Why do the Wildlings practice so rarely? There’s a science to it

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Savages rarely practice.

It caught me a bit off guard in my first year on the beat. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team skate that little on non-game days, and that includes 10 years covering the Lightning.

“It sure has been the least important team I’ve ever been on,” says Wild strength and conditioning coach Matt Harder, who is entering his eighth professional season and first in the NHL with Minnesota.

It drives some fans crazy, wondering why the team doesn’t feel the need to work on things after a loss. But coach Dean Evason’s philosophy doesn’t change if his team won three in a row or lost three in a row, as they have now. The Wild has practiced just twice in the first 12 days of January. They had days off Monday and Wednesday before Thursday’s game against the Islanders.

It’s not because Evason, an avid golfer, wants to improve his swing. It’s not because staff don’t see value in practice. It’s not because the players are covered in snow.

“When you see the science behind it,” says Captain Jared Spurgeon, “it makes sense.”

Evason says the team’s decision on a practice schedule is the result of constant communication between coaches, players and strength and conditioning staff. He believes that rest can be a weapon, especially in today’s NHL. He understands the importance, mentally and physically, of getting away from the track.

And Evason trusts the data.

It was early this season, and Wild was struggling.

They were scheduled to have practice at TRIA court the day after a home game, but Harder, 32, and his staff ran the numbers and knew something was wrong.

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Every Wild player wears a heart rate monitor as often as possible, from putting on the gear to workouts, practices and games. The monitor is attached to a strap around the chest.

The Wild collects heart rate monitors from players after games. (Photo courtesy of Matt Harder)

There is a program called Firstbeat, which is used by many NHL teams (and football clubs). It tracks a measurement called TRIMP (training impulse), which is based on zones of your heart rate. You accumulate units per minute. For example, if you’re above 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, you can rack up at least three TRIMPs per minute, and it slows as you go down.

Harder tracks each player’s TRIMP for seven consecutive days. Every AHL and NHL Wild player is in his system, and he has an all-team average, too. The goal is for no player to exceed 1,000 TRIMP.

After this particular game, Harder found that around 15 players were high on their TRIMP numbers for the week. Some guys were also dealing with colds and coughs.

Harder, who has worked for the Coyotes as well as several minor league teams, went to the Wild’s coaching staff office to provide his report. Evason is the seventh head coach Harder has worked with, from Rick Tocchet with the Coyotes to Mike Van Ryn in AHL Tucson and Tim Army in AHL Iowa.

He was still trying to feel Evason.

“It can be stressful,” says Harder. “We weren’t playing well, and I’m going to say, ‘Hey, I don’t think we need to do this.’

What Harder found was a very receptive coaching staff. It’s not that others Harder has worked for didn’t believe the data or ignored it, but he says Evason has a very good grasp on what the team needs from a recovery perspective.

The Wild canceled the practice the next day.

“It’s happened a handful of times where I’ve texted (Evason) after a game: ‘I don’t know what you’ve got practice planned but this guy’s got this, these guys are high (TRIMP)’. He’ll say, ‘Well, we’re not skating that day; this practice will be optional. That should help. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, perfect.’”

Evason is the one who makes the final decision, Harder emphasizes. She will simply offer the data without an opinion. And Evason says that he will also go frequently to the players.

“It’s constant communication between all the coaches, coaches, and ultimately you talk to the players,” says Evason. “‘How are you feeling? Do we need a day off? Don’t we need a day off? They’re the ones in the arena, right? We can guess how they feel and say, ‘Geez, he looked tired last night, maybe we should have the day off.’ But maybe they’re not. Maybe it’s something else. We’re trying to make the right decision.’”

Spurgeon says that Evason has a good understanding of what the players need and is open to their insight. There was a time last season, for example, when Spurgeon and the leadership group felt they needed a full practice when there was only one optional on the show.

“Every coach is different, the way they feel,” says Spurgeon. “Some coaches feel that if you don’t practice, you lose everything you’ve gained. I definitely think there’s a good balance. Sometimes we need to skate or practice in the morning to work on things. But the season is exhausting for the body. The guys play hard, they have bumps and bruises and they need to rest more.”

The Wild continued to struggle with turnovers and allowing odd man runs in Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. It’s a fair question how hard it is to correct those mistakes without practice.

