- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

DETROIT | Call it a youth movement no more. The Pittsburgh Penguins are atop the hockey world, and it is up to the other young teams around the NHL to grow up in a hurry and catch them.

There may be more elite young players in the league than at any other point in its history, and the Penguins have been one of the teams at the forefront. Sidney Crosby was the youngest captain and scoring champion in league history, and now he’s the youngest player to accept the Stanley Cup - nearly 18 months younger than Wayne Gretzky when he first won it.

He’s not alone. Evgeni Malkin became the third-youngest winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Several other core players, including goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, center Jordan Staal and Game 7 hero Max Talbot, have not seen their 25th birthdays.

The Penguins have five key players signed to long-term deals that last at least the next four seasons, and defenseman Brooks Orpik is the graybeard of the group at 28. When it comes to the discussion about elite teams in the NHL, they aren’t going anywhere. And this Stanley Cup could be just the start of something special.

“That’s a great thought, and it’s a dream, you know,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “But there’s a lot of hard work and building and laying a foundation every year that goes into every year. It doesn’t happen without building that foundation on Day One and Day Two. They just don’t hand you a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals again the second year.

“In short order, I’m sure, come September we’ll get ready to start building the foundation again for what this team could possibly do.”

And it will be up to other top young teams like the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks to prevent a second coming of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

The Caps came within one win of knocking off the Penguins this postseason, and the rivalry between the organizations should continue to be the league’s premier duel for several years. Alex Ovechkin is likely to collect his second consecutive league MVP award next week, but he will likely be answering questions about Crosby and Malkin and the trophies they collected Friday night.

Provided the Caps can work out long-term contracts for Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, Washington not only has the talent to chase down Pittsburgh but a deeper farm system to provide reinforcements.

The Blackhawks did something neither the Penguins nor the Caps could do - win in the playoffs the first time around. Led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the hockey revival in the Windy City is in overdrive, and the Blackhawks may be the team best positioned to dethrone the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference.

There are other franchises blessed with bushels of young talent who will likely become contenders in the coming seasons, and maybe cities like Los Angeles, St. Louis and Phoenix will experience the same rejuvenation that has happened for Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago.

Don’t forget about the Red Wings, either. They will return nearly every significant contributor, and Detroit will likely have a mini-youth movement of its own as guys like Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Jonathan Ericsson become full-time contributors.

On Friday night, Detroit coach Mike Babcock certainly wasn’t ready to concede the Cup in the coming seasons.

“Yeah, but they also have what’s called money,” he said when asked if the Penguins could be an emerging, Red Wings-esque power. “There’s only so much pie to go around. For example, if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t [Malkin’s contract] go from 3.5 [million] to 8.7 [million]? There just goes two more players. It’s called math. So depth is really important as much as star power is.

“But what they’ve got going for them right now are good players, and good players attract good players. Sometimes when it’s a good situation, a good building coming, a good owner, good general manager, maybe you can get guys to come for less.”

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