In professional sports, the old adage, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” gets tossed out an awful lot. Whenever someone says this, they are obviously referring to the regular season, and how it’s the teams that are consistently successful throughout an entire regular season who tend to make the playoffs, not the ones who come out of the gates hot, only to lose momentum and falter as the season progresses.
Well, it’s time to throw that adage out the window, everyone! Because in a 48-game season, the regular season will be a sprint to the finish, and that could wind up being the biggest positive to come out of the lockout for Buffalo Sabres fans.
Some people may argue that a shortened season benefits older teams, the logic being the older players don’t have to worry about the wear and tear of a long season, when there are more games and more travel to tire them out or create new injuries (or agitate existing ones). On paper, that’s a great theory; in reality, it doesn’t hold up. Yes, the players are playing less games, and since the schedule will be made up of conference-only games, there will be less travel. However, squeezing 48 games into a season that is less than four months is going to hit the older players harder than the young guns. As Allan Muir wrote here, “The average team had something like 38 games left on the original schedule that was supposed to end on April 13. Even if the frame of the season is extended as expected, jamming in another 10 or 12 contests is a legitimate strain, with the increased game density sapping the rest and rehabilitation time that older legs need.”
Don’t forget, too, that in an 82-game season, there is the reality that not every game is critically important. Coaches can afford to play some of their older players less, or give them a game off here and there, knowing that any given game accounts for less than 2% of the season. Not so in a 48-game season: every game will count, so nights off will be less likely, and the intensity of every game will be high, all of which may add up to dead legs or increased risks of injury for older players.
It would seem, then, that a 48-game schedule could benefit teams relying on youth over experience, and if that turns out to be the case, the Sabres could be in for a heck of a 2013 season. The Sabres currently have 16 players listed on their roster who are 30 years old or younger (not counting goalies, mind you). Of those 12, four are 25 or under; eight are between 26-29; and four are currently 30 years of age. That adds up to a pretty young team; as a matter of fact, in 2011-2012, the Sabres actually had the ninth youngest team (based on average age) in all of hockey, and could actually get younger, if they wind up promoting rising stars such as Luke Adam, Cory Hodgson, or Brayden McNabb from the Rochester Americans. (Note: Hodgson has since been called up to join the Sabres!) Add it all up, and what it means is, if the Sabres can come out hot, they are the sort of team that could ride those young legs through the shortened season and right into the playoffs this year.
None of this is to stay youth is the most important factor to consider in a shortened season. Teams that have not experienced a ton of turnover, and don’t have to worry about getting players to adjust to a new system, may also have an advantage this season, compared to teams that are bringing in a lot of new faces. (The Sabres fit this bill, too, by the way!) And, as always, luck will have a major impact on teams, so you superstitious types out there might want to start practicing your rituals now so you’re good to go once the season starts. The fact that the current Sabres roster is one of the youngest in the NHL cannot be ignored, though, and I’m sure everyone who supports the blue and gold is hoping the NHL – and lady luck – favor youth over experience this season.