Is the NHL Getting Younger and Faster?
This young 2015-16 season saw the debut of Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, two generational talents who will try to help their respective franchises get better. However, there were also others, including Detroit’s Dylan Larkin, Chicago’s Artemi Panarin, Arizona’s Max Domi (son of former NHLer Tie Domi), Vancouver’s Ben Hutton, Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers, St. Louis’ Colton Parayko, and Oscar Lindberg of Broadway (yes, I mean the New York Rangers).
With this influx of young players, including those from previous seasons like Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, it’s obvious that the pace of the National Hockey League is faster. It’s also affecting the decisions of many GMs of many teams. Keep in mind that there are also certain teams going through a transition phase (e.g. the San Jose Sharks). More and more teams are letting young players try their hand at the big leagues, which is also as important for their prospects as it is for them to develop in the minor leagues be it the junior level (Ontario Hockey League, Canadian Hockey League, etc.), in the American Hockey League, or in the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League).
As much as it affects the salary cap as all entry-level contracts have a base cap hit of less than $1 million, the most important impact is the style of play. While strength is still a key factor, the speed and finesse of younger players is more evident than ever. You notice how fewer veterans are able to keep up with the pace of today’s game. If you’re not effective out there on the ice, if you’re not able to react fast enough and you can’t skate hard enough for the occasional odd-man-rush or backcheck, chances are you’re not going to get very much ice time especially if you’re an old veteran player. The same is true even if you’re a more-than-capable veteran for today’s game. Also, because this is a puck possession league, the amount of skill that these younger players have to keep the puck on their sticks is absolutely phenomenal. That is another reason for the influx of youth in the NHL.
According to James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail, almost 44% of ice time this season has been by players 25 and under. That’s up 10% from the past decade. With that shift, older guys especially those 32 and older are getting the door shut on them by various teams. Former NHLer and Calgary Flame Curtis Glencross is a perfect example. The 32-year-old was an unrestricted free agent looking for teams to pick him up. However, with each and every attempt signing a professional tryout contract, he was essentially given the boot simply because teams are more and more willing to give their younger guys more ice time to make the team, especially for the future. As a result, he retired at the start of this season.
It’s a League-wide trend that will undoubtedly continue for the next couple years or so, but it’s easy to understand why given the pace and style of today’s game. Again, it’s fast. Players are more than ever prone to mistakes if they’re ever caught mishandling the puck. The ability to play a good two-way, 200-foot game is more important than ever. You have to be as good defensively, skating on the backcheck and using your stick well without taking a penalty (most of the time), as you are with either playmaking or scoring. That said, hockey sense is important and the kids playing in the NHL right now have a ton of that to go with all the talent that they have.
In my opinion, I feel like this definitely does make the game a lot more fun to watch. You have all these young players not only trying to adapt to the pace of the League but also showing what they can do, essentially impressing the coaching staff for the future of the organization while also playing to the system. Hockey’s not just about the offensive aspect where you cheer for however many goals it takes for a win, but also — again — how well you can play defensively, and today’s puck possession game is just what that is.