The Western Conference is home to several surprising teams, and the breakthrough seasons being enjoyed by the Kings, Avalanche and Coyotes can be credited in large part to kids coming of age.
Fresh off a 5-0 road trip, the Kings have won six-straight games and goaltender Jonathan Quick, 24, is in the middle of their success. His 31 victories tie him for second in the NHL and put him in the fraternity's upper crust with the likes of Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov, Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo. Quick trails only Brodeur in the win column, and is coming off a signature success in New Jersey where the Kings completed their improbably perfect trip with a come-from-behind 3-2 triumph in which Quick made 26 saves. Not bad for a Connecticut kid who was tending goal for the Reading Royals of the ECHL just two seasons ago.
In front of Quick is a bunch of twenty-somethings who are coming into their own individually and collectively. The positive results this season are the maturation of a plan implemented by GM Dean Lombardi and the product of the underrated teaching and coaching efforts of Terry Murray. Still, amid the feel-good glow in La La Land, the play of second-year defenseman Drew Doughty has been revelatory. He is leading NHL defensemen with four game-winning goals, including the clinching power-play marker against Brodeur with 27.3 seconds left on Sunday.
Doughty has become his team's go-to blueline option in all key situations, despite his being only 20 years old. And he reached that milestone only two months ago. He is up in all statistical categories, most notably his plus-15 being a significant improvement from last season's minus-17. And it's no small compliment to his development that he was selected to play for Canada at the Olympics in Vancouver, especially with the stakes so high. A gold medal on home ice is expected, so Doughty will be cast into a cauldron of playoff-like pressure, but he is demonstrating the maturity and skill to handle it.
In Phoenix, the work done by coach Dave Tippett and mentor-turned-assistant Dave King is a story in its own right. They have come in and provided structure, and the Coyotoes have responded. Nowhere is that more evident than in the contributions from defenseman Keith Yandle.
The Boston native, in just his second full season with the Coyotes, is filling a nice role as an offensive threat from the blueline. He netted 25 goals in his single season of junior hockey for the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL, so his offensive instincts were there. Still, Yandle's 10 goals in 58 games this season already eclipse the nine he scored in his previous 119 NHL matches. He leads all Coyotes defensemen in goals and, as a group, Phoenix tops the NHL with 34 from the backline. That dimension is one of the main reasons for the 'Yotes success.
Yandle's scoring exploits haven't come at the expense of defense. He is excelling without the puck as well -- his plus-10 ranks second behind Radim Vrbata's plus-13. Yandle's, though, is the best mark on the team's blueline, doubling up the next closest defenseman. At 23 years old, Yandle is looking like the cornerstone of the defense for many years to come.
Finally, there is the thoroughly-surprising play of the Avalanche. Not many people expected them to be in the playoff hunt, never mind leading the Northwest division for much of the season. As with the Kings and Coyotes, many forces have come together to produce the Avs' run, including excellent goaltending from free-agent signing Craig Anderson. His stellar performance has allowed the Avs' young roster to play with confidence as they know he'll covers some of their mistakes on many nights.
Of all the Avs, I'm drawn to the season that Wojtek Wolski is authoring. Taken with the 21st pick in the 2004 entry draft, he entered the league with expectations, never having spent a game in the minors. He played four years of junior hockey for the Brampton Battalion of the OHL and went straight to the NHL where he scored 22 goals as a rookie and amassed 50 points overall in 2006-07. The next two seasons, Wolski not only didn't build on those totals, he failed to reach them. Questions emerged about what kind of player he was actually going to become and whether he had the inner drive to improve.
Well, this season, Wolski is indeed taking that next step. He's been much more consistent and has 16 goals and 45 points in 54 games -- well on his way to career marks. Though he has cooled considerably of late with just one goal in his last 17 games and nine points over that span, there are signs that his game is maturing. His performance is not solely measured by his offensive totals, as he's remained a plus player over that cold stretch. In fact, he leads Colorado with a plus-10 and has played more than 23 minutes in two of their last three games -- his heaviest workload of the season.
If Los Angeles, Phoenix and Colorado reach the postseason, and how far they go in it, remains to be seen. That's no surprise, but the success these unexpected contenders have had so far goes to show what a few good kids can do for a team.