Around the Rink: No Doubt the NHL Is in a Golden Age of Young Talent

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistNovember 4, 2016

Connor McDavid, 19, is part of the NHL's new youth movement.
Connor McDavid, 19, is part of the NHL's new youth movement.Claus Andersen/Getty Images

This is the centennial season of the NHL, but its identity today is more about the millennials. 

While it's true the NHL has the oldest player in any of the four major professional sports in the 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr, if there were a composite face of the league, it would be something more like: peach fuzz, no wrinkles and maybe a little leftover teen acne.

Two of the league's most popular and best players today, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, remain two years away from being allowed to legally have an alcoholic beverage in the United States.

Entering Thursday, only three of the NHL's top 20 scorers (Evgeni Malkin, Joe Pavelski and Shea Weber) were 30 or older. There were 12 rookies averaging better than a half point per game (minimum eight games played), including two (Matthews and 20-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs teammate William Nylander) averaging a point or better.

Tuesday night's game between McDavid's Edmonton Oilers and Matthews' Maple Leafs was a genuine marquee event, with even the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, flying into Toronto to take it in. Combine the NHL's M&M Boys with other rising, under-24 stars such as Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Johnny Gaudreau, Seth Jones and Aaron Ekblad, and you have the makings of a paradigm shift in the league.

"You get a kid who's 18, 19 or 20, there's always a process they have to go through in this league, but the kids are just more developed now," said Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette, whose 23-man roster has only four players (Pekka Rinne, Mike Fisher, Mike Ribeiro and Matt Carle) aged 30 or older. "From skill set to physically to just knowledge about how to be a pro, they're well-schooled when they get here. So they are having a real impact on the game."

Hall of Fame former coach Scotty Bowman, 83, remains a student of the game, and he said he hasn't seen this kind of quality youth since the period from about 1979 to 1985, when youngsters such as Gretzky, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Patrick Roy, Mario Lemieux, Michel Goulet, Jari Kurri and Ron Francis, among others, joined the league.

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"This a special time, since the '80s," Bowman said on The Lonely End of the Rink podcast. He continued:

We've got so many good young players that come in ready-made. They just jump right into the league, and they wouldn't be able to play at 18 or 19 if they weren't as good as they are.

And don't forget, these players are generally going into teams that are on the rebuild. They're not going into ready-made teams. They're being counted on, where it's 'you've got [to] go carry this franchise.' It's a big burden on a lot of players at that age because they're still [kids], and they haven't lived their life like a lot of players who are 30.

Toronto rookie Auston Matthews had four goals in his first NHL game.
Toronto rookie Auston Matthews had four goals in his first NHL game.John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche's MacKinnon is only 21, but this is already his fourth NHL season. Teammate Matt Duchene, who is also a leading scorer on the team, is 25, but this is his eighth season. 

"It's pretty unbelievable how much younger the league is now even from when I first came in," said MacKinnon, who added with a chuckle that he's "already starting to feel old."

         

Erik Johnson's Congressional Family Ties

Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson is the team's lone American player, and he cares enough about the U.S. presidential election that he mailed in his ballot the week before it took place. Johnson was already interested in politics, though, partially because his uncle, Sean Duffy, is a U.S. congressman representing Wisconsin's Seventh District.

Duffy, as longtime fans of the MTV series The Real World know, was a member of the 1997 Boston cast and is married to the former Rachel Campos, who was part of the 1994 San Francisco cast

Courtesy of Erik Johnson

"I think his goal one day is to be president, so we'll see," said Johnson, whose mother, Peggy, is Duffy's sister. "A couple years ago, I got a group of about seven of us, and he gave us a tour of the Capitol, and we met [speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives] Paul Ryan, and it was just really cool."

Johnson said politics has been a locker room topic more than usual ahead of the election.

"It's always on the TV wherever you are, so guys are talking more about it," he said. "I mean, it's the biggest story [in] the world right now. A lot of the Canadian guys and guys from other countries, they have opinions on it, but that's all they can have is opinions because they can't vote. It's just me and the equipment guys in here who can. But a lot of those guys do care because it could affect their taxes and stuff."

Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie, a British Columbia native, is not among those too interested in talking politics, however, and most players shy away when asked much of anything to do with it.

"I find that politics usually makes people too touchy," Barrie said. "I try to stay away from it."

      

George Gwozdecky: From the Stanley Cup Final to Coaching High School

George Gwozdecky won back-to-back NCAA titles at the University of Denver.
George Gwozdecky won back-to-back NCAA titles at the University of Denver.David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

George Gwozdecky, who won back-to-back NCAA titles at the University of Denver and was an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2013 to 2015, could have had his pick of many other more high-profile jobs last year when he left the Lightning.

But Gwozdecky chose to return to Colorado and coach high school team Valor Christian. In his second season coaching at the school, Gwozdecky said it has helped him rediscover his passion for working with kids.

"They're so impressionable at these ages, and I just feel good knowing I can help make a difference in their lives going forward," said Gwozdecky, who led the DU Pioneers to 12 straight 20-plus win seasons, still an NCAA record. "I really enjoyed my two years in Tampa and was privileged to be part of an organization that played in the Stanley Cup Final. But I'm really enjoying what I'm doing now, working with these kids."

          

The Biggest Surprises of the Season so Far

We're into November, and here are three things I've been most surprised about, both good and bad.

    

The Good

1. Edmonton's start: It's funny; I still hear from fans ripping me for picking the Oilers high up in some power rankings I did for SI.com a few years ago. I've been trying to lead the bandwagon on this team, with all its top draft picks, for years. 

And then, coming into this season, I wasn't too convinced it'd be much better than last year, especially after trading Taylor Hall away. So here the Oilers are, leading the Western Conference in points. 

2. The Rangers: I picked the Blueshirts to miss the playoffs this season, and not only were they 7-3-0 entering Thursday's game against the Oilers, but they've been dominant most nights. Their plus-18 goal differential (40-22) was second-best in the league behind Montreal Canadiens.

Rookie Jimmy Vesey has helped the Rangers get off to a hot start.
Rookie Jimmy Vesey has helped the Rangers get off to a hot start.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press/Associated Press

3. Jimmy Howard: A lot of people had given up on veteran Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard coming into this year. After all, he hadn't had a save percentage above .910 the previous three seasons. But what a start for Howard so far, with a league-leading .973 save percentage and 0.86 goals-against average.

     

The Bad

1. The Predators' start: I picked them to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final next spring. Do I still feel good about that after their 3-5-1 start? Next question, please.

2. The Islanders' attendances: The New York Islanders play in a borough of the biggest city in the United States, they were a playoff team last season and they have one of the league's biggest stars in John Tavares. Yet they are dead last in the NHL in home attendance so far, averaging just over 12,000 per game at the Barclays Center. That's alarmingly low.

3. Dallas' goaltending: Antti Niemi's save percentage is .893. Kari Lehtonen's isn't much better, at .900. If they don't get better soon, the Dallas Stars will have no hope of leading the West in points like they did last season.

    

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.