Young guns under the gun

When the Sedin twins arrived in the NHL in 2000, they were hailed as the future of Vancouver’s Stanley Cup hopes. However, it took many years, many more defeats and countless stalls and sideway lurches for them to ascend to the pinnacle of the hockey world (and even then, they and their teammates fell one game short of a championship last season).

But the Sedins at least had the relative luxury of spending their formative years in a pre-salary cap world. Now, if you enter the NHL as a teenage dynamo – and a cost-certain dynamo, thanks to the highly specified rookie contracts – you are expected to play at least that well the rest of your career, learning curve be damned.

For proof, consider Montreal sophomore P.K. Subban. The charismatic D-man carved out a big spot in Habs fans’ hearts last season with his end-to-end rushes, million-megawatt smile and blistering shot, but became the target of assorted barbs and B.S. when he and his teammates struggled to start 2011-12. Why? Don’t people understand that when an NHLer initially has significant success, the 29 other teams devote thousands of man-hours toward containing him the next time they meet?

“A young player who’s had success has to work twice as hard to get to where he was before,” said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who employs a few sophomores, including defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Ian Cole. “Your name is circled on every board before every game, but in someone’s first year, nobody knew who they were for the first 50-60 games. For example, every time Carolina plays, the opposition knows about Jeff Skinner and how to defend against him. Ten years ago, it might have taken two or three years before teams focused on you. Not anymore.”

An NHLer’s experience as a sophomore will vary depending on a number of factors, including the competitive place his team is in, as well as the players ahead of him on a depth chart. There’s a relatively new wrinkle that can drive up the hype surrounding a player – that being the social media/Twitter world that can gain a young athlete a huge following. And another inflator of expectations is the money teams must commit to players earlier in their careers. Due to the current labor deal, Armstrong and his fellow GMs are forced to make multi-million-dollar decisions based on a smaller body of work than they had when teams controlled young players for longer.

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In an ideal scenario, expectations on a youngster would be limited until he proved he was deserving of accolades.

“We don’t over-promote our young players,” said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. “We want them to earn the respect of their teammates and the coaching staff based on equity, not hype. Players need to learn the pro game and it’s hard to do that when they’re your go-to guys. There are exceptions – Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews – but there’s a process to becoming an NHL player and it takes some time.”

Look at what Wilson did with 2010-11 Calder Trophy runner-up Logan Couture. After being drafted ninth overall in 2007, Couture was given only a taste of NHL life at the start of 2009-10 before Wilson sent him to the Sharks’ American League affiliate. For 42 games, Couture absolutely dominated (20 goals and 53 points), then was rewarded with a recall to the NHL roster for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. So when he began last season at age 21, Couture had learned the pro game away from the spotlight and flourished (32 goals and 56 points in 79 games) as a result. And now, at the barely-ripe old age of 22, there’s no sense he’ll take a backward step.

“Logan earned his spot the right way,” Wilson said. “It’s not about a race to the NHL – it’s about building a career.”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.

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