On the Penguins: A tough lesson


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The Penguins are scheduled to hold a practice at Consol Energy Center today.

Big deal.

They do that sort of thing a lot, right?

It's part of the job.

True enough, but not quite as big a part of it as it might seem, at least in a season when the schedule is compressed to allow NHL players to participate in the Olympics.

This is the third Sunday of December, but is the first for which the Penguins have planned a workout.

Because the league is shoehorning games into fewer days than in a normal season -- it will shut down for most of February because of the Games in Sochi, Russia -- there is less time available for practices.

The problem is compounded when increased fatigue and a desire to minimize injuries get factored into the scheduling of on-ice sessions.

The number of practices isn't all that's affected. Coaches, including Dan Bylsma of the Penguins, also are obliged to adjust the length and nature of workouts.

"The compressed schedule changes practice," Bylsma said. "And it changes the type of practice."

The Penguins' training room has been standing-room-only most of the time since training camp -- they entered the weekend having lost 146 man-games because of injuries during the first 32 games of the season -- and with games taking such a heavy toll, practices have to be modified to avoid adding to the total.

This is not the winter to be stressing, say, shot-blocking drills.

Bylsma also has been generous with "maintenance days." Those allow players who are nursing injuries that aren't necessarily serious enough to prevent them from dressing for games to sit out practices.

"I don't know if it's [only] our team, but I feel like injuries and maintenance [days] are at a high level, based on the number of games and the succession of games," he said.

Practices sometimes are called off -- generally in the wake of a game the night before -- but even when that doesn't happen, they often are made optional. When that happens, players who log big minutes or fill major roles frequently take advantage of the opportunity to stay off the ice.

That's good for their physical well-being, but limits the amount of teaching Bylsma and his assistants can do. And when players aren't continually schooled in the finer points of their jobs, there often is a corresponding decline in efficiency.

Bylsma acknowledged after a recent workout that most prominent players skipped that "you can't" teach as much during an optional practice as during a conventional one, even though it might be possible to address some details with a particular player.

"You can't do it, team-wise," he said. "You can't do it, line-wise. Some players are not on the ice, in groups. The power play would be impossible to do on a day like [that one].

"There are individual things we went over and did on the ice to try to get some improvement time, teaching time. You can do that in individual ways. You can do that in small areas of the game. But it does make it tougher."

With less practice time, Bylsma and his staff try to supplement their teaching with video instruction.

"You have to get creative," he said.

While the compressed schedule has had a significant impact on how the Penguins practice, a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that mandates players be given at least four days off per month has not.

The Penguins have been generous with time off under Bylsma -- players routinely end up with more days off than they are scheduled for at the start of a month -- so they regularly exceed the league minimum.

"Generally speaking," Bylsma said. "The days off are what we gave here, anyway, so that does not affect us one bit."

Which clearly is not the case with 2013-14's compressed schedule.

The week ahead

Monday: vs. Toronto ... The Maple Leafs entered the weekend leading the league in major penalties, averaging a bit under one per game.

Wednesday: at New York Rangers ... New York is a dismal 5-9-1 on home ice, but certainly didn't look it during a 5-1 rout of the Penguins Nov. 6 at Madison Square Garden.

Thursday: vs. Minnesota ... No team dominates the Penguins here the way the Wild has, winning six in a row after losing on its first visit Feb. 14, 2001.

Saturday: vs. Calgary ... GM Jay Feaster and his assistant, John Weisbrod, lost their jobs a few days ago. Some of the players they brought in figure to do the same as the season plays out.


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