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Boy Wonders Rookies have made their marks in postseasons past, but the depth and quality of the current crop of first-year players makes observers wonder whether this is the start of a youthful trend

May 22, 2000
May 22, 2000

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May 22, 2000

Boy Wonders Rookies have made their marks in postseasons past, but the depth and quality of the current crop of first-year players makes observers wonder whether this is the start of a youthful trend

The crowd at First Union Center in Philadelphia on Sunday
toasted the Flyers' goalie with a throaty roar. While there is
always a danger of misinterpreting 19,779 patrons in a city so
demanding that when Phillies games are rained out fans drive to
the airport to jeer at bad landings, it was clear they were
braying "Booouch," and not "Boooo," in honor of 23-year-old
Brian Boucher. Boucher, who was beaten high by New Jersey Devils
defenseman Scott Niedermayer on the first shot in Game 1 of the
Eastern Conference finals, was being saluted because he had
thwarted rookie center John Madden on a breakaway with
Philadelphia trailing 3-1 in the first minute of the third
period. Boucher used an aggressive poke-check to force Madden
wide, and then, while sprawling on his back, he flailed his legs
Hasek-style to block the shot. The save, one of 20, allowed the
beleaguered Flyers to hang close in Game 1 longer than they
deserved.

This is an article from the May 22, 2000 issue Original Layout

"Our game plan was to see what [Boucher] had," Madden would say
later. "Get traffic around him. Get shots on him. Move him side
to side. I made a good move on the breakaway. He made a better
save. He played well. He answered the questions."

In the end Boucher's highlight-reel stop would hardly matter.
Less than five minutes later, with Philadelphia rookie defenseman
Andy Delmore in the penalty box for high-sticking, wing Claude
Lemieux hammered home the game's final goal from just outside
Boucher's crease, a sequence of ticktacktoe passing that had been
initiated by first-year center Scott Gomez. Yes. Another rookie.

The postseason will always be about goaltending and special teams
and courage. These are among the verities that make hockey puff
its chest every spring, but the back story of the 2000 Stanley
Cup playoffs is the children's crusade. The rookies are all over
the hockey landscape this May, playing prominent roles and
playing in all situations. Given the influx of skilled, if not
spectacular, first-year players in 1999-2000, this could be the
NHL's new natural order or, at the very least, a phenomenon
bordering on an honest-to-goodness trend.

Rookies are being trusted for a lot more than just remembering to
bring a credit card to their initiation dinners. Brenden Morrow
had been providing the left wing muscle on the defending Stanley
Cup champion Dallas Stars' No. 1 line until he broke his right
ankle last Saturday in the final minutes of the 2-0 loss to the
Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
The injury will sideline the 21-year-old Morrow, a key component
in Dallas's attempt to become a younger, quicker team, for the
remainder of the playoffs. Martin Skoula, a 20-year-old who is
playing in place of the injured Raymond Bourque, has been a
revelation on Colorado's No. 1 defense pair with Adam Foote, and
third-line left wing Alex Tanguay, also 20, has a game-winner
among his two playoff goals for the Avalanche. The 25-year-old
Madden's speed and almost maniacal penalty-killing style have
increased his playoff ice time by more than four minutes to
almost 16 per game, temporarily surpassing the 20-year-old Gomez,
the Devils' other prized rookie forward and presumptive Calder
Trophy winner. The 26-year-old Brian Rafalski's slickness with
the puck has been a worthy complement to the banging of Scott
Stevens on New Jersey's top defense pair. For the Flyers,
Delmore, 23, has as many playoff hat tricks as Bobby Orr (one)
and, through Sunday, as many goals this spring (five) as the
combined total of teammate Rick Tocchet, Colorado's Joe Sakic and
New Jersey's Alexander Mogilny, a trio that has accounted for
more than 1,000 NHL goals. Meanwhile, the Flyers' 20-year-old
center Simon Gagne has been especially effective when given the
extra time and space the Philly power play affords.

The NHL has been graced before with memorable playoff
performances from rookies young enough to think that Where the
Wild Things Are is a children's book by Maurice Sendak and not a
description of the home crowd at Flyers games. Montreal Canadiens
goalie Ken Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP
in 1971 even before becoming rookie of the year in 1971-72; wing
Dino Ciccarelli scored 14 goals in 19 games in taking the
Minnesota North Stars to the 1981 Stanley Cup finals; the
pot-stirring Lemieux and goalie Patrick Roy helped push the brash
Canadiens, a team with 10 rookies, to a surprise Cup victory in
1986 (page 57); and Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall won the Conn
Smythe the following spring even though the Edmonton Oilers beat
the Flyers for the Cup in seven games. The list is impressive,
though not long. These performances seemed to exist in a vacuum,
wild spikes on an otherwise unremarkable graph. Now first-year
players seem to be woven into the fabric of the playoffs.

