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NHL 2016-17: The Dawn of a New Era

Jimmy Vesey, right (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Jimmy Vesey, right (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)


The 2016-17 NHL season is well underway – about two weeks in – and, my goodness, what an incredibly dramatic start it has been!  We have seen outstanding debuts, hot starts, and season-threatening injuries.  We have witnessed greatness achieving milestones and bizarre caroms and bounces.  Despite such a short amount of time, we’ve learned plenty already.

First of all, we’ve learned that Jaromir Jagr is not native to planet Earth.  Last Thursday, Jagr netted his 750th goal in his illustrious 22-season NHL career.  Having picked up a couple of assists as well in his first six games of his 23rd NHL season, Double J now has 1,871 points, just 16 shy of Mark Messier’s totals.  I’m not a betting man, but I can guarantee that Jagr will surpass Messier and move into second behind only Wayne Gretzky.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Jagr spent three seasons in the KHL from 2008-2011.  In 155 games with Avangard Omsk, he had 66 goals, and 80 assists for a total of 146 points.  Had he only played two seasons in the NHL instead of three, there is no doubt the 44-year old would already be in second place in career NHL points.  We’re officially on “Jagr Watch” this season, so stay tuned…

While Jagr is winding down his career (perhaps not, who knows with this freak of nature), this season we have seen players less than half his age making immediate impacts for their respective clubs.  This season, we have seen several rookies and sophomores with multi-point nights already.  In his NHL debut with the Leafs, 2016 first-overall draft pick Auston Matthews scored four goals in an overtime loss (in six games, Matthews now has six goals and 4 assists); Connor McDavid gave Edmonton fans a night to remember with two goals and an assist in the Oilers’ 7-4 win over the Flames in the first ever regular season game played at the new Rogers Place (six games, four goals, five assists); on Saturday, Jimmy Vesey scored the game-tying and game-winning goals for the Rangers to hand the Caps their first regulation loss this season; Travis Konecny and Nick Cousins picked up two helpers each for the Flyers in at 4-2 win over the Kings in their season-debut; Konecny now has a goal and five assists in his first seven games in the NHL; William Nylander now has four goals and five assists in his first six games this season; Anthony Beauvillier has a goal and four assists in his first five NHL games with the Islanders; Shayne Gostisbehere has a goal and four assists in his sophomore season thus far; Patrik Laine has four goals and a helper in his first five contests with the Jets.  Unfortunately for Jack Eichel and the Sabres, Eichel will miss another six weeks or so with a high-ankle sprain.  Similarly, Pavel Buchnevich has watched his teammates on the Rangers from the sidelines due to back spasms, but might be eligible to return as early as Friday against the Hurricanes.

This can’t all be chalked up to beginner’s luck.  What we’re seeing here is a new generation of hockey players being ushered in.  In June of 2015, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were highly touted as true generation talent – the last being Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in 2004 and 2005 respectively.  But in addition to McDavid and Eichel, we’re seeing a plethora of future NHL superstars in the earliest stages of their careers.  I certainly don’t believe it is too early to tell whether or not these players will continue to have an impact for their respective clubs.  Sure, I doubt Matthews will have another four-goal night anytime soon.  But I foresee several multi-point games in his future, and Willy Nylander will certainly benefit from being his linemate.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see McDavid maintain his point-per-game status.  As for Jimmy Vesey, he will continue to improve and have a positive impact for the Rangers.

What we’re learning (or reaffirming) here from these youngsters the first two weeks of the season is two-fold.  One, these players are the future of the NHL and they are the real deal.  Aside from Matthews who began his career overseas, they came out of their respective junior and NCAA clubs ready to play NHL hockey, and have quickly acclimated themselves to the highest level of professional hockey.

