NHL 2011-2012: Fresh Faces, Budding Stars Carving a New Image for the League
When it's over, the 2011-2012 season will likely be remembered in the hockey world for very little.
There will be another Stanley Cup winner, another Presidents' Trophy victor and another League MVP. There will be another Rookie of the Year, another Coach of the Year and another Conn Smythe recipient.
The usual headlines as the campaign progresses will captivate the NHL's audience: the surprise teams of the early season, the trades of the midseason and the playoff races of the late season.
Perhaps the rather alarming trend of deaths surrounding the sport during the preceding offseason will make it into a few history books, but no one really wants to recall any of those too often.
One thing this particular campaign will most certainly not be emblazoned with is its star players. No Wayne Gretzky's, Bobby Orr's or Gordie Howe's have graced this sport in a long time, for the sport itself has moved into a state of parity that simply eliminates such a superstar from developing.
In fact, the NHL's most recent icons have actually done nothing but fall off of the map at the turn of the decade.
Washington's newfound defensive tactics have steadily slowed Alexander Ovechkin's scoring domination. Injuries have devastated the successes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. And record-setting netminder Martin Brodeur of the Devils has finally met his own match: age.
The dynastic squads of what could be referred to as the "Golden Age" of the NHL are no longer at the top of the leaderboard, as well; the Toronto Maple Leafs (13 Stanley Cups), Edmonton Oilers (five Cups) and New York Islanders (four Cups) have all failed to make the postseason for four years running.
However, a key trend of the '11-'12 season that few, if any, followers will notice is the changing of the guard that is in full swing outside of the NHL's castle.
The playing field is completely wide open, for, as we just discussed, all of the faces of the sport during recent times have taken a fall. On the other hand, though, the time is just right for a new cast of A-list players to snatch up their own roles as promotional symbols as well as pioneers leading the NHL forward into the modern day.
Highlighting the crew of future faces is a plethora of young stars.
Nineteen-year-old Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes has already made his move into the spotlight by scoring 31 goals and 32 assists last season. The explosive season earned Skinner a feature page in the March 2011 edition of "ESPN The Magazine," a spot in the NHL All Star game (the youngest player ever to make it) and the Calder Trophy as the top rookie.
That's just the statistical side of his early career, nonetheless. Skinner's puppy-cute face and shockingly stunning skill set have placed him in the dreams of many a teenage girl, hockey fan or not, and also on the horizon of celebrity status, something that helps hockey expand its audience better than any other kind of advertisement.
Young, AHL-prepped players like San Jose's Logan Couture, Boston's Brad Marchand and Montreal's PK Subban have begun to symbolize a new trend in franchises, too; minor league hockey has transformed from the homeless shelter of hockey to a blossoming area of quickly-developing prospects and bandwagons.
Even more beneficial to the interests of hockey in general are the youngsters that are putting their respective squads on the map.
In Phoenix, the climate may not parallel the norm for hockey, but future stars like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are carrying the 'Yotes up into the group of contenders.
Meanwhile, another unlikely Southwestern city—in this case, Dallas—is being carried upward in a flow of youthful talent led by future All-Star Jamie Benn.
Past dynasties in Edmonton and Colorado have seen a recent resurgence, additionally, guided by a number of promising 25-and-unders.
The Oilers are currently leading the Western Conference, in a large part due to the efforts of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Linus Omark. The Avs have mimicked Edmonton's rise, as youngsters such as Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Erik Johnson and Semyon Varlamov have helped them to a 7-4-0 record at the moment.
The future of the NHL is blurry right now—its supersized cruise ship is simply lacking a few captains at the helm.
But the candidates for this critical job are both capable and copious.
The future of hockey is shining brightly with artists like Jeff Skinner breaking new ground for the NHL across the globe. Fresh teams are climbing their way up the totem pole, hockey is catching hold in the most unpredictable of locations and rinks of smooth ice and stick-toting children are springing up from Nova Scotia to New Mexico.
So will the 2011-2012 season really go down in history as the year when it all changed, when hockey wasn't just "that other" professional sport anymore?
But should it?
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 38 months so far with the site, he has written over 315 articles and received more than 370,000 total reads.
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