Things have changed in the NHL. Dramatically. It used to be that a guy eased into form over the first several years of his career, started to peak later in his 20s, and was in his prime until he was 32 or 33. Sometimes later. Now guys are peaking earlier and earlier, and there is no easing into things - the best players are good pretty much out of the gate, it seems. Meanwhile, guys who would have been signing a long-term, rich contract at 30 a decade ago are now just hoping for a chance to try out with a team and land on a roster. It's a young man's world.
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Need proof? Nine of the top 18 scorers in this young NHL season are 25 or younger. Four, including top scorer Connor McDavid, are 21 or less. Four!
McDavid, the top pick in 2015, has six points in three games. Auston Matthews, this year's top pick, had four goals in his debut game. These guys are
already among the best players in the league, and they have only barely joined the league. David Pastrnak, Leon Draisaitl, Patrik Laine - these are all
guys who can't order their own drinks in a lot of states but who look like seasoned veterans.
So, why are these young players making so much more of an impact than they used to? Why is the NHL so much younger these days? And what does it mean for bettors? Here are six factors to consider:
Game is so much faster: The NHL game is much faster than it was even a couple of years ago. Guys skate like the wind now. That plays right into the advantage of the youngsters and older players can't keep up. Time and again the last couple of years we have seen guys suddenly become irrelevant when they have lost just half a step. In the past they would have been fine for a few more years. All you needed to do to see the difference in speed is watch the World Cup in September. The North American team was made up entirely of guys 23 or under. Watching them was like watching a game on fast forward. They flew around. It was absolutely remarkable. When the style of play changes to suit the younger players it only makes sense that more younger players play a prominent role.
Young guys are getting coached better: It used to be that young stars were not getting good quality coaching until junior hockey - if even then. A lot of times NHL teams were just drafting talent, fully expecting to have to teach them how to actually play the game properly. Now, though, the quality of coaching is dramatically better all the way up for elite players. Bantam and midget programs are run better now than junior teams used to be. Better coaching leads to much better prepared players. That's not rocket science.
Nutrition and fitness: Young guys didn't usually get a chance to shine in the NHL because they largely weren't physically ready. They needed a couple of years of professional support to get fit enough and strong enough to play with men. That has all changed. Now these kids are working out and eating properly from middle school on. Every July my local Flames, like many organizations, bring their youngest players - including those just drafted - into town for a week of practices and scrimmages. I have gone the last couple of years to watch them scrimmage and have been stunned how big and ready these guys are. Take the names off the jerseys and you would be hard pressed to tell that they aren't NHL veterans. It's just like in football, now - some high school recruits look more ripped and ready than college grads used to.
Europe: The general level of hockey isn't as high in Europe as it is here - that's why the best Europeans come here to challenge themselves. Over there, though, young stars get a chance to play against men at a younger age - as young as 16 in many cases. Laine, Pastrnak, Rasmus Ristolainen, and many others had a year or two of pro play under their belts before they were even drafted. Auston Matthews, an American, skipped junior over here and instead headed to Europe to play against men while awaiting his draft year. Playing against men has these guys more prepared for the leap to the pros, and the more young Euros with that experience who get the chance in the NHL, the more impact it has.
Salary cap: The NHL salary cap is far from the most generous one. It can be tough for contenders to stay at or under the cap. Young players offer cost certainty because of the entry level structure, and they come cheap. It makes financial sense for teams to get young players into the lineup soon in a lot of cases.
Fans love youth: The Internet has made it easier to follow young stars years before they turn pro. Tournaments like the World Juniors are major events - the finals are basically a national holiday in Canada - and their rise has only increased the obsession of fans with the young stars. The NHL has been going through an era of not exactly explosive offense, so the chance to watch fast and wildly-talented young guys is a welcome relief. Add it all up, and fans are more vocally into seeing young stars shine than ever before. Fans get what they want a lot of the time, so you can be sure that this won't be a fleeting trend.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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