Thursday, March 29, 2018

Almost in the rearview, Part Three

For the throngs of people who have have been awaiting the third volume of my thoughts about the not-yet-ended 2017-18 NHL regular season, here we go! You can go here for part one and here for part two if you are crazy enough to want to read 'em.

Well, not really, but I still have a pet peeve when it comes to words used by hockey commentators. For the last few years we've been hearing over and over about the NHL's "youth movement," and I have to ask: Is there really a movement afoot? Doesn't that word suggest a deliberate, large-scale, almost systematic shift toward something and away from something else?

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins are on a roll and are one of the favorites to (again) win the Stanley Cup, and their three biggest stars are all 30-plus... Up on the prairie, the Jets are serious Cup contenders and among their major contributors are 31-year-old captain Blake Wheeler and 32-year-old defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, with their big-time trade-deadline acquisition being 32-year-old Paul Stastny... Out West, the Kings are enjoying a surprising resurgence due largely to the play of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Jonathan Quick, who are 30, 33, and 32, respectively. 

Alexander Ovechkin is approaching his 33rd birthday and leads the league in goals. Patrice Bergeron's 33rd birthday is even nearer than Ovechkin's, and he has had such a stellar season that he stands a strong chance of winning his second straight Selke (and third in four years).

Zdeno Chara is 41 and remains the top defenseman on a team that is among the top three or four in the league, and he just signed a contract extension. Matt Cullen is 41 and has churned out 21 points for Minnesota this year. Roberto Luongo is 39 and almost solely responsible for the Florida Panthers being in the playoff race. Pekka Rinne is 35 and turning in a Vezina-caliber campaign.

Meanwhile, Patrick Marleau, Chris Kunitz, Mike Smith, Justin Williams, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Brian Boyle, Dion Phaneuf, and Tuukka Rask are still impact performers at the respective ages of 38, 38, 36, 36, 33, 33, 33, 32, and 31.

Does this sound like the NHL is a league whose teams are putting their graybeards out to pasture just so they can bring in youth? Nope. Yet media people constantly drone about the league undergoing a "youth movement," and they prattle about guys in their late 20's as if they are over the hill. Not long ago I read a piece in which a writer (I don't recall which) referred to a very good player (I also don't recall which) who is either 31 or 32, and he called the player "old as hell" in the context of suggesting that it wouldn't make sense for a team to sign him to much of a contract when his expires at season's end. This kind of drivel drives me nuts.

What gives?
So why do we keep hearing about a youth movement? I think the answer is obvious: The last few draft classes have featured a phenomenal explosion of young players who were already NHL-ready when drafted, and they have made an impact on the ice without first having to spend several years getting groomed in the farm system that is the major juniors, AHL, ECHL, and/or NCAA.

For the Penguins' Matt Murray, this is only his third season in the league and his first two ended with him winning the Stanley Freakin' Cup as a starting freakin' goaltender.

Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were the top two picks of the 2015 draft. Both started their pro careers that fall at the age of 18, and have since played so well that they are considered the faces and saviors of their franchises. Many people believe McDavid is already the best player on the planet, and some people in Edmonton consider him a worthy heir apparent to Wayne Gretzky, and the fact that he just reached the 100-point mark for the second season in a row means those people aren't being irrational!

Yet neither McDavid nor Eichel was rookie of the year for the 2015-16 season, since Artemi Panarin got that title and deserved it. And he has actually improved his game over the two years since, banking 71 points this campaign while leading Columbus back to playoff contention.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs took Auston Matthews first in the 2016 draft and he started his career by scoring four goals on opening night when he was 19 years old, instantly becoming the toast of hockey chauvinist Toronto even though he hails from hockey neophyte Scottsdale, Arizona. Today Matthews is one of the best and most celebrated players in the league, yet consider this: When you combine last season and this season together, Patrik Laine, who won't turn 20 until next month, has scored more goals than anyone in the NHL; Laine has in fact scored more goals as a teen than Wayne Gretzky did, and they both started at 18.

