Jeff Skinner has the puck as Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith chase. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, N.C. – Nicklas Lidstrom, considered a fossil compared to some of the players he led into the NHL’s All-Star Game, made an interesting observation about Jeff Skinner.
“I see that he was born in 1992,” Lidstrom said. “That was my first year in the league.”
More than anything, this year’s All-Star Game underlined the fact that the NHL is a young man’s league. The face of the league is no longer grizzled and toothless, although Alex Ovechkin kind of bucks the trend on that one. But you get the picture. Exactly half the players who played in the All-Star Game over the weekend were 25 or under and the average age of the 42 players who took part was 26.6.
Perhaps it’s the effect of the salary cap, but a more logical explanation is that players are now more prepared mentally and physically to play, and star, in the league than ever before. There was a time when playing in the NHL under the age of 20 was a matter of survival. Just ask Joe Thornton. But Steven Stamkos could very well win both the Rocket Richard and Art Ross Trophies this season and he turns 21 next week.
“I really noticed it here,” said 33-year-old Daniel Briere. “Just talking to my three boys, who were they excited to come and see? Obviously a guy like (Sidney) Crosby, but the stars to them are the (Matt) Duchenes, the (Jonathan) Toews’, the (Patrick) Kanes, the (Steven) Stamkos’, all the new guys who are kind of taking over the league.”
Skinner was an addition to the team and it’s certain he would not have been put into the game if not for the fact it was in Raleigh, but he acquitted himself well as the youngest player ever to play in an All-Star Game in any major North American professional sport. Skinner looked as though he should be reading comic books containing the Guardian Heroes the NHL unveiled this weekend, but once he stepped on the ice, he certainly didn’t look out of place.
Crosby and Ovechkin have been leading the youth parade since the lockout, which accounts for much of the focus on young players, but Toews did his part by leading the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup just more than a month after his 22nd birthday. Matt Duchene continues to bud as a star at the age of 20 and Stamkos still can’t have a legal beer in the state in which he plays. Even Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom it seems has been around forever, is just 23.
It will be interesting to see how all this turns out. As this phenomenal group of young players gets over the 25 hump, will there be the same kind of dynamic talent to replace it at the other end? To be sure, there don’t seem to be any Crosbys or Ovechkins out there at the moment, but there is good depth of talent on the way up.
Another thing that makes it interesting is to see how these players perform later in their careers. The way players take care of themselves now, their careers can be extended well into their 30s and even 40s, but what is going to be the effect of having all these players playing so young and putting on so many difficult miles so early in their careers? Will the young stars of today be able to play at as high a level at 40 as Lidstrom, who came into the league as a 21-year-old? In the NHL, the number on the birth certificate sometimes isn’t as important as the one in the career games played column.
But all in all, this youthful vigor has been great for the league and the game. The veteran players who take care of themselves and don’t put themselves in vulnerable positions where they can get injured will always have a place in the game, but now is clearly an era where youth is being served.
“If you’re a good skater and you have a lot of skill, you can make it in this league,” Lidstrom said. “That’s why the kids are here. They’re all great skaters and they have good hands and they’re not afraid to make mistakes. They’re playing with confidence and they’re trying things they did when they were playing junior. It’s fun to watch.”
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