Younger NHL players seem to be more comfortable strutting their stuff and it may be because they don’t fear for their lives.
What was most amazing watching Max Domi buzz around the ice at Air Canada Centre with the Arizona Coyotes on Monday wasn’t the fact he was able to score his fourth NHL goal in his former home away from home. It was remarkable the ease and comfort he displayed showing off his considerable skills.
If you didn’t know he was a 20-year-old rookie, you’d think he had been in the NHL for years. Domi, who used to hang out at ACC when his dad, Tie, kept opponents honest as an enforcer with the Maple Leafs, went about his business in his ninth NHL game as one of the go-to players for a team that is a longshot to make the playoffs.
Same goes for Domi’s 20-year-old teammate Anthony Duclair. While Domi was tied with Connor McDavid for the rookie scoring lead with four goals and 10 points in 10 games, Duclair, who played 18 games with the New York Rangers last season, had five goals and seven points in 10 games.
The fact of the matter is younger NHL players seem to be more comfortable strutting their stuff in part, I believe, because they don’t fear for their lives.
Teams no longer have two knuckleheads sitting at the end of the bench waiting for the tap on the shoulder from the coach so they can go out and rip somebody’s face off. Those players, for the most part, have been replaced.
It’s not that hockey is not still a physical game, there’s still plenty of contact and players are definitely expected to follow through on their checks, but the best teams are putting more of an emphasis on speed and skill and less on physical intimidation. Teams still want to play a ‘heavy’ game, but intimidation has been replaced by discipline.
The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last season – their third in six seasons – and did not employ a designated fighter. They were a tough team, to be sure, but their penalty leader, Andrew Shaw, had just 67 minutes. Chicago had the second fewest fighting majors in 2014-15 with 15, seven more than the Detroit Red Wings’ eight.
There has been a drastic reduction in fighting majors largely due to the elimination of the one-dimensional fighter. (The funny thing is, one of the teams that still carries such a dinosaur is the Coyotes, who employ seldom used John Scott.)
Through games played Oct. 28, there had been just 0.49 fighting majors per game this season, with six teams having not engaged in a single bout. That’s down from last season’s 0.63 per game which was also down from 0.76 in 2013-14 and 0.96 in ’12-13.
The players that are entering today’s NHL have been raised differently. Most of them are more interested in making moves that people of past generations never dreamed of so they’ll make the TV highlight reel at night.
Fighting was never a big part of college hockey, and junior leagues in Canada have done a wonderful job of reducing it. The players that arrive to today’s NHL are simply not accustomed to having to drop their gloves to defend themselves at every turn.
It is no surprise that McDavid is leading the Edmonton Oilers in scoring. The first pick in the 2015 draft is a generational star who was expected to make an immediate impact. However, a quick scan around the league finds other freshmen making huge impacts. Among the top seven rookie scorers, five were 20 or younger. McDavid is 18, Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets and Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings are 19 while Domi and Duclair are 20.
It doesn’t end there. Rosters throughout the league are sprinkled with 18, 19, and 20 year olds. Jack Eichel, the 19-year-old No. 2 pick in the draft, had three goals in 10 games with the Buffalo Sabres. Teammate Sam Reinhart, 19, had a goal and four points in 10 games. Jared McCann, 19, of the Vancouver Canucks had four goals in eight games, while Noah Hanifin, an 18-year-old defenceman with the Carolina Hurricanes, was logging nearly 17 minutes per game. Daniel Sprong of the Pittsburgh Penguins is one of three 18-year-olds in the NHL and had a goal in eight games.
Not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, has have a few blue chip prospects in William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and Mitchell Marner, but they have elected to play Nylander and Kapanen in the American League with the Toronto Marlies, and returned Marner to London of the OHL. The Maple Leafs said they want these players to be 100 per cent NHL-ready when they get the call.
All in all, though, the NHL is a much less intimidating place for a kid to play hockey these days.