When the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified in the summer of 2005 and the NHL was set to resume play, there was understandable elation on the part of all hockey fans. Attention quickly became focused on the rosters of favorite teams and how the new rule package would affect the performance of each club. The reality of the salary cap to most fans simply meant that you had to avoid reckless spending and establish the priority needs for each club.
Fans who looked at the CBA a little closer identified one aspect that team managements considered important – the age at which a player could become an unrestricted free agent was accelerated if that player was brought into the NHL at an early age. Players who started their NHL careers at age 20 could ordinarily become free agents at age 27. However, if you started at age 19, you could become free at 26 and if you started at age 18, you could become free at 25.
The consensus quickly reached was that this would severely reduce the number of teenage players in the NHL. After all, who would not prefer to ensure that their top players remained, essentially, under team control until age 27 rather than 25? More particularly, the value of having a player on your roster from age 25-27 is usually much greater than having that same player from age 18-20.
As the post-lockout era evolved, another factor emerged that served to minimize youthful players. In most cases, the young players challenging for roster positions are high draft picks. Even with entry level signing caps, their salaries and potential bonuses were almost always bigger “cap hits” than what a journeyman veteran pro could command. If the choice was for one of the last roster positions, the journeyman would seem to have the inside track.
This entire line of logic makes an examination of current NHL rosters hard to explain. At the risk of missing somebody, my quick look at the current rosters reveals 14 teenagers. It is also significant that a quick look at the box scores reveals virtually all of these players are receiving important ice time. The players are a mixture of sizes and styles and they come from all over the hockey world. They are:
Taylor Hall – Edmonton Oilers
Magnus Paajarvi – Edmonton Oilers
Matt Duchene – Colorado Avalanche
Ryan O’Reilly – Colorado Avalanche
Brayden Schenn – Los Angeles Kings
Kyle Clifford – Los Angeles Kings
Evander Kane – Atlanta Thrashers
Alex Burmistrov – Atlanta Thrashers
Tyler Seguin – Boston Bruins
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Phoenix Coyotes
Nick Leddy – Chicago Blackhawks
Cam Fowler – Anaheim Ducks
Nino Niederreiter – New York Islanders
Jeff Skinner – Carolina Hurricanes
As we have seen, it is usually more expensive for a young player to be added to your roster and you are potentially opening yourself up to lose that player to unrestricted free agency at a younger age. This leaves only one logical reason why these players have been kept in the NHL: They clearly have demonstrated to their team’s management that they have beaten out the competition and can add immediate value to the team.
This group of youthful talent consists of 11 forwards and three defensemen. There are eight Canadians, two Americans, two Swedes, one Russian and one Swiss. Virtually every type of talent is included. The one common element is that, with few exceptions, these players are strong skaters. Whatever they do on the ice, they can do at top speed.
The 2010 Olympics revealed the hockey of the future and the NHL provides more proof on a nightly basis. To turn an old expression around – lack of speed kills. If your team cannot play at the current NHL tempo, your chances of success are not good. An infusion of fast-paced youth helps your club keep up.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.