Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews are among the league's top scorers, and this might only be the start of the youth movement.
Many scoffed at the two gimmick teams when the World Cup format was announced. That attitude quickly evaporated once Team North America actually hit the ice in September, however.
The best Canadian and American players aged 23 or younger formed one of the most exciting teams ever created. Their elimination was disappointing, but the spirit of the team wasn’t forgotten. It’s been one of the biggest stories this season: the youths are taking over.
Auston Matthews opened his NHL career with a four-goal game, and his teammates Mitch Marner and William Nylander have been sensational, too. Patrik Laine vaulted himself into the NHL goal scoring lead on the strength of two hat tricks in his first 14 games. The top three scorers at the time of writing – Connor McDavid, Mark Scheifele and Nikita Kucherov – are 23 or younger. There are young guns on nearly every team playing exceptional hockey.
The kids are gradually becoming a bigger part of the NHL. Roughly 26 percent of goals have been scored by someone 23 or younger. In 2005-06 that number was about 20 percent.
Anyone who thinks the league is becoming more of a young man’s game is bang on, but the trend is not new. Based on the coverage, you’d suspect the NHL has never been younger, but that’s far from the truth. There may be more teenagers than ever, but in terms of which age group contributes most, this season is only the highest since 1992-93. You may remember that as the year some other Finnish rookie led the league in scoring. Deja vu much?
Even more interesting is the league’s youth scoring at that point was already on the decline. The last time the kids made up as little as 26 percent was 1972-73. Halfway there, 1981-82, was the peak of the youth boom, when an astonishing 41 percent of goals were scored by players 23 or younger. Wayne Gretzky’s NHL-record 92-goal season helps, but so does having 10 of the top 20 scorers under the age of 23, something few people remember. They also probably won’t remember that in 1987-88, Mario Lemieux was the oldest player in the top five in goal scoring at 22.
So the current youth movement is nothing new, and it’s not even close to ’80s levels, but maybe this is just the start of where the league is going. The trend since modern expansion appears almost generational. There was a big jump in the ’70s, a peak in the ’80s, a crash in the ’90s and now another rise in the new millennium.
This generation is on a youthful upswing, and the current climate of the league may accelerate that. The salary cap means cost effectiveness is vital, and the kids generally provide the best value. The recent analytics revolution suggests a player’s prime is generally much younger than many think (around 23 to 25, in case you’re wondering). And then there’s future expansion to Las Vegas and likely a 32nd team after that, which creates more jobs likely to be filled by younger players. That was one of the biggest reasons for the youth movement in the 1970s, as the league rapidly expanded.
All those factors mean the NHL should see even more offense coming from the kids. The youth movement is on in full force, and if history is any indication, this might only be the beginning.