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NHL, fans have plenty to be thankful for

Teenage talent, Jaromir Jagr among Thanksgiving blessings

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States. There are two NHL games, both in Canada.

On this occasion, Americans enjoy turkeys, not Anaheim Ducks. Cranberry means sauce, not the township in Pennsylvania where the Pittsburgh Penguins practice. Saucer passes deliver coffee cups, not pucks. Seconds and thirds are helpings, not periods.

This is a time to pause and give thanks for all we have before gobbling up more hockey, starting with the New York Rangers at the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2016 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown on Friday (1 p.m. ET; NBC).

We have much to be thankful for in the NHL, including:


Teen dreams

Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, scored four goals in his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He's 19.

Patrik Laine, the No. 2 pick of the 2016 draft, had two hat tricks in his first 14 games and 12 goals in his first 21 games for the Winnipeg Jets. He's tied for second in the League in goals. He's 18.

Video: LAK@WPG: Laine shows off moves for shootout goal

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, leads the League in points with 27. He's 19.

Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the No. 8 pick in 2015, is two points off the scoring lead among defensemen. He's 19.

Then there is Mitchell Marner of the Maple Leafs, who has 16 points at age 19; Travis Konecny of the Flyers, who has 12 at 19; Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes, who has 10 at 19; and Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames, who has nine at 18.

We have so much to look forward to: Matthews' maturity, Laine's shot, McDavid's speed ....

Wise old man

Jaromir Jagr once was like them, 18 years old, piling up points for the Penguins, full of potential and headed to big things -- the Stanley Cup, the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross.

Jagr is 44 now, playing for his eighth NHL team, the Florida Panthers, and turns 45 on Feb. 15. He's third on the NHL's all-time goals list with 751, behind Wayne Gretzky (894) and Gordie Howe (801), and third on the all-time points list with 1,877, behind Gretzky (2,857) and Mark Messier (1,887). It's a matter of time before he catches Messier.

Video: FLA@OTT: Jagr scores 25 seconds into the game

He's older and wiser. He has found joy in the game he might not have felt when he was younger, and he isn't too proud to keep playing even though he isn't what he was back in the day. 

"You play [as long as] you love the game," Jagr once said. "When you love it, when you want to be with that game. It's like a marriage, I think. Would you have imagined you're going to stay with your wife that long? Well, you love her. You're going to stay with her as long as you can. … It's the same thing with hockey for me. I just love the game."

How can you not love that?

Good health

Carey Price went down with a knee injury last season, and the Montreal Canadiens went down with him, missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But he's back, and the Canadiens are atop the NHL standings. He's making it look easy again, 11-1-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average and .943 save percentage, the frontrunner for the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player and the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender through the first quarter of the season.

Sidney Crosby started the season sitting out with a concussion after winning the World Cup of Hockey 2016 with Team Canada and the tournament MVP award -- and after winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The worry was that, once again, he would be stopped by an injury while on top of his game.

But Crosby missed six games, and after scoring two goals Wednesday, leads the League lead in goals with 14, even though he had played 14 games.

Now we need good health for Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and others.


Fresh starts

When the Canadiens traded P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber on June 29, there were hard feelings and strong opinions. But it was a straight-up, old-school, player-for-player trade we rarely see anymore -- one star defenseman for another -- and it might work out best for everyone.

Video: TBL@NSH: Subban blisters one-timer for PPG

Weber is off to a great start in Montreal. He leads NHL defensemen in goals (eight) and is tied for the lead in points (17). Twice in Nashville, he finished fourth in the voting for the Norris Trophy as best defenseman. Once, he finished third. Twice, he finished second. Maybe he will finish first this season, thanks partly to more media exposure.

"Shea Weber should have and could have won the Norris Trophy a couple of times a few years ago," Predators general manager David Poile said. "Now this year he's going to stand a better chance than he ever has, and it's not because he's in Nashville. It's because he's in Montreal."

Subban has five goals and 13 points, and he's in a place where he can be himself as a player and a person and have an even bigger impact on the game. When he won the Norris in 2013, he added to the long winning tradition in Montreal. He can help establish one in Nashville.


A tradition of class 

As the League unveiled plans for its Centennial celebration at the World Cup in Toronto, Gretzky marveled at the young talent.

"I was thinking, 'Gosh, I could maybe play with that Matthews and Connor McDavid. They're pretty good,'" he said. "I'd know where to go, put it that way. These players today, more importantly, they're so big and strong and fast. The coaching and the teaching at a younger age is so much more advanced than when we played. These guys are special, elite athletes."

But even more importantly, Gretzky went on to say how proud he was of how these young players have handled themselves with class and dignity, mentioning Matthews, McDavid and Crosby as following in the tradition passed down from Howe, Jean Beliveau and Bobby Orr. He didn't mention himself, of course.

Howe died during the Stanley Cup Final. This is what Crosby said in remembrance: 

"That's who sets the example, the guys that played before and set the example for the guys you looked up to. Not just the hockey players, but the people. I think that's what's so special. His numbers speak for themselves, and all those players, their numbers will speak for themselves. But the type of people they were, the people that were willing to give back, that care about the game, that love the game, I think that's what makes it unique."

Let's toast to that.

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