The NHL, on average, is getting younger. In 2007-08, five teams (Anaheim, Calgary, Detroit, Carolina and Atlanta) had final rosters where the players' average age was 29 or older. In 2015-16, the current oldest team in the league is the Minnesota Wild, at 28.292 years, according to NHLNumbers.com.
Look around the league today, and several teams are not only getting solid contributions from first-year players, they are almost dependent on them for overall success. The Edmonton Oilers had problems when Connor McDavid was healthy, but they quickly sank back to the bottom of the Western Conference standings when the 19-year-old went down with a broken collarbone in early November.
In Detroit, 19-year-old rookie Dylan Larkin arguably is the Red Wings' most important forward. Rookies elsewhere, including Jack Eichel in Buffalo, Max Domi in Arizona and Artemi Panarin in Chicago, are vital components to their clubs.
|Top Rookie Scorers in 2015-16|
|Artemi Panarin, Chicago||52||18||34||10|
|Dylan Larkin, Detroit||38||18||20||26|
|Jack Eichel, Buffalo||36||16||20||-15|
|Max Domi, Arizona||34||13||21||-3|
|Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia||28||9||19||3|
Rookies may still have to literally and figuratively carry the bags of their veteran teammates, but in today's NHL they are more and more carrying their teams. Why is this happening? There are several theories, but Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill boils it mostly down to just plain biology. One needs to look only recently toward Larkin's shattering of a 20-year-old speed record at the last NHL All-Star Skills Competition.
"It's just the speed of the game," Nill said. "Younger legs are going to be faster than older legs. In our game today, you just can't afford to be even a hair slow. You'll get exposed pretty quick."
The salary cap has made it more feasible for teams to allow rookies to step right in because their salaries are capped even further within their first three years. But that's not the biggest reason why rookies are becoming leading men so much sooner.
"I think in the older days, and I certainly know this from watching and listening to my dad at how he thought of them, the feeling was that you really couldn't trust rookies with a lot of ice time, unless their name was Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky or someone like that," Chicago GM Stan Bowman, whose father, Scotty, is the all-time NHL wins leader as a coach, said.
"Things have changed in the last few years. A lot of these kids are coming into the league with enough of the right skill sets to compete effectively."
The NHL has had seasons when rookies made more of an immediate impact on its clubs. Probably the biggest year for rookies was 1979-80, when first-year players such as Ray Bourque, Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Mike Gartner, Kevin Lowe, Brian Propp and Rick Vaive, among others, made significant contributions to their clubs.
The draft class of 2003 also had many future stars, but in most cases it took two or three years for them to make big impacts. The impact rookies of this season include first and second overall picks McDavid and Eichel, who wasted no time in the minors or juniors after being drafted. Noah Hanifin, drafted fifth overall by Carolina in 2015, has helped transform the Hurricanes back into a playoff contender.
Of the 30 players taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, 11 already have gained regular NHL experience and two others have played a handful of games. Of the 30 taken in the first round of the 2013 draft, 23 have already gained NHL experience, with three—Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Sean Monahan—already with 200 or more games played.
"It's pretty amazing, kids who aren't even 21 yet, with so much experience already," Stan Bowman said. "But that's how the league has been trending for a while now."
That's OK with guys such as Eichel, who only turned 19 in October. He didn't think he needed any more hockey experience before joining the world's highest league, but in the older days of the NHL, he would probably still be in college playing his sophomore year at Boston University.
"I definitely thought I was ready and have no regrets [leaving BU]," Eichel said. "I think more and more guys are competing against each other at younger ages, nationally and internationally, and I think that helps your development coming in [to the NHL]."
The same attitude prevails with Larkin, who actually did put in some time in the American Hockey League with the Grand Rapids Griffins before becoming the first under-20 player to crack the Red Wings roster since Jiri Fischer in 1999.
He has quickly gained the confidence of coach Jeff Blashill, who did not play him any more than 15 minutes his first three games. Now, he regularly gets 18-22 minutes a game and plays on a top line with Justin Abdelkader and Henrik Zetterberg.
"I had no set expectations on coming into the league at my age, but it seems like the league has, you know, gotten a little younger," Larkin said. "But I know I still have a lot to learn."
In the case of Panarin, the Blackhawks have a veritable graybeard among top rookies. The Russian winger is a first-year NHL player, but he is 24. Nonetheless, he is eligible for the Calder Trophy, and it's starting to look like he might win in a runaway. His 52 points in 56 games is 14 more points than his nearest competitor, Larkin.
Discovered two years ago by Chicago's European director of scouting, Mats Hallin, Panarin was talked into signing with the Blackhawks despite initial reservations that he might not get enough ice time on a team loaded with so much veteran forward talent.
"He looked at the lineup and he said, 'where am I going to play?'" Bowman said. "I tried to explain that we were going to have to get rid of some players, guys like [Patrick] Sharp. He's been able to fit right in."
Panarin has done more than fit in and is seventh in the league in scoring among all players, not just rookies. He's in good company among rookies outperforming veterans, as Larkin leads the NHL in plus-minus (plus-26) and McDavid ranks fifth among all players in points per game (1.06) despite missing time due to injury.
In Colorado, MacKinnon was drafted by the Avalanche as a 17-year-old and played his first NHL game a little more than a month after turning 18. He's all of 20 now but in his third year and says, "I'm starting to feel a little old."
In the NHL, youth is not being wasted on the young.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.
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