How Hockey's Young Blood Has Taken Over the NHL
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because incredible plays at high speed are more fun to watch than clutch-and-grab hockey.
By Matt Foley
Jarome Iginla snaps a shot at the Washington goalie that goes high and out of play, and then gets down to the real business at hand. Trying to fire up his team, which trails 1–0, the 39-year-old Colorado Avalanche forward starts jawing with 22-year-old Tom Wilson, punctuating his remarks with a crosscheck. That rings the bell. Gloves drop, the combatants lock up and Iginla loops a few overhand rights that land with zero effect on Wilson, who declines to return fire. Then, as the linesmen move in, the Capitals’ talented tough guy delivers a half-hearted right cross almost out of respect for his opponent, who for more than 20 seasons has been the definition of the power forward in the National Hockey League. Still, the takeaway from the skirmish is clear: A changing of the guard is underway.
It’s a tidal shift that is seeing hard-nosed veterans replaced by a young crop of potential superstars who seem to score at will and fly around the ice. Their ascendancy is thanks to rule changes and the rise of hockey analytics, which are ushering in a new era of faster, cleaner, more exciting pro hockey.
The fast-paced game comes naturally to them, because they never learned anything else …
Vincent LoVerde, captain, Ontario Reign, American Hockey League
Twelve years ago, the sport’s popularity took a brutal uppercut when a labor dispute canceled the entire 2004–2005 season. In one sense, though, the league put that lost year to good use by experimenting with ways to make the game more entertaining. For that to happen, the NHL turned its developmental affiliate, the American Hockey League (AHL), into a test bed for rule changes. When the NHL resumed play in 2005–06, the two-line pass rule was gone, opening up the neutral zone for offensive attacks; tie games were decided by a five-minute overtime followed by a shoot-out, if necessary; and new rules were on the books to reduce clutch-and-grab tactics and fighting. These and other changes all were designed to showcase scoring, speed and skill.
In the post-lockout era. young phenoms like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane became the sport’s brightest stars, but that youth takeover was nothing compared to what’s going on in 2016–17. This season, the first crop of hockey players who have never known another style of play entered the league, revitalizing franchises and reshaping the NHL landscape. “Today’s young players are a lot more skilled than previous generations,” says Vincent LoVerde, two-time AHL All-Star defenseman and captain of the Ontario Reign, the minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. “The fast-paced game comes naturally to them, because they never learned anything else, but there are a lot of developmental improvements too.”
As LoVerde suggests, players also are being scouted and developed much more efficiently. Just as analytics reshaped development in pro baseball and basketball, hockey managers finally are taking a more data-driven approach. From the junior and college ranks to the NHL, this means better coaching and more focus on finding and fine-tuning skilled prospects rather than on signing big bodies and “character guys,” a tag usually applied to enforcers and glorified locker-room cheerleaders.
The game plan is certainly working for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Auston Matthews, a 19-year-old Phoenix resident who was the top pick of the 2016 NHL draft, is teaming with fellow rookie Mitchell Marner (fourth pick, 2015) and William Nylander (eighth pick, 2014) to transform the perennially woeful Leafs into a playoff contender. Matthews currently ranks fourth in the NHL with 22 goals, and his 38 total points are the second most by a rookie, trailing only Marner’s 39. “They’ve got some great rookies, and we’ve got ours,” New York head coach Alain Vigneault tells OZY moments after his Rangers defeat the Maple Leafs 5–2 in Toronto. “Every team is trying to groom their young players and help them get their footing in the league.”
The Toronto Trio have some dazzling company: The second pick of this year’s draft, towering Finnish winger Patrik Laine, already is Winnipeg’s best player; Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk is a scoring machine; Columbus’ Zach Werenski is a defensive stalwart on the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets. And Connor McDavid, the league’s leading scorer who has been called “the next Wayne Gretzky,” is playing his first full season with Edmonton after being drafted first overall in 2015.
So, with fighting cut nearly in half since the 2003–2004 season — the last before the lockout — and scoring up 7 percent, is there still a place on the roster for the enforcers and the grinders? Yes, says Toronto general manager Lou Lamoriello. “The improvement of our younger players is really because of the way the veterans have handled the situation,” Lamoriello says. “We have some skillful players and some hardworking blue-collars. You need a combination of all of them and [need to] get them to all accept their roles.” Forty games of a rookie season, Lamoriello says, is not long enough to gauge a player’s impact in the league. Until a young player really establishes himself, veteran leadership is a necessary building component. Unfortunately for hockey’s old hands, the young guns are taking over at a rapid clip.
On most days, a fifth-place tournament finish is hardly newsworthy. But last fall at the World Cup of Hockey, that feat was historic. In addition to Team USA and Team Canada, a third roster comprised entirely of NHL players under the age of 23 brought a furiously aggressive style to the international ice. Led by McDavid and Matthews, Team North America went 4–1, renewing interest in the tournament and making one thing clear: The NHL has a new breed of power player.