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The Brave New World of the NHL
Jeremy Lanaway finds that this year’s midseason, for a welcome change, is a gift that keeps on giving
By Jeremy Lanaway
‘Tis the season to be jolly. Typically, ‘tis also the season for punitive, predictable coach firings, dollar-store trades, and dozy, mail-in matchups. It is a time when even the NHL’s most stalwart fans must dig deep to keep their zeal from succumbing to the ebb of mid-season play, struggling to resist the urge to PVR games instead of watching them live, to stay on channel rather than flipping to a Seinfeld rerun or the latest episode of Survivor.
Usually, ‘tis the season for all these things, but in the case of this year’s NHL season, Christmas has come early and promises to stay late, providing a bounty of gifts that keep on giving - in the form of thrills, amazement, wonder, and excitement normally suited to games played in February or March. The NHL’s mid-schedule invigoration is thanks in large part to its blooming youth movement, comprised of players who have yet to figure out that the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and that hockey is a job, not a game.
A quick peek at the NHL’s individual points ladder reveals an interest-piquing trend: eight of the top-ten points-getters are aged twenty-five or younger. Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon hold the top two positions, with 46 and 43 points respectively through 28 matchups, while the third place is occupied by Nikita Kucherov, of the Tampa Bay Lightning, with 42 points through 29 games.
The youthful cohort is rounded out by Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs), Brayden Point (Lightning), Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), and Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres). Every player in the grouping sits above the point-per-game threshold, with Rantanen at 1.64 and Eichel at 1.17. Alex Ovechkin holds the eleventh spot in the overall points race, but the other usual suspects - Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin, et al - find themselves well back of the pack.
Is the NHL experiencing a generational shift? The numbers seem to suggest it. The league’s ever-tightening rules surrounding physicality and fighting continue to open the game up for skilled players, no matter how diminutive in size or youthful in age. In days gone by, teams would tuck their young stars away in the minors to ‘fill out’ and ‘become men’. In most cases, several years would divide a player’s drafting and his first official game. The few who managed to crack the line-up in their early twenties - or rarer still, in their late teens - would require the constant oversight of an enforcer. Now it is common for players to join their team’s roster a season or two after their drafting.
Today’s young stars aren’t invulnerable to physicality, but the game has honed its focus over the past ten or fifteen years, giving preference to speed, skill, playmaking, and spatial awareness. The NHL’s ongoing evolution has relegated its bruisers to the bench or - in many cases - the press-box. Across the league, teams have discovered that - surprise, surprise! - fans actually enjoy watching their team’s youngsters come to age in an environment that has traditionally been dominated by men.
Every shift offers the potential for a career-first. Every shot-on-goal is a milestone - every goal a miracle. The exuberance on a rookie’s face after lighting the lamp gives evidence to a joy that belongs to youth, and its radiance can be felt even in the nose-bleeds. Sure, their mistakes are frequent and often game-ending in scope, but this only makes them more human, and thus more likeable. The Leafs’ Marner, the Oilers’ McDavid, and the Flames’ Gaudreau - to put names to only three of numerous examples across the league - have thrived in big-role roster spots since their NHL debut.
In the NHL, youthful success isn’t limited to individual players. The Vegas Golden Knights are proof that rookie teams don’t have to wait years to get their first taste of success. The Knights’ lengthy and unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring is the product of the NHL’s brave new world, which allows new teams to stack their roster with second- and third-line players from around the league: veteran, heart-and-soul grinders in need of a change of scenery, a new lease on life, and every other cliché you can think of.
The next team to test this theory will be the Seattle Rainiers, Eagles, Totems, Sockeyes, Evergreens, Whalers ... The NHL Board of Governors recently welcomed Seattle to the fold, announcing that the city will ice a squad for the 2021-22 season, bringing the league total to thirty-two. The club paid $650 million for the invite - $150 million more than the cheque that the Golden Knights wrote a few years back - and has already taken down payments from more than 30,000 fans for season tickets.
The same roster-building framework that opened the door to the Golden Knights’ Cinderella run last year will remain in place for Seattle, and any other expansion teams that may be invited to join the NHL in the years to come. The only question is whether or not Seattle will be able to capitalize on its head-start. If the trends currently shaping the NHL continue - trends that have made for a faster, cleaner, more exciting, and less predictable on-ice product - the answer to the question is likely to be yes.