You hear NHL people say, “this is a young man’s game now” so often, you half expect the best hockey league on the planet to eventually resemble women’s gymnastics and feature a bunch of rosy-cheeked pre-teens bouncing all over the ice like cherubs with blades for feet.
But although it’s undeniable young players such as Jeff Skinner and Patrick Kane have shown the ability to make a significant impact without much experience, take a look at what most NHL teams have been doing since the 2010-11 season ended. They’re not going out of their way to add young players. Instead, league GMs have been more like relic hunters, setting their scopes on the senior citizens of the game to increase their veteran know-how.
The young guys are the future and are more marketable on a marquee, but older NHLers still have as much value as they ever did.
You can see that in Washington, where the Capitals emptied a couple small Brinks trucks on the unrestricted free agent market to sign Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun. Ward is the youngest of that group, and he’s 30. Halpern and Vokoun are both 35 and Hamrlik is 37.
Perhaps Washington GM George McPhee looked at the Tampa Bay Lightning - the team that eliminated Washington in the 2011 playoffs - and saw their two most important acquisitions were 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson and 32-year-old blueliner Eric Brewer. Perhaps McPhee appreciated the impact 36-year-old Jason Arnott had on the franchise after he was acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline. Regardless, the Caps are going greyer next season. And they’re far from the only ones.
On Wednesday, the St. Louis Blues bumped up their veteran quotient by signing Arnott and his former Devils teammate, 35-year-old Jamie Langenbrunner. Blues GM Doug Armstrong also signed Scott Nichol (age 36) and Kent Huskins (age 32) to complement what was one of the younger teams in the league last season.
St. Louis began and ended the season well, but when the injury bug clamped its fangs down on the franchise in the middle of the year, the Blues dug too deep a hole to climb out from - and didn’t have enough experienced climbers anyway. According to Blues president John Davidson, that issue has been directly addressed with the organization’s summer additions.
“The injuries we suffered in mid-season knocked us out of the box,” Davidson said. “So Doug (Armstrong) got veteran players on good deals this off-season who give us depth all the way through our lineup. And in turn, when we do come across these (injury) problems again, we’re going to be in much better shape to get through them.”
Added Armstrong: “The main thrust of our team will come from the players we’ve developed internally. But the veteran players we’ve brought in are going to help us tremendously. Of course, we can’t expect them to be the players they once were, but that said, they’re going to be extremely important for the leadership and psyche of the team.”
The Blues believe their players got slightly overconfident when the team began the year well - and after injuries took their toll, players took the tough times harder than they should have. The organization expects the influx of veterans will change that for the better.
“Sometimes last season our highs were too high at the start of the year when things were going well for our team and then when we had some challenges around February, I felt like our lows were too low,” Armstrong said. “We needed some people in the mix who could help us achieve a much better balance.”
The Blues also targeted the players they signed in part because they’ve all played on a big stage.
“Most of our players are three-year players and they’re past being kids, but they’re still young,” Davidson said. “We’re going to rely on them, but we’re also going to rely on some veteran players who want to extend their own careers, who have been through the wars of hockey at all levels. Huskins, Langenbrunner and Arnott have won championships. Nichol has gone deep in the playoffs.
“Combined with our young players, that’s a pretty good marriage.”
One of the reasons we’ve seen so many teams pursue veterans this summer is that teams have locked up all their young talent through long-term contracts, so most of the guys available are older. But Davidson and others see the way Mark Recchi served as an emotional anchor to the Stanley Cup-champion Bruins last season and understand you need more than just the boundless vigor of youth to get you to the pinnacle of pro hockey.
“You need to be able to rely on experience while others are getting experience,” Davidson said. “That’s the key part. Players need to experience being on a big stage and young people need to be led. No matter what you’ve gone through beforehand, there’s no experience like the reality of a deep run. You can’t explain it unless you’re in it, but veteran players who’ve been there understand completely.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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