Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett gathered the team’s prospects at development camp a few years ago and decided to test their knowledge of team structure by using the mini rink embedded in the carpet in the middle of the team’s Gila River Arena dressing room.
He asked a college-tutored player to diagram his school’s forecheck, using pucks as players, and the college kid executed it to perfection. He asked a player from a Canadian junior league to show the team’s philosophy through the neutral zone and the diagram was flawless.
“It was amazing,” Tippett said. “They all knew exactly about structure.”
As the NHL game gets faster and more costly, more and more young players are getting opportunities to play a regular NHL role. With better training, better skills and better-developed bodies, the young guns are taking advantage.
The Coyotes are the most notable example of the trend, with 20-year-old forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair occupying top-six forward spots. The trend isn’t isolated to Arizona, however.
Twenty-year-old Darnell Nurse is logging the third-most minutes per game of any Edmonton defenseman, 22-year-old defenseman Colton Parayko is logging the third-most minutes on defense-rich St. Louis and even the ever-patient Detroit Red Wings have inserted 19-year-old forward Dylan Larkin into the lineup.
“A lot of young guys are being given a chance, being put in important positions right off the bat,” said Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, whose own team features 21-year defenseman Hampus Lindholm, a three-year NHL veteran. “It used to be different back in the good old days where you’d come in and you’d sit back and wait your turn and earn a spot. With the salary cap, you need young guys now on your team to fill the lineup.”
The salary cap has been around since the 2004-05 lockout, but last season’s marginal increase to $71.4 million caught some teams off guard and has forced some to play younger, less expensive players. With escalating salaries for top players, it has also put general managers in a quandary.
“Do you want to pay your top center an extra $2 million or do you want to save that for your fourth-line center?” Sportsnet NHL analyst Mike Johnson said. “It forces you to make decisions. No matter who those younger guys are, they’re not making more than a million dollars so they’re really affordable.”
Value isn’t the only thing driving the youth movement. Tippett and Johnson both said that rules changes that limit clutching and grabbing have opened up the game for more skilled players, putting an increased emphasis on speed.
“As the rules have opened up the game a little bit… that pace continues to grow,” Tippett said. “Even the old, big, heavy teams are still fast. Chicago is not a big team but they’re fast. L.A. is a big team but they’re fast. If there’s one conduit that’s grabbing them all together it’s the fast part.
“It’s not just skating fast, it’s playing fast: fast hands and being able to make plays on a quicker basis because the rest of the game is going so fast.”
Speed alone won’t guarantee success, however, so younger players are taking advantage of other opportunities not afforded previous generations.
“This generation is bigger than the last generation, which is bigger than the previous generation so guys are getting into their man bodies a lot sooner,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “With the training abilities and the coaching they’re getting, it makes them better equipped to become NHL players a lot sooner.”
Tippett rattled off a list of options available to young players.
“They’ve got skating coaches, skill coaches, nutritionists, strength guys,” he said. “Before they even get to us they’re well-schooled in all that. It’s smart by young players. As much as teams are trying to fast track them, they’re trying to fast track themselves.”
Johnson thinks young players also benefit from what he calls the Tiger Woods effect.
“There used to be a culture in hockey where young guys had to pay their respects to their elders, but kids now don’t think they need to defer to anybody,” Johnson said. “Tiger would go out and say, ‘I don’t care if you’re a 30- or 40-year-old legend. I think I’m the best player in the world and I’m going to go out and prove it. I’m not taking a back seat to anybody.’
“The young players still show the older guys respect but they may think ‘I’m better than you’ and with all this training they get, a lot of times they’re right.”
What’s lost in the youth movement is the experience of having been there and done that before, but Johnson thinks Young players make up for it with the excitement and youthful exuberance they bring to the game.
“While coaches want to celebrate the upside of young players, so much of coaching is to mitigate the downside, control mistakes and not give up the big one,” Johnson said. “Without that experience, kids are more apt to make mistakes and do things that a coach can’t control. Coaches don’t like that.
“But as a fan of the game, it’s beautiful to watch. Young players won’t dumb things down enough to always do things right, so they can do these incredible things but they can also screw it up badly, and that’s also fun to watch.”
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