Age Means Nothing
It was just in passing that I learned of the Hurricanes’ record in the second of back-to-backs during the 2018-19 season. 12-4-1. That’s nuts. With the passing conversation, it was proposed that it was maybe the collective age of the Canes’ roster being one of the youngest in the league. So originally, the idea for this article was meant to figure out whether the average age of rosters had a role to play in the record in back to backs. The following graph solved that question very quickly. The teams are ordered from oldest (top) to youngest (bottom).
As you can see, there is very little correlation between age and how teams fare on the second half of back-to-backs. Most notably, the best team this past season was the Islanders, who posted a whopping 11-1-1 record, and second best was Carolina, posting an aforementioned 12-4-1. Those two teams are on two ends of the respective age scales. Following these wide-ranging results, the question then became what was teams like the Islanders doing that made them so successful, versus teams like Ottawa, who posted a 4-10-2 record to claim bottom spot. Now, it seems unfair to pick the teams residing with the best and worst records respectively, given that they seem to mirror their actual regular season standings. At the bottom are teams such as Ottawa, New Jersey, and Vancouver, while the Islanders, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Pittsburgh find themselves at the top. The message becomes clear that these teams are simply better than most of their opponents. Therefore, to choose the most accurate representations of the best and worst teams on the second half of back to backs, the top and bottom teams will be chosen from the difference between regular season point percentage and the second half of back-to-back point percentages. The results are as follow.
The Islanders maintain their grip atop the best of the best, posting 0.257 points better than their entire regular season record. For that reason, they will be chosen.
The Montreal Canadians find themselves at the very bottom, who despite having a surprisingly great regular season, posted nearly 0.200 points below that pace in the second games of back-to-backs.
Calgary, the top team in the West and second overall in the standings, posted the third worst differential, a mystifying proposition that required more research.
Choosing these three teams should expose patterns and trends that made some teams, relative to their regular season record and overall quality, better on back to backs, and why some teams were far worse.
The first big question when discussing this topic is about goalies, specifically backups. The need for a good back-up is becoming ever more important as load management becomes trendy, and certainly plays a role in how teams do on the second half of back-to-backs. With most teams starting their best goalie on the first game, they are usually at a disadvantage in net for the second. While this is not always true, I don’t believe the exceptions are obvious in the results. The islanders had, arguably, the best goaltender tandem in the league in 2019 with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. Carolina’s proved to be formidable as well, with Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek. Who else had two great goalies? The Nashville Predators, the second worst team in differential, had 2018 Vezina winner Pekka Rinne, and future stud Juuse Saros. The third worst team, the Dallas Stars, have Vezina finalist Ben Bishop and ideal backup Anton Khudobin. Florida also finds themselves near the top, despite having a carousel of goalies, be it for bad play or injuries. In all, while the role of the backup is very important to consider (especially with deployment in the second half of back to backs), it is not a crippling factor in relation to the research.
With these out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the patterns that made the Islanders the best team on the second half of back to backs.
New York Islanders
One of the main points that I sought to look at was defensive deployment among the four chosen teams. With the Islanders, it was very interesting, given their apparent lack of a true number 1 defenceman. In lieu of that, they have the very capable top pairing of Nick Leddy and Ryan Pulock. An important trend I noticed was that these two players, more than any other of their defencemen, were rode on the first game of back to backs before having their minutes dialed back. For example, in a tight 3-1 win in Arizona on December 18th 2018, both Pulock and Leddy played three full minutes less each relative to the night before, a 4-1 win in Colorado.
This comes out when calculating the averages across the first and second games of back to backs, respectively. Both Leddy and Pulock averaged nearly a full minute less on the second half of back to backs. Where are all these minutes going? They are spread out across their defencemen three through five. Johnny Boychuk, Scott Mayfield, and Adam Pelech bore the load on the second half of back to backs after playing second fiddle during the first game.
A big consideration here is Boychuk. Living in Toronto, there was a significant amount of gripe over the minute allocation of former Toronto Maple Leafs’ veteran Ron Hainsey, especially in back-to-backs. Here we see an effective way of managing a veteran’s minutes, as Boychuk was often fresher during the second game, combating his age limitations as he eats some of the top pairings’ minutes form the night prior.
Furthermore, there was important and consistent roster changes on back-to-backs. Left Winger Ross Johnston often stepped in on one or both of the back-to-back games. He often would come in for bruisers that play a heavy style of game, such as Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. While minor changes, they are important in keeping their players fresh, and recognizing that a tired and/or dinged up Martin may not be as good as a fresh Johnston. Other players that were also used on one of two back-to-back games include Michael Dal Colle, Tom Kuhnackl, Josh Ho-Sang, and Tanner Fritz. I’ve made a point to list all the forwards that made it in and out of the lineup at some point to display the amount of fresh bodies coach Barry Trotz wished to infuse into the lineups when facing games on two consecutive days. Furthermore, Luca Sbisa also got into the lineup on a number of occasions, often to give youngster Pelech a chance to rest and regroup.
