The last time the NHL played a shortened season because of a labor dispute, the New Jersey Devils emerged as champions, led by a 30-year-old forward named John MacLean, who was second on the team in scoring during the abridged 1994-95 season.
As the NHL prepares to play another shortened season, after losing three months of games to its third lockout in 18 years, MacLean may be the Carolina Hurricanes’ secret weapon. The former Devils coach was Kirk Muller’s first hire behind the bench when Muller took over the Hurricanes last fall, and he knows better than just about anyone what it takes to conquer these unusual circumstances.
To that end, Devils coach Jacques Lemaire rotated several players among his third and fourth lines, trying to keep as many players fresh and as much energy on the ice as possible. It helped that the Devils, at that time, had many future stars in that group, including Bill Guerin, Brian Rolston and Sergei Brylin.
There may be an idea there for the Hurricanes, who have some young, unproven talent at forward with Charlotte (AHL), players who may not be ready for regular NHL duty but might be able to jump in and out of the lineup.
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“That may be helpful in a similar situation,” MacLean said. “Fresh legs are always good and youth is always good. But everything’s new. You can remember a few things, but you just have to be ready to go right off the get-go, and that’s what Kirk is looking to do.”
That’s just one of the unique challenges posed by the compressed schedule, from an impossibly brief training camp to the lack of in-season rest to the increased value – and increased intensity – of every regular-season game. Even the most basic of planning is on hold until the NHL figures out how many games it wants to play.
The latest indications are the league is leaning toward a 48-game schedule beginning Jan. 19, with training camps opening this weekend, but a final decision may not be made until owners ratify the new collective bargaining agreement, which is expected to happen Wednesday.
In 1995, the lockout ended on Jan. 11 and a 48-game season began January 20 and ended May 3. Whatever schedule the NHL adopts this time, the goal is to finish the regular season in April.
Muller had been formulating his training-camp contingency plans all fall, because his original, comprehensive camp schedule went out the window along with the season. When the power at MacLean’s offseason home in New Jersey was cut off by Hurricane Sandy, MacLean took refuge with Muller here for what turned out to be a weather-provoked strategy session to tweak and retool.
For the Hurricanes, no matter how long the training camp, the goal hasn’t changed: Get off to a good start. After too many slow starts for this franchise, that was imperative in an 82-game season. It has only become more important now.
“Momentum is going to be a big thing,” Muller said. “Momentum at the start is going to be crucial. I think the backup goalie is going to be an interesting topic. It’s always important, but more so this year. The depth of your organization and your hockey team are going to be important. Can you stay healthy and pop guys in?”
Muller played for the Montreal Canadiens in 1994-95, and they missed the playoffs. But he can also rely upon others in the organization whose teams were more successful, such as MacLean or assistant general manager Ron Francis, whose Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the Devils in the second round of the playoffs.
“I just remember all the games were intense,” Francis said. “It’s a shorter season, more of a sprint to the finish line. Every game was like a playoff game. You couldn’t have a lull or a lapse. Everything was pretty critical. It was a fun season.”