BOSTON -- Its no wonder the NHLs premier first-round draft picks like Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have hit it big within the first couple of NHL seasons.
The NHL has become a world of teenage sensations where speed kills, and younger is most definitely better.
Its simply a different era in the NHL since offenses opened up and lanes became much less treacherous following the lockout in 2004-05.
Now 18-year-old skill players are thriving in the best league in the world, and teams that sit atop the draft can count on immediate contributions from their hand-picked talent.
Once upon a time players like Ray Bourque and Wayne Gretzky -- baby-faced players able to jump right into the NHL before they even had to shave on a daily basis -- were the exceptions to the rule.
But now, a handful of top draft picks stick with their teams each and in some case help turn things around immediately upon their arrival.
Nugent-Hopkins is the latest rookie sensation with 12 points for the young and hungry Oilers this season, and guys like Sean Couturier, Gabriel Landeskog and Adam Larsson are taking the Flyers, Avalanche and Devils by storm, respectively.
Hall and Seguin were the tale of two different hockey upbringings last season, with the Oilers rookie getting plenty of ice time to hone his game and pile up points while Seguin learned gradually on a Stanley Cup-winning team. But they also are a big part of an undeniable pattern over the last ten years. Nugent-Hopkins, Landeskog, Hall, Seguin, John Tavares, Victor Hedman, Matt Duchene, Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Patrick Kane, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were all top-three NHL draft picks that have made the jump straight to the NHL without any juniorminor league time in between.
In all, 13 of the 16 player selected in the top two spots in the NHL draft since 2004 have gone straight to the NHL. More amazingly, 5 of those 16 players have already won Stanley Cups in the last seven seasons as key skaters on some excellent teams.
Its nice to see, said Bruins coach Claude Julien. Its good to see. It just goes to show you how our game is being developed as far as youth hockey is concerned and how its being managed. Youve got a bunch of guys with skill. Tavares is another one that because of his age probably got held out of the draft the year before he was chosen.
Its nice to see those things happening. Youve got those young guys from the Oilers coming in, weve got our young guy in Seguin for sure and Tavares is in there as well having some sort of an impact at a younger age. Im really okay with that.
So whats the reason for the league getting younger, and seemingly overnight? What game-changing event created a habitat where 18-year-old kids can flourish when they once might have been physically unsuitable to hack it in the NHL?
Edmonton coach Tom Renney says its about new strength training and dietary breakthroughs that allow younger players to compete and endure against men twice their age at the NHL level. There is certainly plenty of validity to the Edmonton coachs theory.
Every player has a personal trainer these days and fitnessnutrition is paramount, said Renney.
I also think the (2004-05) lockout and the attrition that took a toll on the older players really allowed an influx of the younger players into the league.
The change made it a younger league and its continued to take on the trend ever since then. Its exciting hockey. Sometimes you have to get out of the way as a coach and let em go. Thats okay. The big thing is that it cant be at the expense of the two points or playing the game properly without the puck as well. Its fan-friendly at this point and I think the game has been that way since the lockout . . . maybe since the Oilers days of the 1980s. Its exciting for the fans because of the young guys and I think its important to identify with that.
Julien also thinks the gummed up, trap-happy game prior to the lockout might have made it impossible for younger players to break through.
Id answer by saying that the clutching and grabbing that used to go on really slowed things down and I dont think the younger guys would have been strong enough to deal with that, said Julien. It took away a lot of the skill that these are bringing to the table. But because theres no holding back or slowing things down theyre able to showcase their talent quicker and better. Thats what sticks out in my mind.
Whatever the reason, the youth uprising within the NHL game is happening all around North America. Young, energetic superstars fwith speed, skill and dazzling creativity are taking over a league that once tried to beat it out of them by the time they reached the big stage.
The change to youth and skill is making hockey a better game each and every year while holding onto the blue collar tough qualities that make it such a unique sport.
Dont believe me?
Just take a peek at the talent level and heart-stopping plays made on the ice when the Oilers hit the Garden ice against the Bruins on Thursday night, and three of the best NHL players under the age of 20 vie for bragging rights.
Thats the new NHL that the league builders dreamed of when they came out of the lockout, and now its a picturesque reality.