"What you're seeing with rookies is the domino effect, like it
was with European goalies," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello
says. "The belief was, European goalies weren't good enough to
play here; then Dominik Hasek plays great when he finally gets
the chance, and now everybody's looking for European goalies.
Same with rookies. A couple of rookies had success--you see what
[Colorado's Chris] Drury did last year [scoring six goals as the
Avalanche reached Game 7 of the conference finals]--and teams look
to their own kids a little more. I also think the young guys
these days are more capable of sustaining their success because
they aren't being greeted as the next Messiah. The most
consistent teams allow their kids to grow slowly."

If Philly's Delmore and New Jersey's Rafalski had been growing
any slower, the next call would not have been to their agents but
to an old-folks home. They were undrafted free agents who took
wildly divergent paths, Rafalski traveling thousands of miles for
his opportunity and Delmore wandering a little more than 200
yards.

Delmore shuttled between the Flyers and their American Hockey
League affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, six times this
season, going side to side as much as up and down considering
that the Phantoms play in the Spectrum, across the street from
First Union Center. "That's the world's longest 200 yards,"
Delmore says, "but when you finally get here for good, it seems a
lot shorter."

Delmore had grown accustomed to disappointment. He bought a nice
suit in advance of the 1995 draft, flying to Edmonton in
anticipation of being picked late in the second round, or perhaps
the third, and getting on TV. He sat in disbelief as nine rounds
and 234 names were called--none of them his. The knock on the
strong-skating, hard-shooting Delmore was an unexceptional hockey
IQ and occasional problems with defensive positioning, flaws that
hindered him when Roger Neilson was still coaching Philadelphia.
But less than a week after Neilson left the team in late February
to prepare for cancer treatment, the Flyers, undermanned because
of an injury to Ulf Samuelsson, summoned Delmore. Interim coach
Craig Ramsay, who was impressed with Delmore's speed, kept doling
out important minutes to him.

"He comes out of leftfield and becomes a home run hitter for us
in the playoffs," Tocchet says of Delmore, who scored the winning
goal in Game 3 of the second-round series against the Pittsburgh
Penguins, then notched his hat trick in Game 5. "He's a goalie's
nightmare because, in the last minute of a 2-2 game, he's
confident enough to join the rush, and he can really fire the
puck."

Despite a notable four-year career at the University of
Wisconsin, Rafalski was not drafted because he was deemed too
small. (He is listed at 5'11", 200 pounds, but that is greatly
exaggerated.) He skipped to the larger ice surfaces of Europe,
playing one season in Sweden and three in Finland, amassing 36
points in 30 Finnish league playoff games. The Devils were
convinced Rafalski was the player in Europe most ready to jump to
the NHL immediately, although no other team seemed to notice. "I
heard from some other clubs, but only after they found out the
Devils were interested," he says, a tribute to New Jersey's
peerless reputation for scouting and development.

Rafalski signed a one-year, $450,000 contract after receiving
assurances from Lamoriello that he would be given an opportunity
in New Jersey. The chance to play with Stevens, in the Devils'
tradition of blending puck-carrying defensemen with stay-at-home
blueliners, was like a signing bonus. "What helped me was being
surrounded by good players," Rafalski says. "You put a rookie on
a weaker team, it's a little harder for him." Rafalski, whose
only playoff goal won Game 3 against the Florida Panthers in the
first round, was +2 on Sunday, playing primarily against the
Flyers' top line, which features star wings John LeClair and Mark
Recchi.

Madden, a center, also fell through the cracks in the draft and
right to Lamoriello, who often visited the University of Michigan
to check on New Jersey's prime prospect, Brendan Morrison, and
kept leaving with more favorable impressions of the 5'11",
195-pound Madden. If Lamoriello took notes, so did Madden. As a
teenager in Toronto he had written down his theory that good
playoff teams use four lines. During his four years in Ann Arbor,
Madden made a list of 10 players, roughly his size, whom he
wanted to emulate, including Dallas's Guy Carbonneau and Mike
Keane and the Buffalo Sabres' Doug Gilmour and Michael Peca.
"They were guys who weren't flashy but got the job done, guys who
had success in the playoffs, guys who weren't liabilities on
defense," says Madden, who had a rookie record-tying six
shorthanded goals among his 16 during the regular season. "I
didn't want to be the guy coaches were afraid to throw on the ice
at the end of the game." Madden became the cookie-cutter Devil,
polishing his craft in the minors for two years and then slipping
seamlessly into the roster slot vacated by Bobby Carpenter, who
retired after last season and is now a New Jersey assistant
coach.

