The young players in today’s NHL aren’t just good and fun to watch, many of them are dominant and possess game-changing talent, and a quick glance at the stats and standings proves it. Ten of the top 11 players in the scoring race are aged 25 or under, and of the top 20 scorers in the league, only five are 30 or older.
As the NHL's style of play evolves, so too do the players. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more young guns coming into the league and making an immediate impact. Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine, Mathew Barzal, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, to name a few, have had great success as rookies and sophomores, and that trend looks to continue going forward.
It’s a young man’s league, and that’s not to say that older players aren’t valuable, but rather that there are more young players who are better suited to today’s game. The speed of play has quickened, fighting is down, and players have to be faster and more skilled than ever to be successful. Rule changes in the sport have led to a faster pace, a more free-flowing style of play with less contact, which has paved the way for younger, faster players to step in and contribute from almost Day 1.
In any sport, older players must adapt as the game evolves around them, which is why Sidney Crosby, now 31, has been able to remain a top player in the league for 14 seasons and counting. Gone are the days when older, more experienced rosters were considered favorites; now, it’s the skilled, younger players who are often the key to winning games. The NHL has changed considerably even in the past decade. The average age of the Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals roster was 26.5 during the playoffs last season. A decade earlier in the 2008 playoffs, the champion Detroit Red Wings had an average age of 31.6.
The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, recently considered mini-dynasties and model franchises, and who combined to win five Stanley Cups in six post-seasons from 2010 to 2015, are now down at the bottom of the NHL standings. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008, while the Kings were swept in the first round by the start-up Vegas Golden Knights. Both teams are well on their way to lottery picks in the 2019 NHL draft, where they’ll need to infuse some talented and impactful youth into their aging lineups if they want to return to their former winning ways. The Blackhawks have six players on their roster who are 30 or older, including their core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, while the Kings have a league-high nine players who are at least 30.
Coincidence? Not when Columbus, Toronto, Colorado, and Calgary all find themselves in lofty spots in the standings, and between the four of them only have 10 players who are 30 or older on their rosters. These four teams are young, fast, high-scoring teams, while the Kings and Hawks are old and slow. With impact players such as Matthews and Marner in Toronto, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in Calgary, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Seth Jones in Columbus, and Nathan Mackinnon and Mikko Rantanen in Colorado, these clubs are primed to contend for the foreseeable future.
Teams that are built around a young core also have another advantage. Young players are inexpensive in their early years in the league, which allows management to bring in quality depth players and veteran free agents, which is exactly what the Leafs did when they signed Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $18.75-million contract in the summer of 2017. Eventually the up-and-coming stars will get their big-money deals, but at least for the duration of their entry-level contracts, they give their respective teams an edge in avoiding salary-cap crunches. Marleau, who turned 39 in September, is also an increasingly rare example of a player who’s still performing at a high level despite his age. Then again, that’s also why he’ll be in the Hall of Fame one day.
Finding the right balance between young players and veterans is a winning key in today’s NHL. Teams that have plenty of young, skilled players who are supported by a few older veterans are best suited for success. The Leafs’ Marleau and Flames’ Mark Giordano are both vital parts of their teams, and they’re surrounded by young talent. Both teams have become contenders and are poised to remain as such for multiple years due to the number of young, skilled players in their systems. It’s a young man’s game, and the kids aren’t just the future of the league, they’re the present.