The Anaheim Ducks are bringing load management to the NHL.
While some squads have been known to be careful with aging veterans and give them occasional games off to heal nagging injuries, NHL players who are good enough to crack their squads' starting lineups tend to lace up the skates whenever they're available.
It seems that won't be the case for 2023 second-overall pick Leo Carlsson, who the Ducks have a unique plan for.
Going to be interesting to monitor No. 2 ov pick Leo Carlsson's "development and strength plan" w/ #NHLDucks.
It's different. Plan calls for training and load management for first half of szn to make sure the 18 y/o can withstand rigors of #NHL and set him up for 20 yr career.
— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) October 24, 2023
Load management is an extremely difficult subject to debate in a reasonable way because it's impossible to know what would've happened if a player had been treated more conventionally. If Carlsson sits out games and stays healthy, it will be impossible to prove he avoided injury because he rested more.
On the other hand, if a player gets hurt experiencing more traditional usage, there's no certainty that he would've fared better with load management. There are a few instances of player usage that are so extreme that they seem irresponsible, but the waters are murky when it comes to the relationship between injuries and workload.
All of that said, Carlsson seems unlikely to benefit from his new arrangement with the Ducks.
Playing fewer games in his rookie season stands to affect three things for the youngster: his health, development, and earning potential.
The idea that sitting out games is a needed measure to weather the physical demands of the NHL is up for debate.
Carlsson is only 18, but he's also a solid 6-foot-3, 198 pounds. Playing with the Ducks, the games he participates in likely won't have highly competitive stakes, which means if he wants to play a more careful game at times, he has that option. He also almost certainly won't have to deal with the increased physicality of playoff hockey, and considering he had 10 total penalty minutes combined in his previous two years in Sweden, it's safe to say he doesn't like to mix it up.
None of that means the NHL won't be physically grueling for him, but there are some dangers the rookie can opt out of. He doesn't have to be Tom Wilson on the 2017-18 Washington Capitals out there.
Even if we accept the notion that sitting out games will help Carlsson stay healthy in the long term — despite the fact it's far from a proven premise — the young Swede stands to suffer developmentally from any NHL games he misses.
Carlsson is at an age where his game is growing rapidly and logging NHL time now is likely to benefit his skill development in a meaningful way. Many of the league's top stars cut their teeth at 18 and didn't dominate right away, but were able to build on that foundation.
Jack Hughes might be the most obvious current example. His rookie season at the age of 18 wasn't a statistical marvel by any means, but it helped pave his road to superstardom.
It's impossible to measure how much each game Carlsson sits will hurt his development, but every time he plays an NHL game at this point in his career, he's learning things that could be useful later.
A more tangible possible downside for Carlsson is how load management could affect his earning potential early in his career. While we are talking about a relatively minimal amount of games missed right now, even if Anaheim only plans on regularly sitting him in the first half of the season, the impact on Carlsson's numbers in 2023-24 will be felt.
When it comes time to negotiate his first contract coming out of his entry-level deal, anything that puts a downward pressure on his offensive numbers will also affect how much he's able to earn. The Ducks have already shown a keen interest in grinding their players down in salary negotiations and they'll have an easier time doing that with Carlsson down the line if a limited workload negatively impacts his production.
It's possible that there are some missing pieces to this puzzle. Perhaps Carlsson has some kind of condition that isn't out in the open, or lingering effects from the lower-body injury he suffered early in October. There are scenarios where being unusually cautious with the youngster could make sense.
However, based on what we know at this moment, it seems like the Ducks are in uncharted waters with a plan that feels unlikely to help out a crucial part of their core.
Anaheim probably isn't broken up about the way sitting Carlsson might affect future contracts, but optimizing his development is a top priority for both player and team. Taking away opportunities for him to learn at the NHL level doesn't seem like the best path to helping him thrive.