Five-day 'bye' week will pay dividends for teams, but has drawbacks too

Will the Wild be forced to bench a minutes-eater like Ryan Suter when they play 20 games in 35 days during the stretch run? Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

When the calendar flips to 2017 next week, teams will begin enjoying their five-day "bye'' weeks.

Between Jan. 1 and April 9, all 30 clubs will take turns saying "see you later" to their players for five days -- meaning no practices, nothing. A total blackout.

It is a first for the league -- and something the NHL Players' Association negotiated last year as part of the new All-Star Game format. The players wanted a chance to rest their weary bones before the busy stretch run.

The Ottawa Senators will take their five-day bye week right off the hop next week. They play New Year's Day and then not again until Jan. 7. But, like every team, that time off comes at a price during a schedule that was also condensed by the World Cup of Hockey in September. For the Senators, that payback will come Feb. 14 to March 11, when Ottawa plays 14 games in 26 days. It will be the make-or-break moment of the season for the Sens, when the organization collectively crosses its fingers and hopes to survive the stretch without getting hammered by injuries or falling down the standings. Every team will go through it at some point.

Take the Minnesota Wild. Their bye week comes in late February, which is fine. But they play their final 20 games of the regular season between March 5 and April 8. That's 20 games in 35 days. Sheesh.

It has already prompted internal dialogue within the Wild front office and coaching staff about whether they will need to rest key players for some of those games.

"Your record will probably dictate as much as the schedule,'' Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said Tuesday. "The problem is everybody is so close [in the standings] and it's such a battle just to make the playoffs. But [when] you go through a stretch like we'll have after the trade deadline, where you're playing four games a week for five consecutive weeks, and back-to-backs, it's a real difficult ask for players to perform at a high level with that stretch. You're going to need bodies.

"It's something we'll discuss with the coaches. We've casually discussed the need to rest a player now and again just to create extra breaks down the stretch so you hopefully avoid some of the wear-and-tear injuries that can plague you when you play four games every week.''

Fletcher didn't mention any players in particular, but no doubt he's thinking, for example, about a minutes-eater such as Ryan Suter and the need, perhaps, to sit him out a game or two during those 20 games in 35 days.

This would be to not only to keep him as fresh as possible for the playoffs but also to maximize his impact in the games he does play during that March stretch.

"Most likely, everyone is going to be battling right to the end to make the playoffs and you're going to have to make decisions about where you're going to try and put your best roster on the ice to win games to make the playoffs," Fletcher said. "But if you rest a player and allow that player to be better for the next three games that follow, does that help you? Injuries are going to be a factor this year. They have been for every team and some teams have been hit harder.

"I don't know that anyone has the magic formula as to how to avoid it, but every team has to go through a tough stretch, and ours happens to be at the end.''

Fletcher also added that it might affect how they approach the March 1 trade deadline. No question, the Wild will have to have as much depth as possible to get through that 20-game stretch at the end. It also means that they need to make sure in the interim that they handle their salary-cap situation with great care to keep as much flexibility as possible to that end.

The bye weeks are coming. Some teams have already had their most condensed stretches but most clubs have it still looming ahead. Get ready, everyone.