- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Eric Staal was a baby-faced 21-year-old with a patchwork playoff beard. Ryan Getzlaf, 22, actually decided against participating in the full-blown, hockey facial hair tradition and was sporting only a few straggling whiskers under his chin.

Even though neither looked the part, Staal and Getzlaf led each of the past two Stanley Cup champions in scoring during the playoffs, representing a talented and deep crop of young stars who are positioned to succeed in the NHL not only in the future but the present as well.

“I think there were good young players in other decades as well but maybe not nearly as many as right now,” Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said.

Staal and Getzlaf were not alone. Carolina’s Cam Ward, also just 21 at the time, won the Conn Smythe Trophy for backstopping Staal and the Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006. Getzlaf had fellow 2003 draft pick Corey Perry on one side of his line and Dustin Penner, an undrafted 2004 free agent with 29 regular-season goals, on the other with the Anaheim Ducks last season.

While Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are at the forefront of this youth renaissance, it is the staggering depth behind them that bodes so well for the future of the beleaguered league. Of the 96 players who recorded at least 57 points last season, 23 of them (or about one in four) were 24 years old or younger.

Crosby became the youngest scoring champion in major North American professional sports history and swept league MVP honors. Ovechkin scored 46 goals last season with little talent around him and earned his second NHL All-Star nod, becoming the first player in 55 years to be named a first-team All-Star in his first two seasons.

Neither of them has tasted postseason success, but many of their youthful peers have. Teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago have stockpiled young talent through rebuilding (i.e. poor records and high draft choices), but other teams like San Jose, Nashville and the past two Cup winners have proved teams can put young talent in key roles and be successful with them.

“You definitely can win with [young players],” Rutherford said. “You have to have the right mix, and you have to get great goaltending, but it is certainly possible. They bring an energy and enthusiasm, and that combined with the right mix of veteran players, you can win.”

There are several reasons for this surge in impact young talent. One is improved coaching and training at all levels of amateur hockey. Another is the sport’s growth in less traditional European countries (take the Kings” Anze Kopitar, the league’s first Slovenian, for instance) and especially in the United States. For previous American generations, hockey was a Northeastern and upper Midwest sport, but it has branched out to all parts of the country.

Players are developing and maturing at a faster rate, and some changes in the post-lockout NHL have helped teams have the courage to play their phenoms sooner. The rule changes have played a part because less clutching and grabbing has made it easier for smaller players and younger ones that might not be developed physically.

Another big factor is economics. The implementation of the salary cap has forced general managers in markets small and large to find cheap alternatives to fill out rosters, and young players on entry-level contracts can offer more upside than an often more expensive veteran grinder.

“It is a leap of faith,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. “Last year we decided not to re-sign two veterans in [defensemen] Mark Eaton and Danny Markov in part because of their salaries going up and they earned that money. We went with a couple of younger guys in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. It is a combination of economics and faith.”

The Predators were a prime example of a team with Cup-contending aspirations and plenty of youth in key positions. They had three young defensemen (Suter and Webber were 21, and Dan Hamhuis was 24) who logged more than 19 minutes a game while finishing with the third-most points in the NHL.

Chicago is a team on the rise that, with young blue line stars Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, would like to emulate Nashville.

“It is probably tougher for the young defensemen than the forwards now because of the rule changes, which makes it even more amazing that there are so many of them,” Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon said. “I think it is obviously important to draft well. You’ve got to have good scouting and a great minor league system and develop your own players.”

Maybe even more impressive than the talented forwards and defensemen is the rise of young goaltenders. Traditionally, it is the position that takes prospects the longest to develop.

Last season there were six bona fide No. 1 goaltenders — that’s 20 percent of the league — who will not be older than 25 this season. Ward won the Conn Smythe two years ago. Last season Ottawa’s Ray Emery backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, while Henrik Lundqvist was a Vezina Trophy finalist for the Rangers.

That number could expand to seven or even eight this season if 19-year-old Jonathan Bernier of the Kings (who beat the defending champion Ducks in the season opener) and 20-year-old Carey Price of the Canadiens become the go-to guys for their teams.

“In the past like when I was growing up, I never had a goalie coach, never went to a specific goaltending-structured camp or school,” Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “Now we offer these things to kids at a much younger age, and I think these kids from a technical standpoint are more prepared to make the jump.

“It seems to be the kids that have it between the ears are the ones who make the jump because technically they are so sound, it is just a matter of being able to go through the rigors of everyday NHL hockey.”

Recent history has proved nothing can help a league or a sport like a new wave of young talent. The NBA is in the process of passing the torch to players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard. No sport has experienced the exponential growth Tiger Woods gave to golf a decade ago.

The NHL has its future in place, and the kids are already exceeding expectations. Now it is up to the league to capitalize on them.

“The league has to do a better job of marketing these players,” Kolzig said. “If you look at NASCAR or the NFL or PGA golf, they all promote their players unbelievably well, so everyone knows who they are. I know hockey is ultimately a team game and that is really what you want to preach, but people identify with individuals, too. Guys like Ovechkin, [Alexander] Semin or [Nicklas] Backstrom — get these kids out there and get their faces out there so that people can identify with them.”

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