"At the start of the season you decide if first-year players have
potential and character," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock says. "Then
you figure that by January or February they'll be good players
for you. The problem is when you're not sure of their character
or commitment. But you look at the first-year players in the
league this year, like Boucher, and they've all got tremendous
character. So you feel there's no downside. It just takes time.
When you've got real good players, four months is like 10 years.
They mature, and their egos don't get involved."

With the children's crusaders contributing so much to this
playoff season, it's clear that they offer everything but
experience--although, as Madden says, "my dad taught me that
experience is what you get when you don't get what you really
want."

Given the option between taking experience or a Stanley Cup home
this summer, the choice is easy: It's tough to invite the
neighbors over to pose for pictures with your experience.

[SIDEBAR]

Miracle on Ice
An unprecedented 10 rookies helped Montreal win the Cup in '86

The mystical Montreal Canadiens' spring of 1986 was a time for
astronomers, linguists and psychologists. The two-time defending
Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers were done in by defenseman
Steve Smith's fluky own-goal against the Calgary Flames in the
divisional finals to properly align the heavens for another
Canadiens' title run. The tongue-tied English-speaking hockey
world struggled to master the pronunciation of Montreal rookie
goalie Patrick Roy's name. Was it Ru-ah, or Rrwah or Wah? (The
last is correct.) Regardless, he appeared to be mad, talking to
his goalposts, his head bobbing like a hen's pecking at a kernel
of corn. In an age of soaring offensive production, Roy's 1.92
playoff goals-against average would assure the Canadiens their
23rd championship and the first since the end of their dynasty,
in 1979. "I thought Calgary had a better team," says New Jersey
Devils coach Larry Robinson, the star defenseman who would win
the last of his six Stanley Cups as a player with that 1985-86
Montreal team. "We got that one because Patrick stood on his
head."

Roy's quirky brilliance accentuated the fact that Montreal had
shredded conventional wisdom by winning with 10 rookies on the
roster and first-year coach Jean Perron behind the bench. They
were an eclectic, electric group of youngsters. Some, like Roy,
now a stalwart for the Colorado Avalanche, and Claude Lemieux,
currently a prickly right wing for New Jersey, would go on to win
Conn Smythe trophies as postseason MVPs and have memorable
careers. Others, such as solid Dallas Stars center Brian
Skrudland and enigmatic St. Louis Blues right wing Stephane
Richer, would have long and, in their own styles, mostly
productive NHL stays. There would be future workmanlike pros such
as defenseman Mike Lalor. There would be forwards Kjell Dahlin
and Steve Rooney, who were out of the NHL by the end of the
decade, proof that having your name engraved on the Cup is no
guarantee of immortality.

No one could have known what was in store for those Canadiens
before that postseason. For seven propitious weeks Montreal,
which had only the seventh-best record (40-33-7) during the
regular season, lived in the present like few upstarts before or
since. Lemieux, who had just one regular-season goal in 10 games,
would score 10 in 20 playoff matches, including four winners, two
of them in overtime. In the conference finals Roy would make 13
unworldly saves in overtime of Game 3 to stun the New York
Rangers. Skrudland would score the fastest overtime goal in
playoff history by tallying nine seconds into sudden death in
Game 2 in Calgary.

"It was all such a surprise," Lemieux said last Thursday. "But
it's possible we'll see another 1986 again because of expansion.
Teams don't have as much depth. If kids show anything, teams have
to give them a chance. So maybe a club with lots of rookies plus
strong, veteran leaders--and we had big-time leaders like Larry,
Bob [Gainey, current Dallas general manager] and [Phoenix Coyotes
general manager] Bobby Smith--could do it again."

--M.F.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA ROOKIE HAT TRICK Three first-year players--goalie Boucher, Gomez (23) and Delmore (right)--have been impact players in the postseason. COLOR PHOTO: TIM HEITMAN HANDS ON Morrow (45), whose season was ended by a Game 1 injury, jostled with Skoula earlier in that match.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO BIG SPLASH In his first playoff Lemieux had 10 goals in 20 games.COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA CLOSE ENCOUNTER Rafalski kept fellow rookie Gagne from slipping past in the Devils' 4-1 victory in Game 1 of the conference finals.
"You look at the first-year players this year," says
Hitchcock, "and they've all got tremendous character."
"The young guys these days are more capable of sustaining their
success," says Lamoriello.