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Sports Authority

Ivey: Young players taking over NHL

| Thursday, November 10, 2016

The 2016-2017 NHL season started four weeks ago, and fans have watched their favorite teams off to either fast or slow starts. It is common for some fans to only pay attention to their team and the players on it while ignoring what else is happening around the league.

But the die-hard hockey fans out there that follow the entire league have noticed something about this season. Something different. Something that hasn’t been seen before.

Hockey is getting even more entertaining to watch. Goal scoring is up, the games are ending in closer scores than before and the relatively new three-on-three overtime format is exhilarating. Watching games, fans are treated to more back-and-forth, entertaining hockey than they can remember. The quality of play has never been higher.

Why might this be, you ask? Well the simple answer is the game is getting younger.

If you look at the rosters of NHL teams, you can see a considerable among of players on each team are under the age of 24. Teams like the Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes in particular have undergone rebuilding phases over the past couple of years. These rebuilding projects have given these teams young and talented prospects they hope will become cornerstone players for their franchise.

In the past four years, the Sabres have added talented young players such as Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons. The Sabres took a major hit when Eichel suffered an ankle injury before the season that will sideline him the first couple of months. When Eichel comes back, however, the Sabres are hoping their combination of young talent and veteran leadership can be enough to provide a winning formula and send Buffalo back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

The Maple Leafs have had one of the most publicized rebuilds in recent memory. When NHL Hall-of-Famer Brendan Shanahan took over the team as president in 2014, he began an extreme makeover of the Maple Leafs organization. During the first two seasons of his tenure, the Maple Leafs traded away some of their best players for prospects and future draft picks. By doing this, they ensured themselves a top draft pick to add even more talent. Their last three first round draft picks — William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews — are currently three of their top four scorers. Matthews was the first-overall pick in the 2016 draft and scored four goals in his first NHL game. In the big picture, the Maple Leafs are considered the Chicago Cubs of the NHL: They’re a historic franchise that currently has the longest Stanley Cup drought of any team in the league. The Cubs just ended their drought, and it doesn’t seem too crazy to think the Leafs will do the same in the near future.

The Arizona Coyotes have been the subject of relocation rumors throughout their time in the desert. Many people believe the team won’t be able to last in the unorthodox hockey market. However, the influx of young talent the Coyotes possess could change all of that. Young players like Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Dylan Strome, Jakob Chychrun, Lawson Crouse and Christian Dvorak laden the Coyotes roster. In a couple of years, these players are expected to take the next step in their development and the Coyotes will be a major force to be reckoned with.

Even teams that continually finish on top of the league standings have begun using more and more young players to fill out their roster spots. The Chicago Blackhawks began this season with six rookies on their roster. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season thanks to key contributions from young players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Matt Murray.

19-year-old Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid is currently among the league leaders in points. He is the captain of the Oilers and was the captain of Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey back in September. Team North America, made up of the top U.S. and Canadian born NHL players under the age of 23, captivated hockey fans with their fast style-of-play and highlight-reel goals.

If their development continues, these young players are poised to become the next superstars of a league that, frankly, can use more.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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