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Atlantic Division notebook

Youth movement changes complexion of Maple Leafs; Lightning face questions with NHL Trade Deadline approaching

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

As the NHL gets younger and younger -- and as those younger players become stars at a tender age -- there is no team that better represents the changing face of the League than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their stars are callow, far more likely to be born in the 1990s than the 1980s.

Which is all enough to make the veterans feel older than their years.

In reality, those veterans aren't old. Teams like the Florida Panthers boast Jaromir Jagr, who will turn 45 on Wednesday, and 37-year-old Roberto Luongo, and the San Jose Sharks are led by 37-year-old Joe Thornton and 37-year-old Patrick Marleau. The oldest player on the Maple Leafs is 33, and that's backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney, claimed off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 10. 

The oldest skater? That would be defenseman Matt Hunwick, who at age 31 is hardly ready for his AARP card. 

"It was a little weird only being 31 and being the oldest guy on the team," Hunwick said. "I think it's probably the only case in the NHL. It does make you feel older and, at the same time, the practices are up-tempo, there's a lot of enthusiasm, which is good for a player in their 30s to keep that young mind."

The Maple Leafs started the season with some company for Hunwick and Tyler Bozak, who is 30, with 30-year-old Colin Greening, 32-year-old Milan Michalek, and 33-year-old Brooks Laich, but those players were sent to the American Hockey League, making way for the young and the new. 

Video: TOR@DAL: Bozak redirects puck home for PPG

"It's kind of crazy," Bozak said. "Time moves pretty fast, but I think on a lot of other teams I wouldn't be the older guy. It's fun. It's fun to hang out with all the younger guys and be around that atmosphere. I feel young. I'm pretty immature myself, still, so I think I fit right in."

In the end, the turnover has come down to the talent the Maple Leafs have accrued after years of struggling in the standings, years of getting high draft picks -- including the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft that yielded Auston Matthews -- and years of development. The roles that once went to veterans now go to 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds and 23-year-olds. 

It has also changed the roles for those older players, who take on more responsibility in the face of the composition of the team. Hunwick and Bozak are both alternate captains, along with Leo Komarov and Morgan Rielly, the latter of whom is the youngest of the leadership group at 22 years old.

Video: STL@TOR: Rielly buries a rebound past Allen

"I think you're looked on a little bit more in terms of leadership and the way you handle yourself, the way you conduct business," Hunwick said. "Any time you have eight rookies, you have to set the right example and be a good leader."

Said Bozak, "I always wanted to try and lead and be a leader. I think you've got to do it a little more so now that the team is so young and maybe had to jump in that role a little quicker, but no matter who it'd be, I'd always try and lead, lead on and off the ice."

Still, it makes Hunwick, Bozak and McElhinney feel every one of their 30-plus years because they don't have much company. In addition to that trio, the Maple Leafs have 30-year-olds Komarov and Roman Polak to fill out their past-their-20s contingent. 

"When I first came into the League it was an older team in Toronto," Bozak said. "I think different groups mold better in different ways, but I love the atmosphere that we have in our room. Having these young guys has been pretty fun. They bring a lot of energy and a lot of smiles and it's contagious, so it's fun to be a part of."

Well, until the mocking starts.

"You get it a bit, here and there," Hunwick said. "But we're sensitive to it now because we're only 31. We don't feel that old. But yeah, you don't want to get ripped too much. Mostly it's the coaches that'll give us a hard time for being old."


Questions abound for Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning could be in for an interesting NHL Trade Deadline (March 1), given where they are in the Atlantic Division standings. Coming out of the All-Star break, the Lightning haven't been much better despite the affirmations of a turnaround from multiple players. The Lightning are 3-2-1 in six games since the break, numbers which won't get them out of the hole they're in.

"It's tough to watch," defenseman Victor Hedman said at the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game. "But you live in reality. You've got to know what's at stake. You've got to know where you're at. You can't hide from it. You've got to accept it."

Hedman then talked about shifting into playoff mode. But at this point, it might be too late. The Lightning have 26 games remaining, with three teams (Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Panthers) positioned between them and the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, two of which have multiple games in hand.

That's what makes the Lightning interesting to watch as February turns into March. They've already made a trade, sending defenseman Nikita Nesterov to the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 26. What more does general manager Steve Yzerman have up his sleeve in a season that he -- and the Lightning -- believed was destined for another long playoff run (and perhaps the Stanley Cup) but instead looks ticketed to be a deadline-day seller? 

Video: TBL@WPG: Hedman seals victory with empty-netter


Stat Pack

Jagr's next point will be his 1,900th and, though he is second in NHL history, he still has a long way to go before he catches No. 1. Wayne Gretzky is the all-time leader with 2,857. … When the Boston Bruins shut out the Canadiens on Sunday, it was their 59th all-time shutout of their rival but first since a 1-0 win by Tim Thomas on Nov. 21, 2011. … The Bruins power play is surging: Over the past eight games, it's 11-for-30 (36.7 percent). Over the past 18, it's 20-for-63 (31.7 percent). Boston ranks 14th in the League at 20.1 percent.

Video: FLA@NSH: Jagr deflects Yandle's shot past Rinne


Games to watch

Ottawa Senators at Toronto Maple Leafs (Feb. 18, 7 p.m. ET; CBC, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) -- The two surprise teams near the top of the Atlantic Division standings face off at Air Canada Centre on Saturday.

Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers (Feb. 21, 7 p.m. ET; MSG, SNE, RDS, NHL.TV) -- There's a chance this could be a preview of an Eastern Conference First Round series. Here's a chance to get a look at the matchup early.

New York Islanders at Detroit Red Wings (Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m. ET; FS-D, MSG+ 2, NHL.TV) -- It's the final game before the Red Wings begin their bye week, and essentially the final game for GM Ken Holland to determine whether he'll be a buyer or a seller prior to the trade deadline. 

Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs (Feb. 25, 7 p.m. ET; CBC, CITY, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) -- By the time this game is played, it could be the top team in the Atlantic Division against the second-place team. 

Boston Bruins at Dallas Stars (Feb. 26, 12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, NHL.TV) -- Not only is this a rematch of Tyler Seguin vs. the Bruins, another old face will be in the building. Rich Peverley, also traded with Seguin, will be there for Pevs Protects Day for the American Heart Association.

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