Secondly, youth is everything in today’s NHL.  Yes, teams still need that veteran presence on their squads.  Young players benefit greatly by watching and playing with older players.  But youth wins games, and more importantly, youth wins championships.  We’ve seen the Blackhawks and Penguins the last couple of years rally through the postseason and Stanley Cup Finals with several young players with humble cap hits.  Youth is the key to maintaining long playoff runs both financially and physically.  And if young players can contribute the way seasoned vets can?  Teams find themselves in most advantageous positions.  Newbies play with nothing to lose and everything to gain.  A great start to a career leads to a huge payday down the line.  That is at least part of the objective of playing professional hockey, the love of the game being the main reason, of course.

This knowledge about youth is nothing new; we’ve known since the dawn of professional hockey about the prudence of filling rosters with younger players.  But what separates the youth today from the youth of years’ past is skillset, and NHL-readiness.  Players seem to be ready to play in the NHL much sooner after draft day than in years’ past.  Sure, there have been some great draft classes over the years, and there have been players who went straight from the draft day podium into their NHL clubs’ locker rooms.  But generally, what we’re seeing today is truly something different.  Players are ready within 2-3 years of draft day, if not immediately, and are making sudden, significant impacts once they make the main roster.  Teams are essentially getting an extra year or two from their prospects early.

Statistically, there aren’t as many players today who average over a point per game as there were several years ago.  Goaltenders are much better positioned (thanks, Roy).  Goalie padding is much bigger today than ever before.  The game is faster.  The hits are comparable, if not harder, than they used to be.  For a player to maintain point-per-game status in today’s game is truly a special feat.

The need for young players to be NHL-ready much more quickly has shortened the offseason not only for newly- or recently-drafted players, but also for everyone else.  The offseason is no longer a three-month period to lounge and do nothing.  Training camp is no longer a place to find your legs; players must keep their legs throughout the summer.  They continuously train and comply with rigorous diet regimen.  Many players continue to play exhibition hockey as well to keep their legs ready for October.  Enter: “Da Beauty League”, a recreation league in Edina, Minnesota.  Prominent NHLers play in that summer beer league (Rangers’ own Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei, among others), as well as many players in the AHL and collegiate level.

In terms of skill, puck-handling has evolved.  This is a product of the post-lockout era which includes the shootout, where skaters are forced to get more creative to beat goaltenders.  And why stop there?  Players are getting more creative outside the shootout as well.  We’ve all seen Columbus Blue Jackets’ prospect and Long Island-native Sonny Milano and his incredible stick and puck tricks a couple years ago at the NHL Combine.  Milano is a product of the times.  The game is more competitive than ever before.  Ten years ago, Pavel Datsyuk stunned players and spectators with his unbelievable skill set.  He has certainly paved the way for the danglers we see today.  Now, however, dangling and superb deking skills are no longer a bonus, but are becoming the standard by which elite players must meet.  The sky is no longer the limit for players today.  If you can imagine it, a teenaged-hockey player is doing his or her best to learn to execute it.  It also doesn’t hurt that the EA Sports’ NHL video games of the last few years feature an overabundance of deke and dangling options to keep opponents on the edge of their couches at all times.

If we didn’t know it was a new era in the National Hockey League based on the last few NHL Drafts, Team North America’s performance at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey foreshadowed what was to come.  In Toronto in September, a group of players age 23 and younger gave seasoned veterans from all over the world a run for their money.  Think about it – a bunch of kids proved to be formidable competition for the best players from across the globe.  This was no accident.  This was no coincidence.  We’re witnessing the start of some of the best quality play that the hockey world has ever seen.  No, I don’t believe Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews will break Wayne Gretzky’s records.  Wayne is The Great One, not plural.  No one will come close to Gretzky’s numbers – at least not for a couple decades.  Chances are, Wayne will not be alive to see his records broken.  But as the game continues to grow around the world, the best potential competitors will emerge, and I can’t wait to see what new competition tomorrow brings.  In the meantime, let’s all enjoy the fresh new season that is upon us!

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Evan is the Hockey Editor for He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.

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