From Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago, to Marc-Edouard Vlasic in San Jose, Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh and Milan Lucic in Boston, teenagers are making significant impacts for their respective NHL teams, seemingly more than what the 18-and 19-year-old players used to bring to the table in years past.
Why? Theories vary.
Some believe it’s due to better training, other think it’s the change in style of play in the new NHL. Then there’s the fact that entry-level players generally come cheaper in the new salary cap world.
There’s probably truth in all of them.
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, having seen Staal and superstar Sidney Crosby crack his team as 18-year-olds, points to physical fitness.
“For some of these kids like Kane, Toews and Staal, 18 or 19 years old still, they’re so strong,” said Shero. “You see these kids now – they’ve got their personal trainers, these guys have worked so hard, they’re certainly at a different level than the same kids were 5-6-7 years ago. …
“It’s unbelievable what these kids are doing now – I haven’t seen some of this stuff before. It’s wild.”
“Kids start training younger,” agreed Blackhawks veteran Kevyn Adams, who is a mentor to young Kane this season. “It’s not uncommon now for these kids when they’re 13 years old to be working out with personal trainers – which never, never happened before.”
There are currently 13 teenagers on NHL rosters, which may shrink as the season goes on. Five teenagers played 10 or more NHL games in 2005-06 and seven last season. So the league is at a high for teenagers since the lockout. But the pre-lockout numbers were also high, 17 teenagers played 10 or more games in 2003-04, 12 in 2002-03 and eight in 2001-02.
The difference is in the impact they’re making. Kane and Toews are leading the attack in Chicago, Staal is a major offensive force in Pittsburgh, Vlasic is a top blue-liner on Cup-contending San Jose, Erik Johnson before getting hurt played 16 minutes a game in St. Louis, while forwards Lucic, Sam Gagner in Edmonton, Nick Foligno in Ottawa, Nicklas Backstrom in Washington, Peter Mueller in Phoenix and Bryan Little in Atlanta are all playing regular minutes.
“I remember when Joe Thornton (97-98) came in and played a couple of minutes here and there,” said Adams. “These kids are coming in and making an impact and that’s pretty impressive at that age.”
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Paul Maurice believes it’s more than just the training.
“It has a lot to do and maybe completely with the change in the style of game,” Maurice said of the new NHL. “I think it was so much more difficult before for a young player to come in and be great because he had to wait for physical maturity.”
Maurice believes in the pre-lockout NHL, even if the teens were faster than the older players, “they could get a stick on you and you’re not going anywhere and they could grind you down.”
With the crackdown on obstruction and interference, it’s a more free-flowing game through the neutral zone.
“And now we’ve got young players coming in, and if they can skate and if they’re smart and they can handle the puck, they have an opportunity to go to open ice,” argued Maurice. “They can make plays and create things. We don’t have to wait until they get to be 25 and put on 15 pounds and can handle an 82-game grind. They can come in with their speed and their skill and be really effective right off the bat.
“You’re seeing that with a lot of young players.”
Depending on the player, they may also be cheap.
“I think it also has to do with the salary cap. The young guys can’t make more than $850,000 (in salary),” said Lucic.
Not all entry-level players are cheap, however. Superstars Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin both earned around $4 million in total in each of their first two seasons after reaching some high-level bonuses like 100 points or 50 goals or top 10 in league scoring – the kind that most teens probably won’t reach.
Kane can also reach close to $4 million a year if he reaches some very high targets, while Toews can earn around $3 million. But most other entry-level players will earn much less.
Shero believes there’s yet another reason why more and more young players are making an impact.
“You look at Pittsburgh or a Chicago, if you have a downturn and you need excitement and you’re going in a new direction, then you go with young players,” argued the Penguins GM.
“We want these young, exciting players and the fans buy into this stuff because it’s a plan – you’re going with young kids and you’re making progress. Maybe it’s the CBA, but it seems like more teams are willing to put their money into young kids and give them more of an opportunity right away to play. You see in Chicago now they’ve got some excitement with the youth.”
Toews so far has scored the goal of the year in the NHL, an end-to-end rush last Friday night against Colorado that made the highlight reels – even south of the border. The 19-year-old Winnipeg native had six points (2-4) in six games before facing Columbus on Tuesday night.
“The first few games I didn’t have as much confidence to hold onto the puck because half the time I had my head down and I think the guys on the other team saw that,” said Toews, Chicago’s first pick, third overall, in the 2006 NHL entry draft. “When they see that, they’re going to come at you and force you to either give it up or they’re going to hit you.
“Friday night was the first night really where I had more confidence, I had my head up out there and that buys you more time and space.”
His linemate Kane also says his confidence has grown after a few games. The first overall pick in the NHL entry draft last June carried nine points (1-8) into Tuesday night’s contest.
“Coming in, you don’t really know what to expect, what the speed is going to be like,” said the 18-year-old Kane, who starred for the OHL’s London Knights last season. “To me the speed adjustment was probably the biggest thing. I think I really had to adjust to that. The plays were still there but I just had to react quicker. …
“It’s just so much faster out here than in the OHL.”
After a game against Detroit earlier this month, Kane asked Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek to pose for a picture with him after the game. Kane grew up in Buffalo after all, cheering for Hasek and the Sabres.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Kane, looking every bit like the college freshman he should otherwise be right now. “Just playing against guys you grew up watching on TV, it’s unbelievable.”