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NHL is top heavy with young talent

by Dave Lozo
To say the NHL is a young man's game is an understatement on par with, "Wayne Gretzky was a decent hockey player."

If you were unknowingly dropped into an NHL dressing room these days, you might think you were at a college fraternity mixer or maybe even a casting call for the male lead in the fourth installment of the High School Musical franchise.

Now more than ever, youth is being served in the NHL. But a lot of these fresh-faced kids aren't just picking up ice time in small doses or watching from the press box as healthy scratches. They are either superstars or emerging as superstars, and it's hard not to get excited by what it could all mean for fans and for the League.

"I've never seen anything like this," said CBC analyst Kelly Hrudey, who spent 15 years in the NHL as a player. "I have to say I was a real big sports fan of all the other major sports growing up, but I don't know if there's ever been a time in any sport that's been so dominated by young players."

You have to look no further for proof of the League's youthful dominance than last season's scoring leaders. Six of the top 10 are 25 or younger and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk is only 26. Go a little further down the list, and the 25-and-under crowd continues to dominate.

The Flyers' Jeff Carter (24) had 46 goals last season. Teammate Mike Richards (24) had 30 goals and 50 assists and is one of the game's top young leaders. Columbus' Rick Nash just turned 25 this summer and is coming off the second 40-goal season of his career. Carolina's Eric Staal (24) has a Stanley Cup and has averaged 38 goals a season since 2005-06. Chicago reached the Western Conference Finals last season thanks to major contributions from Jonathan Toews (21) and Patrick Kane (20).

"The League is marketed on its stars and it's got a lot of star power right now," said former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, who now works as analyst with TSN. "It's as packed with star players as it has been in a lot of years. There's always Gretzkys and Messiers and Lemieuxs. But you're getting more players of that caliber in the game today."

"It's good for the League from the standpoint that they're dynamic, young and exciting, but more importantly, they can have a longer shelf life," said CBC analyst Kevin Weekes. "If all those guys stay focused and committed to playing, you could see these guys for the next 10-15 years. It bodes well for the League."

And it's not just forwards who are making names for themselves.

Washington's Mike Green (23) was a Norris Trophy nominee after leading all defenseman with 31 goals and 73 points a year ago. Shea Weber (24) had a breakout season on the blue line for Nashville with 23 goals. Calgary's Dion Phaneuf (24) is a star in Canada and has never met a bone-crushing hit he wasn't willing to deliver.

Want to talk goaltenders? Cam Ward recently turned 25 and has a Stanley Cup to his credit. The same can be said for Pittsburgh's 24-year-old netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. And Columbus' Steve Mason (21) led all goalies in shutouts last season with 10 on his way to a Calder Trophy.

"From the advent of the draft till now we've never had that constant flow of star players coming into the League that we've had the last seven years," said TSN and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire. "It's amazing the athleticism of the players in the League today."

So what has changed in recent years that's allowing a group of guys who are almost all too young to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to excel at the highest level of hockey?

A lot of credit can be given to the improvement of youth programs around the world. Better instruction and education will always lead to players who can develop faster and adapt to tougher competition. The game has also become more global, so there's more top-end talent in more places.

Weekes sees two major contributors leading to this influx of young talent.

"The advancement in the development of players has improved," Weekes said. "You look at junior hockey and college hockey and even in Europe, you have a lot of ex-players who have retired and transitioned into coaching at those levels and I think it's really helped the development model for a lot of the younger players.

"The new CBA also is a contributing factor to that where younger players are getting an opportunity quicker. The blueprint for development and for opportunity is certainly different than when I came into the League. Guys have the opportunity to get their feet wet in the League, get acclimated and become good players a lot earlier than they did traditionally."

And the ability to grow up watching the game's best doesn't hurt, either.

"I think mimicking is a big part of it," said McGuire. "They had great role models in Gretzky, Lemieux, Coffey. And now you see a lot of these younger players are patterning their games after people."

Young stars are undoubtedly a benefit to the League as a whole. It makes marketing the game much easier. But according to former Hurricanes coach and TSN analyst Peter Laviolette, you can't overlook the affect of having a star can have on the non-traditional hockey markets in which they play.

"I've never seen anything like this. I have to say I was a real big sports fan of all the other major sports growing up, but I don't know if there's ever been a time in any sport that's been so dominated by young players."
-- CBC's Kelly Hrudey

"It means a lot for a team like Carolina," Laviolette said. "When you get a guy like Eric Staal, and they were able to bring him into the fold and build their organization around him, he's a game-changer and a difference maker. It's an opportunity for the fans to come out and see one of the best players in the League play the game. And in Carolina that's really important.

"There's bigger markets where you hope you have those players, but they're still probably going to do pretty well. Atlanta and Kovalchuk, Tampa Bay and Vinny Lecavalier. They need those players."

Is the next big star 2009 Entry Draft top pick John Tavares? The New York Islanders are sure hoping so, but with the deep pool of talent the League has today, no one is expecting the 19-year-old to hoist the NHL on his 195-pound frame.

"It's spread out all over. … John Tavares doesn't have to carry the League," McGuire said. "Maybe 10 years ago, but he doesn't have to do that anymore. (Young stars) are allowed to be players rather than just be ambassadors."

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