Then we have this year's rookie class, which is so insanely deep that more than ten players have belonged in the conversation for rookie of the year, and each of them has made an indispensable impact on his team.

It's not that general managers have said "hey, let's make our rosters younger because only whippersnappers can play this game," it's that an unprecedented number of young hockey players are so good they can't be kept off of rosters and stopped from generating points... but that does not mean older players suck, and it certainly doesn't mean that productive veterans can be kept off of rosters and stopped from making an impact either.

What we have here is meritocracy with a glut of talent at both ends of the age spectrum. And in the middle of the age spectrum as well. And that, mes amies, is good for the game.

Speaking of which...
...I don't think it's a coincidence that this glut of talent is appearing at the precise point in time that hockey is being played in more places than ever before.

I already said that Auston Matthews hails from Arizona. But on top of that, today's NHL includes well-regarded players from Florida, Alabama, Texas, and Southern California. And the St. Louis Area has become such a hotbed of blue-chippers that it now gets mentioned in the same breath as American hockey's traditional spawning grounds in Minnesota and Massachusetts.

Europe's "big five" hockey nations (Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) have been producing NHL stars for decades, but in recent years many other European nations, including all the Germanic ones and especially Switzerland, have also been producing them. Roman Josi, captain of the Stanley Cup favorite Nashville Predators, is Swiss, as is Nico Hischier, the New Jersey Devils' high-scoring rookie who was picked #1 overall in last June's draft.

This season the NHL welcomed its first Aussie (Nathan Walker) and he potted his first goal on opening night.

Hockey has recently gained popularity in East Asia, and will surely keep doing so with this year's Winter Olympics having been staged in skating-rich South Korea and the 2022 Winter Olympics slated for China.

This influx of talent from regions hitherto unthought of is only the first wave of something that will be much bigger in the not-too-distant future.

When my Tampa Bay Lightning played their first game in 1992, youth hockey here in the Tampa Bay Area was practically non-existent. By the time the Bolts won their first Stanley Cup 12 years later, youth leagues had sprung up and ice rinks had sprouted. Today, 13 years after that, youth leagues are everywhere, our schools have hockey teams, and it is much more common to see kids outside playing street hockey than it is to see them playing catch with a baseball. A newly opened rink 15 minutes from my house is so capacious and state-of-the-art that it served as the home of the U.S. women's hockey team in the five months they trained leading up to the Olympics.

The quality of play in these parts is such that one of our local schools (Tampa Jesuit) advanced all the way to the Elite Eight of the USA Hockey High School National Championship Tournament this past weekend. We are now subject to recruiting wars, seeing as how a 12-year-old friend of my daughter's has been invited by a school in Connecticut to move up there to play high school hockey when the time comes.

The first generation of Tampa Bay prospects to grow up in this hockey-cultivating environment has not yet reached adulthood, but will soon, and the same is true for other "non-traditional markets" that have entered the NHL fold since the 1990's: Miami-Dade, Raleigh, Nashville, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Columbus, and San Jose-San Fran-Oakland, to say nothing of other populated areas in their respective states that have grown to like the game as a result of having a nearby team to root for.

Just think of what this portends for pro hockey's future talent pool, especially when you consider that Huntsville, AL has already seen one of its native sons make it to the league despite it having only a fraction of the population and hockey infrastructure that NHL markets have to offer.

'Tis a fait accompli that the NHL will soon award a franchise to Seattle, bringing its total number of clubs to 32. As you might be able to tell, I am so bullish about the game's growth of high-end talent that I have literally no concerns at all that expansion might dilute the talent pool.

In fact, I expect the talent influx to continue burgeoning so much that it would not be crazy to think about expanding again several years after Seattle comes on board. I don't know how many years I'm talking about -- 8, 12, 15, whatever -- but I have no doubt we'll find plenty of worthy players whenever the time comes.

Can we find enough worthy officials to accommodate expansion? Unfortunately, that's a quite different story and I don't feel like getting into it right now.

I guess lots of this post wasn't actually, technically, about the 2017-18 season. Oh well. When my brain starts turning, sometimes it goes wherever it wants. Until next time, take care!

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