“You can’t spend more energy trying to have a practice,” says Evason. “What are you going to do? Skate up and down the ice and have pressure and tell them to shoot the thing on the other end and go make a play? They know exactly (what to do). I guarantee if you talk to them or if you already have, you’ve been told all the right things. But now we have to do all the right things.”

Harder says that, as with most data, there is the possibility of error.

A heart rate monitor gives a bad reading. It slips or a player forgets to put it on. That’s why the team tracks the seven-day averages and compares them to the players’ averages from the previous 28 days as well. They have data going back to the previous season, so they know how they compare.

Then there is the human element. Harder is in the gym with the players, on the floor when they are stretching, and he asks them: “How are you feeling? How did you sleep?” There are some players who deal with nagging injuries, and that could affect their heart rate. Every player is different, too. Kirill Kaprizov may have a different level of conditioning than a teammate and be able to record more than 26 minutes and react differently the next day I know how crazy my heart rate was when I completed a Lightning strongman workout a few years ago.

Below is an example of a Wild player’s training load chart. The fourth column (number in red) is one that Harder specifically focuses on, the TRIMP. The team tries to keep players under 1000 and over 500, with the ideal number being between 650 and 850. This player went over 1000 a couple of times, but he’s okay; they just don’t want to see it happen for several days in a row.

“Every time guys reach or exceed a threshold, (we ask) do the lingering (injuries) start acting up again? Or are they just tired or exhausted? It says more difficult. “If the guys are in the good green area, they have the energy. They say they feel good. They sleep better. There is more assistance in the gym. They can do more things. More guys will come for an optional skate.

“It’s a lot to feel. There is science, we use the heart rate monitor, but we mainly rely on (feel) ”.

It’s not just about taking days off. The way the team practices can also make a difference. When Evason says they’ll only be on the ice for 20 minutes, it’s usually that number. Sure, some players stick around and work on skills, from matchups to club handling. (Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello are routinely on the ice 15 to 20 minutes after morning skates, for example.) But everything is registered.

“It’s pretty easy to get carried away,” says Harder. “The extra 10 minutes can be a huge strain on your body. If you’re taking a single timer for 10 minutes, it might seem like you’re not doing much work, but if you look at the heart rate data, they’re at 80 percent, 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. That is quite stressful.

“Get on a treadmill and try to get to that point. It is exhausting. But it doesn’t feel like that when you’re skating. Skating is very demanding, but it doesn’t seem like it is.”

Harder provided an example (with the identifying information removed) of what a wild game player’s heart rate monitor graph looks like. It is a visual representation of what a game is. It starts with basic information such as height, weight, resting heart rate, and maximum heart rate. It also shows the player’s TRIMP, which is 277. You’ll see the heart rate rise at different times of the day, specifically for each period of the game, and drop during intermissions.

“There are some guys who can tolerate more stuff and some guys can’t,” Harder says. “Some guys are more conditioned to play 22 minutes a night, compared to another 10 minutes a night.”

These heart rate measurements also influence when an injured player is ready to return. Ryan Hartman or Brandon Duhaime, for example, have missed significant time this season while recovering from injuries. Harder had to make sure they reached a certain threshold before turning back. That meant stepping up on skates with Andy Ness or practices.

If you looked at the data above and saw that Hartman was typically at 800 TRIMPs per week, he needed to hit that number before returning to the lineup.

“It’s like a transmission in a car,” says Harder. “You don’t want to be in second gear and go up to six. You’re going to ruin your transmission. You have to move through the gears like second gear, third gear, fourth gear. The sixth gear is ringing”.

Harder, a native of International Falls, Minnesota, studied sports and exercise science at the University of North Dakota, completing graduate school there in their Kinesiology program. But he feels like he’s constantly learning and appreciates how open Wild’s coaching staff is to this information, especially Evason.

“Sometimes I feel like he’s almost ahead of me,” says Harder.

“Rest is a (weapon),” says Evason. “It is a long season. There is a lot of hockey, a lot of travel. We strongly believe, as a staff, that it’s good to get away from hockey for a little bit, not even come to the rink. That’s great. Spend time with your families. Whatever you want to do. Come back fresh and recharge.

“We will continue to do that and hopefully make the right decisions about when to get on the ice and when not to.”

(Top photo by Jake Middleton and Kevin Gorg courtesy of the Minnesota Wild)

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