Exceptional, super-human athletes now the norm

At the morning skate before Erik Karlsson’s first game back after missing two months, Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean was asked what he expected that night from his Norris Trophy-winning defenseman.

“To play 35 minutes, be the first star of the game,” MacLean deadpanned. “Is that too much to ask?”

Just a little. As it turned out, Karlsson played a mere 27:11 on the night and failed to be named one of the game’s three stars, despite registering assists on both the Senators goals in a 2-1 overtime win and logging more ice time than any player on either team.

But it qualified as a miracle of biblical proportions, nonetheless. When Karlsson had his Achilles tendon severed Jan. 27, he was expected to miss four-to-six months, but ended up sitting out two. And it wasn’t just that Karlsson played that amazed everyone, it was the way he performed. From the time he jumped over the boards for his first shift, Karlsson looked like the same player who would have been a shoo-in for his second Norris had he remained healthy. No sign of rust, no tentativeness to his game and no wavering of confidence. Truly remarkable indeed.

But is it really? Maybe not. Perhaps we should stop being so amazed at what these young men are capable of doing these days. Perhaps we should all begin to accept that the exceptional is now becoming the norm.

When describing today’s young player a couple of years ago, former Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher described them as, “a new generation of machine.” There is now a breed of young men who are more prepared to not only play, but star, in the NHL earlier than ever before. For better or worse, they’re on the ice 12 months a year working with skills coaches and power skating instructors. They’re better coached, more skilled, stronger and more comfortable in their own skin than any group of players in the history of the NHL.

And they have the luxury of having the best surgery and rehabilitation regimens known to man. You can bet that Karlsson wasn’t out of his Achilles tendon surgery more than a couple of days before he was back in the gym doing rehab. It’s for that reason that many young players – such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and others – will opt for surgery over rehabilitation for a nagging injury. With surgery, they know it will be corrected, usually for good, and the recovery and rehabilitation time will be much shorter. The more quickly a player can get back into the gym to prepare for the next season, the more likely he’ll be to succeed once that season starts.

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These kinds of strides are being made in all facets of the hockey world. For example, when John Tavares was granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario League as an underage player in 2005, we were told this kind of player would probably only come along once every decade. Well, just eight years later, there have been three exceptional players identified in the past three years, including Connor McDavid, a 16-year-old phenom who has no flaws in his game and is currently head-and-shoulders above the competition at the World Under-18 Championship. It’s not quite Wayne Gretzky scoring 17 points and leading all scorers as a soon-to-be 17-year-old at the 1978 World Junior Championship, but it’s close.

And there are more on the way. Just this year, a defenseman by the name of Sean Day was granted exceptional status and was drafted fourth overall by the Mississauga Steelheads. There are scouts who are convinced that Day will be the best skater in the OHL the day he plays his first game. Tyler Benson, an offensive whiz from Western Canada, declined to apply for exceptional status, but there are many who think he would have received it.

If you need any more proof, just go out and watch a minor hockey game sometime. Regrettably, even now in late-April, you should be able to catch a spring tournament involving groups of super-talented players on stacked spring teams showcasing themselves. The point is, though, that you’ll be absolutely amazed at what these young people can do.

So maybe we should stop being flabbergasted by the recovery time of players such as Erik Karlsson and the sublime skill level of players such as Connor McDavid – and when it comes to today’s hockey players, we should begin to accept that the exception is becoming the rule.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.