone conversation. "He has good hands, a good read for the game. Right now, he just needs mileage."
After averaging 13:38 of ice time over the course of his career, he's over 20 minutes per game this season, including 2:34 of power-play ice time per game. He has a goal and two assists through three games playing for a Flames team that is playing with surprising edge in the early going.