The Islanders and Trotz showed their emphasis on keeping guys fresh through their minute allocation and lineup changes. Yes, they had one of the best tandems in the NHL this year. But as other teams have demonstrated (looking at you Dallas), having two great goalies isn’t enough.
Defensive deployment remains a staple in explaining why the Flames were so poor in the second half of back-to-backs relative to their overall record. From their top five mainstays, it was only Marc Giordano who saw his minutes decline in any discernible way, and in this case only by 35 seconds.
What is most important to note here is the fact that defencemen three through five saw relatively no change between their two games. The Islanders were able to utilize their bottom pairings to best alleviate the exhaustion of the top pairing. Yet here, with Giordano playing massive minutes, the bottom pairings need to be deployed more.
Further, they had very limited forward lineup changes across their back-to-backs. The Flames this season were forced to rely on their top five forwards for their scoring punch, which meant that they were often deployed relentlessly. Evidently this meant that any lineup changes towards the bottom of the lineup meant that there was little influence on the top two lines. With the seemingly stubborn approach to lineup changes and minute allocation, both the top pairing and the top two lines were relied upon far too much not to necessitate dialing down there minutes on the second half of back to backs.
The lack of depth, and the further inability to utilize their bottom two pairings on defence perpetuated the problems they had in net as well. While I believe it has been outlined that the goalies aren’t the be-all end-all with regard to the second half of back-to-backs, the instability in net for the Flames has an absolute role. With the coaching staff losing confidence in Mike Smith, “Big Save Dave” Rittich played the first half of back to backs, meaning the goalie they distrusted was forced to start the second game, or even playing a tired Rittich.
In all, for the Flames, their poor record on the second half of back-to-backs can be chalked up to limited forward depth, and unstable net, and the coaching staff’s refusal to reallocate defensive minutes to ease the weight off of Giordano.
This past season, the Habs were dead least in the second half of back-to-backs relative to their overall points percentage. For a team that was overachieving the entire season, nearly resulting in a playoff spot, this is both surprising and some-what expected. Having been projected to be occupying the basement of the Eastern Conference, viewing this end-of-season stat doesn’t inspire much debate. But their performance as a whole reflects that they should by no means be deadlast in … well really anything (especially while sharing a division with the Ottawa Senators).
Yet here we are. And why are we? Goaltending did not help. In nearly half of the 2nd half games they allowed 5 goals against. While this is certainly a reflection of the goaltending, there is something to be said of their defence as well. Any team that allowed the March 2019 version of the Anaheim Ducks to score 8 goals requires a significant overhaul. Both Jeff Petry and Shea Weber, their top pairing, saw their minutes increase by nearly 2 minutes each from the night before. That was a miscalculation on behalf of the coaching staff.
Speaking of the defensive deployment, a similar problem arises with the Habs that we examined in Calgary.
Almost identical to the Flames, the Canadians saw only one of their top five defencemen get more ice time compared to the first game of the back-to-back. And even worse, unlike Calgary (who kept the third through fifth defencemen at about the same across both games), montreal’s third, fourth, and fifth defencemen are losing SIGINFICANT ice time in the second game. Essentially, the players that likely had more energy from the night before are not expending the extra energy the next night, but in fact are gathering more. This is a STARK contrast to the Isles, whose third, fourth, and fifth defencemen were the only ones to have their ice time increase.
To add insult to injury, there were seldom any lineup changes among either the forwards or defence. Therefore, not only were the Canadians coaching staff relying less on their better-rested defencemen, but they also continued to leave players in the press box as oppose to utilizing them in place of a player that had played the night before.
Defensive deployment and minute allocation is very important. Calgary and Montreal relied on their star defencemen on the second half of back-to-backs, often increasing their minutes from the already gaudy numbers from the night before. The Islanders, on the other hand, with a lack of a true number one defencemen, played the two games as a committee, relying on their top pairing through the first game, and on their bottom two pairings the next. This tactic seems to make the most sense (and produced the best results), as the bottom two pairings were better rested and prepared to carry the heavy load in the second game. Montreal, on the other hand, had similar deployment on the first games, but instead of using their better rested defencemen in chief roles in the second game, dialed back their minutes significantly.
An important trend to point out here as well is the consistent lineup changes the Islanders made. On a number of occasions, their bottom 6 forwards would have a different look from one night to the next, shuffling anywhere between one and three players into, and subsequently out of, the lineup. The Canadians and the Flames on the other hand seemed to often stick to the lineup from the first game. This seems to make little logical sense. If there is a replacement level NHL player sitting in the pressbox through the first game (which both teams in question did have), they would be very well rested and would be familiar with the system the team plays. Yet, by not changing the lineup or shuffling those pressbox players in, the coaches are conveying that they believe a fourth liner that played the night before, and therefore is likely not 100% rested, is definitively better than the replacement level player who is certainly at 100%. These lack of lineup decisions display the strides NHL teams need to continue to make towards sports science and load management.