Washington youngsters Simeon Varlemov and Alex Ovechkin will hope to extend their playoff run next season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
On the heels of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup victory, young stars in the NHL may be getting the wrong idea. That is, play a couple seasons and hockey’s ultimate prize is yours.
Think about it: Sidney Crosby, all of 21 years on this planet, has his Cup already. So does teammate Evgeni Malkin, just a shade older at 22. Jordan Staal, just 20 and having completed his third season in the league, joins brother Eric on the Cup’s engraved ring.
Eric, of course, won his title with the Carolina Hurricanes in his second NHL campaign.
Now toss in Anaheim young guns Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who won it all with the Ducks while playing in their sophomore seasons. Add Vincent Lecavalier, who hoisted the Cup after six years in the league.
So is this the easiest trophy to win in sports or what?
Well, not so fast. Joe Thornton doesn’t have one (and critics claim he never will); neither does the Ottawa triumvirate of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. Jarome Iginla is still searching, too.
But the recent achievements of the NHL’s youth movement do mirror what previous generations accomplished. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier won their first Cup together by their fifth NHL season. Mario Lemieux only had to wait slightly longer, getting his in seven, while sharing the joy in 1991 with a Czech rookie named Jaromir Jagr. Martin Brodeur was in his second season as the Devils’ starter when New Jersey won in 1995.
So who is due in the current star system? Once again Ovie, the spotlight is yours.
Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals did look pretty good this season, taking the eventual champion Penguins to the precipice before folding like a poker table in Game 7 of the second round. And the way Ovie played was certainly a good omen for the future.
Washington’s ebullient superstar plowed his way to 11 goals and 21 points in just 14 playoff games, ranking him fifth overall despite playing far fewer games than those above him (all Pens and Wings). Much like Malkin, Ovechkin’s first foray into the post-season (a seven-game loss to Philadelphia last year) was a learning process, but 2009 proved to be the real deal. It goes without saying Ovie is as much a force after 82 games as he is during the regular season.
So how can Washington go further next year? Ovie’s got the offense (with help from Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin), so naturally the defense and goaltending come under the microscope. Jose Theodore is clearly not the answer in net and the swift rise of Simeon Varlamov will no doubt be tested during the regular season next season. Of course, this is a double-edged sword; the Caps will see what they’ve got in Varlamov, but so will other teams.
The defense, led by Mike Green, was done in by poor decision-making and while that’s not a great omen for the future, it is something that can be fixed in time. Washington’s defensemen are all either under contract for next year or restricted free agents, meaning their retention is fairly easy.
Chicago’s dynamic young duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews also built towards something great this season, maxing out against Detroit in the Western final. Much like the Caps, the Hawks’ questions come through goaltending and defense.
Nikolai Khabibulin was great until he was injured, while Cristobal Huet couldn’t continue the magic. On defense, the Hawks mirrored the Caps: big names making bad decisions. In particular, Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell will surely look for do-overs in next season’s playoffs.
Will Ovechkin, Kane and Toews join the rest of their young brethren in Stanley Cup success next season? Or will they join the other side, stacked with players such as Marcel Dionne, Pavel Bure and Eric Lindros, as greats who never got past their equally impressive peers? Crosby and Malkin will be around for years and the Red Wings aren’t going anywhere, so it goes without saying the Cup is, and will continue to be, a hard trophy to hoist.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Thursdays.
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