Mark Madden: Load management works, but Penguins won’t consider it |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Load management works, but Penguins won’t consider it

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard played only 60 games during the NBA regular season. Some of those missed games were scheduled to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Leonard went on to win NBA Finals MVP as he led Toronto to its first title.

Toronto is NBA champion.

Kawhi Leonard was playoff MVP.

Load management is a thing.

Load management is the concept of resting players when they’re not hurt in order to keep them healthy and refreshed for the playoffs.

It’s been done before, in small doses. But Toronto took it to the next level.

Leonard played just nine games for San Antonio last season due to quad problems. This campaign, the Raptors sat Leonard 13 times just to rest him. He missed nine other games because of injury. He played 60 games total. He never played games on back-to-back nights.

Then Leonard ripped the playoffs to shreds.

Leonard praised the concept of load management in the afterglow of winning the title: “If we didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Vanquished Golden State, meanwhile, saw the bodies of key players disintegrate: Kevin Durant suffered a ruptured Achilles in Game 5 of the championship series. Klay Thompson went down with a torn ACL in Game 6.

Thompson played 78 games this year, and 102 extra games over the past five playoffs. Durant also played 78 regular-season contests.

Would load management have kept Thompson and Durant healthy?

It certainly couldn’t have hurt. The Warriors were a prime target when it comes to utilizing load management because, like Toronto, there was no way they were going to miss the playoffs.

Home court didn’t matter to Golden State: The Warriors closed out their first three postseason series on the road, then Toronto finished them off at Oakland in the finals.

Other elements figure in: Every time a star sits, ticket-buyers are disappointed. (Leonard missed 15 away games and only seven home games.) Teams that aren’t locks for the playoffs walk a tightrope when they use load management. It’s all a reflection of the NBA playing too many games, as does every sport.

But load management works. Toronto won, and Leonard sparkled.

Can load management apply to other sports and teams? More specifically, can it apply to hockey and the Penguins?

Makes sense, right? Basketball is certainly demanding, but hockey is full contact.

The Penguins’ core is aging. Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are 32. Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel are 31.

Would those players benefit by playing approximately 75 percent of the regular-season schedule, as Leonard did? It’s hard to imagine not. (Kessel would go ballistic when his streak of 774 consecutive games got snapped, but screaming is good cardio.)

Two obstacles make the Penguins’ use of load management very unlikely.

First, the Penguins had to battle ‘til this past season’s final week to clinch a playoff spot. It likely will be no easier in 2019-20.

Second, absolutely no one involved with the organization would want to do it.

No hockey coach thinks beyond that night’s two points. The big picture is a foreign concept. Mike Sullivan is no exception.

Hockey players adhere to Kobe Bryant’s train of thought. Bryant dismissed load management by saying, “The only time I took a game off is when I couldn’t walk.”

Part of it is statistics. NBA stats are a per-game thing. Hockey uses the raw numbers.

Most of it is bravado and the joy of playing. Skating through hurt is a badge of courage. The players can’t see past that night’s two points, either. Crosby would be militantly against this. If Sullivan can’t get Patric Hornqvist on Crosby’s line, what chance would this have?

Using load management would be a calculated gamble for the Penguins. You can back off its application as the standings and injury dictate.

The fans would be angry but not as angry as they were about getting swept in the first round. The Penguins’ sellout streak is at 574. Is winning championships a bigger aphrodisiac than star power?

The Penguins have made the playoffs 13 straight times. They aren’t a lock for the playoffs, but it’s hard to imagine them missing.

But load management won’t even be considered by the Penguins or any other hockey team.

You’d think the Toronto Maple Leafs would. They haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, and load management bore fruit in the locker room right down the hall. (The Leafs won’t admit it, but they’re embarrassed.)

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