Inside the NHL

A glance at the leaderboards as the NHL passed its halfway mark during the holiday period showed us some unmistakable trends when it comes to young players putting the puck in the net.

Five players – David Pastrnak, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon — all under age 25 were on pace for 50-goal seasons. Six of 10 players headed toward 100-point campaigns were also that young while NHL.com noted the 231 combined points by rookie defensemen was the fourth-highest total in 23 years.

So, what are they feeding these youngsters? Well, a steady diet of early honing of skills.

“I think that now everyone is putting so much attention and focus on skill development,’’ said Bil La Forge, general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds junior squad. “These young players are so highly skilled that when they get to the league they can get right into these offensive situations.”

Last season, 10 of 13 players with 50 points by the halfway mark were under 25. For point accumulations by rookie NHL defensemen, the three-highest halfway totals since the mid-1990s all came starting 2012-13.

So, this isn’t some one-off.

La Forge was raised around future NHL prospects when his late father, Bill, coached junior teams in the 1980s and 1990s and briefly served behind the Vancouver Canucks bench in 1984-85. Back then, top youngsters were geared toward a more defensive-minded game in the junior and minor professional ranks and more likely to take boxing lessons on the side than power-skating tutorials.

Advertising

The game has since changed, with fighting reduced and players better protected from the slashing, hooking and grabbing that once slowed the most skilled. And La Forge sees the NHL impact.

“It’s more of a wide-open offensive game now,’’ he said. “Twenty years ago, it was a tight-checking, slug-it-out, heavier game. Where I think right now it’s offensive and exciting. Teams are turning the puck up the ice right away and getting all of the guys involved. So, that helps the defense get their points as well.

“When you’re on offense, all five guys are on offense.’’

And when figuring out which players might top leaderboards five years from now, following the two local major-junior teams – whether the Thunderbirds in Kent or the Silvertips in Everett – is a good start.

The Western Hockey League trade deadline passed last week, and that’s usually where you’ll see future NHL players on the move. Teams often use the deadline to offload age-20 players – there’s a roster limit of three on any squad – or 19-year-olds for younger standouts or future bantam-age draft picks that might turn out more skilled.

The surprisingly competitive T-birds are undergoing a full-blown youth movement. They stuck to minor moves at the deadline, though La Forge last month dealt age-20 Florida Panthers draft pick Matthew Wedman to Kelowna for first-, second- and fifth-round picks in WHL Bantam Drafts the next few seasons.

Advertising

Wedman is the type of seasoned player contending junior teams add for insurance – Kelowna, B.C., will host this year’s Memorial Cup tournament – ahead of a playoff run.

The Silvertips, vying for another division title, made a blockbuster deadline deal for Swift Current forward Ethan Regnier, 19, and young defenseman Kasper Puutio, 17 — the latter partaking in the NHL Top Prospects Game later this month — in exchange for winger Martin Fasko-Rudas and a first-round bantam pick this spring. They also landed forward Ty Kolle, 19, from Regina.

Last year, the Thunderbirds made a flurry of deadline moves, one sending age-20 leading scorer Zack Andrusiak to a division-winning Everett team for 20-year-old Sean Richards and additional draft picks. Those bantam picks can pay off quickly, as evidenced by Thunderbirds rookie left wing Conner Roulette, 16, a second-rounder from 2018 who has 14 goals and 11 assists his first 31 games.

“Not many 16-year-olds can come into the league and have as much success as he’s had,’’ La Forge said. “He’s such an offensively minded player and his skill set is so far advanced for his age that he’s always making plays on the ice.’’

Another T-birds rookie from the 2018 draft is towering 6-foot-8, 206-pound center Matthew Rempe, 17, with five goals and 14 assists in 24 games. At that size, he’s bound to draw NHL interest.

Of course, former T-birds’ 2012 Bantam draft selection Mathew Barzal won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie with the New York Islanders six years later and was recently named to his second All-Star Game at age 22.

But it isn’t only major-junior hockey contributing to the NHL’s youth scoring boom. While major-junior teams under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella see the most players drafted into the NHL annually, the 71 selected last June was the lowest in a decade – with the 28 WHL draftees a 38% drop from 2010.

That’s largely due to emerging alternative hockey models in this country and Europe. The U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) had eight players selected in last year’s opening round.

Of the five NHL players on pace for 50-goal seasons at the halfway mark, two – Canadian-born Colorado Avalanche forward MacKinnon and German-born Edmonton Oilers standout Draisaitl – played major junior. Buffalo Sabres star Eichel and Toronto Maple Leafs alternate captain Matthews are USNTDP graduates, while Boston Bruins scoring leader Pastrnak is from the Czech Republic and played U18 hockey there.

More players globally are getting elite skill development transcending to the NHL. In other words, the WHL – once known for brawling and toughness – has had to adapt.

“We have ice time available every day for the guys,” La Forge said. “We have skills coaches available. So, when these guys get to the NHL they’re already highly skilled and ready to make plays as soon as they get there.’’