NHL coaches giving players bewilderingly large workloads early in the preseason

As the NHL preseason gets going, there are some coaches leaning on their stars like they're playing in the Stanley Cup Final.

The NHL preseason has just begun and some coaches have already forgotten what it's for.

In the next couple of weeks, clubs should be trying to let their established players get their feet under them, tinker with special teams alignments, try out a few line combinations, and take a long look at youngsters and guys fighting for bottom-of-the-roster jobs.

Some teams have gotten the memo. Others have not.

Monday's game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators served as a perfect example of this phenomenon. In the 4-3 Senators win, each coach deployed their top players extremely liberally, leading to eyebrow-raising ice-time numbers.

Thomas Chabot shouldered a massive workload on Monday in an NHL preseason game. (Getty Images)
Thomas Chabot shouldered a massive workload on Monday in an NHL preseason game. (Getty Images)

On the Senators' side, D.J. Smith threw Thomas Chabot out for 31:04 and Jakob Chychrun for 29:46 — massive numbers, even for an overtime game. To give that a little bit of context, no skater averaged more than 26:23 per night during the 2022-23 regular season.

Chabot's 31:04 would've tied his third-biggest workload of that campaign, while Chychrun's 29:46 would've been his second-highest number. These two defensemen will be the Senators' top pair, and they could use some time together after Chychrun was a midseason addition for Ottawa in 2022-23, but nearly half an hour is a stretch.

There's not a lot Ottawa is going to learn about either of these veterans, and only one more defender (Jacob Larsson) got more than 20 minutes of ice time. Tomas Hamara — a third-round pick in 2022 — saw just 8:40.

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The Maple Leafs weren't innocent of overdoing it with their stars, either. Mitch Marner led the team with 26:43 and Auston Matthews got 25:51. There is some rationale behind that, as the team wants to give that pair a chance to gel with new linemate Tyler Bertuzzi, but neither player eclipsed those numbers more than three times last season.

While none of the players mentioned are old or nursing injuries, it seems bizarre to push them so close to established limits with no competitive payoff. If Matthews goes on to score 60-plus goals in 2023-24 or Marner has a career year, it won't be because they shouldered the load in late September.

Even if we assume the injury risk to these players is relatively minimal, there's an opportunity cost associated with not playing guys you want to learn more about.

On Toronto's side, for instance, the Maple Leafs could've funnelled playing time to guys trying to make the team like Pontus Holmberg, Nick Robertson and Noah Gregor — or even 2023 first-round pick Easton Cowan.

There's far more to learn about players like that than Matthews or Marner.

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner need to familiarize themselves with Tyler Bertuzzi, but they don't need massive ice-time totals to do so. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner need to familiarize themselves with Tyler Bertuzzi, but they don't need massive ice-time totals to do so. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In a similar overtime game between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks on Sunday, there was also puzzling ice-time distribution but some of it was easier to explain.

Los Angeles used each of Alex Laferriere, Angus Booth, and Joe Hicketts at least 29:49 without playing anyone else more than 13:39. That seems suboptimal, but at least Laferriere and Booth are young players working their way up the organizational ladder, while Hicketts is a depth guy signed in July that the team is trying to get a read on.

Similarly, the Ducks almost certainly went overboard playing Pavol Regenda 35:13, and it seems odd the team played five players 28:31 or more while no one else topped 16:28. Looking closer at those five guys, you can see why coach Greg Cronin wanted a closer look, though.

  • Regenda (35:13)— 23-year-old forward fighting for a bottom-of-the-roster spot

  • Robert Hagg (34:31) —Veteran defenseman, new to the team, but a bit of a puzzler

  • Noah Warren (34:13) — 19-year-old former second-round pick

  • Chase De Leo (31:52) — Depth forward fighting for a spot

  • Leo Carlsson (28:31) — Second-overall pick in 2023 who may open for the team

It was probably irresponsible for Cronin to ride that quintet of players so hard, but you can understand why he targeted the players he did. Even if that part of the thought process was sound, it probably isn't enough to work such a small subset of the active roster so hard and get so little time with the rest of it.

A counterexample to this phenomenon came from new Calgary Flames coach Ryan Huska on Monday. Despite the fact his team went to a shootout against the Seattle Kraken, no one skated more than 23:09 or less than 11:57.

That seems like a logical way to distribute playing time in an exhibition game.

Different teams have different needs when it comes to player evaluation in the preseason, as roster turnover, tweaks to special teams, and the number of NHL jobs up for grabs varies by club. That mean's there's no one-size-fits-all approach to coaching in the preseason.

Even with that qualifier in mind, it seems fair to assume Huska's egalitarian approach makes far more sense than giving a handful of players massive workloads at the expense of all others — particularly if the guys getting all of the ice time are stars who aren't fighting for spots, or finding their legs at the NHL level.