August 18, 2020

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Ed Willes: Stanley Cup playoffs are becoming a young person's game

Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates his power-play goal against the St. Louis Blues and is grabbed by Brock Boeser (left) in Game One of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on August 12, 2020 in Edmonton.
Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates his power-play goal against the St. Louis Blues and is grabbed by Brock Boeser (left) in Game One of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on August 12, 2020 in Edmonton. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /PNG

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EDMONTON — Heading into Monday’s games, the leading scorer in the NHL postseason was Carolina’s Sebastian Aho.

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He just turned 23.

One point back of Aho was a group that includes Elias Pettersson, the Vancouver Canucks’ 21-year-old centre, and Quinn Hughes, the Canucks’ 20-year-old defenceman. One point behind them was another group which includes Miro Heiskanen, the Dallas Stars’ 21-year-old defenceman, and Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 22-year-old centre of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

You can play this game for a while, but here’s the larger point. Go down the list of every team still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs and you encounter a level of young talent which is unprecedented in the game’s history. We’ll get to a more detailed look of those players in a bit but, big picture, this postseason is announcing a new generation of stars and, for a game which could use some good news, it couldn’t come at a better time.

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“Man, it’s unreal,” says Canucks head coach Travis Green. “The game is so fast now and there’s so much skill. It’s really something to watch. I’m still a fan and it’s so exciting to watch these kids play.”

Now here’s the best part. Green is hardly the only coach in the playoffs who can say that.


Wednesday | Game 5

Vancouver Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues

(Canucks lead best-of-seven series 2-1)

7:30 p.m., Rogers Place (Edmonton), TV: Sportsnet, Radio: Sportsnet 650 AM

The kids, of course, aren’t the only story inside the bubble these days. Veterans like Joe Pavelski, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and others have made their mark. The Bruins, Islanders, Lightning and Golden Knights are largely veteran teams and all figure to be around for a while.

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But you just have to look at the rosters of the 16 teams still alive to understand the sea change which is taking place in the NHL. If we establish 23 as the arbitrary cutoff point to determine a young player, you’re left with 37 names who qualify as difference-makers for their respective teams.

In addition to Aho, Carolina boasts the injured Andrei Svechnikov, 20, and 21-year-old Martin Necas.

Drake Caggiula (right) and Kirby Dach of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrate Caggiula’s goal against the Vegas Golden Knights at Rogers Place in Edmonoton on Sunday. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images

The Blackhawks looked to be facing a long rebuild last year. Now they’re back with 20-year-old defenceman Adam Boqvist, 19-year-old centre Kirby Dach and 22-year-old sniper Alex DeBrincat.

Calder finalist Dominik Kubalik, you ask? Forget him. Old-timer. He’s about to turn 25.

We could go on. So we will. The Flyers don’t register as a particularly young team but they have a 22-year-old goalie in Carter Hart, a top-pairing defenceman in 23-year-old Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, the 23-year-old who led the team in scoring in the regular season and emerging winger Joel Farabee, 20.

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Montreal was another team that was starting to look stale, but in these playoffs they’ve been led by a one-two punch at centre in 21-year-old Nick Suzuki and 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Colorado, meanwhile, was the sexy choice of a lot of pundits to win the Stanley Cup this year. Their lineup features 21-year-old Cale Makar and 22-year-old Samuel Girard on the back end, with 19-year-old Bowen Byram on the horizon. Up front, the Avs boast a number of players in their mid-20s, including the transcendent Nathan MacKinnon who’s all of 24. But Mikko Rantanen, at 23, still sneaks under our bar.

In the game’s history there might have been a concentrated group of young talent which is equal to the current crop. In three seasons between 2005 and 2008, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Nick Backstrom, Kane and Toews all broke into the league. Between 1992 and 1995 Teemu Selanne, Marty Brodeur, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk all made their first NHL appearances.

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But in terms of sheer volume the current group is unmatched, and there’s a very good reason for that.

“It’s a young man’s game,” says Dallas head coach Rick Bowness. “You’ve got to be able to skate. It’s as simple as that. The teams that are going to improve are going to get faster and probably younger. That’s the way the league has been going.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than on the blue-line, where a group of incandescent talents are redefining the position. Time was you had to look long and hard to find a defenceman under six feet tall in the league and teams tended to feature giant, immobile crease clearers like Derian Hatcher, Kyle McLaren or Mike Rathje.

Now, Bowness’s defence in Dallas is anchored by the 21-year-old Heiskanen, who skates better than Elvis Stojko. In Vancouver we know about Hughes. Colorado has Makar.

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More are coming.

“They have to be mobile,” Bowness says of the modern defenceman. “Obviously they have to have good hockey sense; when to go, when not to go. But the game now is speed and puck pressure.

“It’s that old cliché about taking away time and space, and you do that with speed.”

The Canucks-Blues series, in fact, is proving to be a battleground between the new NHL and the old. The Canucks are built largely around youth and speed, and following their Game 3 overtime loss on Sunday night, Bo Horvat lamented they’d abandoned their favoured pressure game.

“I think we were shying away from who we are, our identity,” Horvat said.

The Blues had no such problems. With a few exceptions, they’re a veteran team that wears down the opposition with a heavy forecheck and strong cycling game.

Still, they have 21-year-old Robert Thomas playing key minutes up front and 23-year-old Vince Dunn on the blue-line. When they needed a spark in Game 3, head coach Craig Berube inserted 22-year-old Jordan Kyrou into the lineup.

One way or another, it seems youth will be served in today’s game.

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