If it seems like the average NHL player is getting younger, that may be because it's true. At 27.4, the league's average age last season was the lowest it's been since 2000-01, according to quanthockey.com, an independent website that offers statistical analysis by age and nationality. The average age of forwards, when weighted to account for their number of games played, dropped by more than a year after the 2004-05 lockout, a sign that younger players were being given more opportunities.
"Because of the way the CBA is set up, you have to make assessments on prospects and players you draft at a younger age," says Islanders general manager Garth Snow. The adoption of a salary cap meant GMs began to favor more affordable (read: entry-level) talent to fill their rosters.
"When you watch the game as compared to five or ten years ago, it's a much faster game, it's more exciting to watch," Snow says. "I know the year I played coming out of the work stoppage it was a lot harder on goaltenders."
With the game rewarding speed and skill, some of the NHL's brightest stars are also its youngest. Thirteen of last year's all-stars and five of the top six vote-getters for the Hart Trophy were under 25 years old; and that count includes New Jersey sniper Zach Parise, who has since hit the quarter-century mark.
Just a week into the season, the league's under 25ers are already making an impression, whether they be "veterans" like Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Richards -- tied with an NHL-high five goals -- or fresh rookies like Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto (2 goals, 1 assist) and Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk (3 assists). Here, we present the league's Top 25 under 25, a surprisingly impressive list that includes seven Stanley Cup winners, three league scoring champs and enough star power for years to come.
1. Alexander Ovechkin, Capitals, RW (born: 9/17/85)In only four seasons, the two-time MVP has already climbed into the top 50 active goal scorers in the league, with 219.
2. Sidney Crosby, Penguins, C (8/7/87)The Penguins captain has earned the Art Ross, Hart and Lester B. Pearson trophies -- not to mention that Stanley Cup he lifted in June.
3. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins, C (7/31/86)Last season's scoring champion has averaged 101 points per season since joining the Penguins in 2006.
4. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks, C (5/10/85)Leading the Ducks in scoring the last two seasons, the 6'4", 221-pound center delivers a hard check and a heavy shot.
5. Eric Staal, Hurricanes, C (10/29/84)A force in front of the net, the Hurricanes center is particularly lethal down low and hasn't netted fewer than 30 goals in a season since his rookie campaign of 2003-04.
6. Mike Richards, Flyers, C (2/11/85)One of the best two-way centers in the game, the Flyers captain is a special teams maven who led the league with seven shorthanded goals last season.
7. Mike Green, Capitals, D (10/12/85)With 31 goals last season, Green established himself as a legitimate scoring threat from the blue line. No defenseman has scored as many since 1992-93.
8. Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks, C (4/29/88)Charged with leading the young Blackhawks, the 21-year-old captain is the complete package. He had a team-leading 34 goals and 54 takeaways last season.
9. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins, G (11/28/84)Backstopping the Stanley Cup champions, Fleury upped his play when it mattered, and perhaps most impressively, showed he could shake off bad moments.
10. Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals, C (11/23/87)The Swedish pivot certainly gets a boost from skating alongside Ovechkin, but Backstrom's on-ice awareness fuels Ovie's scoring.
11. Jeff Carter, Flyers, C (1/1/85)After a breakout year (46 goals and 84 points), the scorer is also remarkably durable, having played every game in the last two seasons.
12. Patrick Kane, Blackhawks, RW (11/19/88)Chicago's shifty winger is a precocious scorer. The 2007 top draft pick and 2008 Calder Trophy-winner is learning to be as good without the puck as he is with it.
13. Corey Perry, Ducks, RW (5/16/85)He's made a career out of tumbling over goalies -- and not for nothing. The big-bodied winger led the Ducks with 32 goals last season.
14. Shea Weber, Predators, D (8/14/85)His howitzer shot helped him net 23 goals last season, tied for second most among defensemen.
15. Bobby Ryan, Ducks, RW (3/17/87)Expect his impressive rookie season (57 points in 64 games) to look almost pedestrian now that he's cemented his place on Anaheim's top line.
16. Dion Phaneuf, Flames, D (4/10/85)The big, bruising defenseman leaves his literal mark on the league by laying crushing hits all over the ice.
17. Milan Lucic, Bruins, LW (6/7/88)In just his third season, the hulking Bruins winger is already among the best at what he does: bang around and score. He's been rewarded with a 3-year extension from Boston.
18. Dustin Brown, Kings, RW (11/4/84)The Kings heavy hitter has matured into a natural leader, earning the C last season and helping his young team find an identity.
19. Phil Kessel, Maple Leafs, RW (10/2/87)The high-scoring winger scored 36 goals for Boston last season, leading the East's most offensively potent team. He won't make his Leafs debut until November, due to off-season shoulder surgery.
20. Anze Kopitar, Kings, C (8/24/87)The creative center has led the team in points for the last two years. Some added support up front could help him return to 30-plus goals again.
21. Steve Mason, Blue Jackets, G (5/29/88)The Calder Trophy-winning goalie led the league with 10 shutouts last season. Doomed to a sophomore slump? Not at this pace. In his first two starts (both wins), Mason turned aside 72 of 76 shots.
22. Jordan Staal, Penguins, C (9/10/88)The second Staal to get his name etched on the Stanley Cup, Jordan has developed into a premiere two-way center. Along with his 22 goals, he was a key to the Penguins' penalty killiing unit last season.
23. Marc Staal, Rangers, D (1/13/87)Quickly establishing himself as shutdown defenseman, he's made a habit of playing shadow to some of the league's top offensive threats.
24. Paul Stastny, Avalanche, C (12/27/85)Injuries slowed him significantly last season, but the playmaking center hasn't suffered a hit to his hockey IQ and his production will be crucial to any success the rebuilding Avs have this season.
25. Drew Doughty, Kings, D (12/8/89)The promising 19-year old blueliner's first season wasn't flashy (6 goals, 27 points, -17), but he quickly blended in with the young Kings, registered 13 of his 21 assists on the power play, led NHL rookies in ice time (23 minutes 49 seconds) and was rewarded with a spot on the league's all-rookie team.