Young Players Gotta Play: Or Do They?
We have all seen it on social media.
‘Free Niku’ or ‘Why Not Dress Samberg?’
‘Maurice has a hatred for young players.’
‘What about Ville Heinola or Kristan Vesalainen?’
There has been a noticeable shift in the last few years of the NHL to being a younger man’s game. While exceptions may be the Thornton's and Chara's, more and more we are seeing young players dominate. But why doesn’t Paul Maurice play the young guys?
Why are we seeing more young players active in the NHL? Well, there may be a few reasons. There has been a significant trend to smaller, faster players and less hitting and fighting. The game is quicker than ever. Go back and look at the cup winners from ten years ago. There was all that talk about how big and tough the Western Conference was. Big teams were winning. The Los Angeles Kings, the Boston Bruins and the old Chicago Blackhawks were heavy and mobile. The Hawks stood 265 lb Dustin Byfuglien in the slot for entire shifts. But things change. A reduction in fighting and having the referees call more hooking, holding and slashing penalties has allowed the speedy, smaller players to flourish. Just watch 32 year old Milan Lucic, a throwback to those old teams, for a few shifts and you will see the stark difference. Lucic looks like he is skating in wet cement, while faster players whiz around him. Last year, only 10% of players in the league were over the age of 32, the lowest ever (Travis Yost, 2020).
So, if smaller players are the way to go now, would you rather have a 20-year-old small fast guy or a 35-year-old small not so fast guy? The salary cap has been an issue as well. With superstars making huge dollars and many teams paying 7 or 8 players, premium money, you need to fill roster spots with a lot of players making 1 or 2 million or even the league minimum $700,000. Hello young guys. As well, Entry Level Contracts are limited to a maximum $925,000 and players can “slide” if they play less than 10 NHL games in their first two years. Technically you could have them until 23 at this reduced rate. And, if they have played less than 160 NHL games, they can move up and down to the minors without having to clear waivers. All this points to why we are seeing more younger players in the NHL.
While we are pretty sure Paul Maurice hates nobody other than the odd on ice official, does he lean towards older, more experienced players at the expense of young prospects? Let’s look at some data. Last year, the average age (AA) of an NHL player was 27.3 years. When the Red Wings won the cup in 2008, their average age was 29.5, a significant difference. Here are the average ages of the most recent cup winners:
Year Team AA
2020 Tampa Bay Lightning 27.18
2019 St. Louis Blues 27.59
2018 Washington Capitals 26.79
2017 Pittsburgh Penguins 28.29
In 2011-12, the Winnipeg Jets were one of the youngest teams in the league sitting at an AA of 26.0. In 2020-21 the Jets AA was 26.93, still good enough for 6th youngest though and below the league average. In 9 seasons, we have aged by less than 1 overall year. We are still a relatively young team. What has changed is that our core of good early draft picks are aging together. Nik Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrisey, Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Connor Hellebuyck eat up a big chunk of the team's nightly time on ice.
But does Paul Maurice still prefer older players; the fringe guys who get limited minutes per night and make the league minimum? The eye test and nightly lineup cards would confirm this. There is a long list of aging players that Kevin Cheveldayoff has picked up off the waiver wire or during free agency. Why does he get them? They are cheap, have a few miles left on the odometer and his coach likes them. It’s not a crime. It’s not a reason to fire Maurice.
I will argue that the Jets, including Maurice have done an excellent job of developing their young players and not overexposing them to the rigors of the NHL at an early age. How often does rushing young players work anyways? It takes an exceptional player to step into the NHL at 18 or 19 and compete and contribute. They are literally teenagers playing against men! Look at players that have been rushed in at a young age. Alexander Burmistrov comes to mind as he played a full season at 19. He only played 22 AHL games in his entire career. Though Evander Kane has put up good numbers throughout his career, maybe some time to mature in the AHL would have helped him. Perhaps he would have learned some humility? Look at current Jet players that had to work their way onto the big team. Morrissey, Connor, Lowry and Scheifele all had to prove themselves, spending extra time in the AHL or junior until the Jet brass thought they were ready.
Teams that rush their recent draft picks onto NHL rosters tend to be weaker teams that have space. The Jets have done such a good job of drafting and developing, that there are few options for young players. Ville Heinola isn’t yet ready and nor is Cole Perfetti. They are physically and mentally too young (the adult brain doesn't develop until age 25 - look it up). How did Sami Niku work out? Not great. Mason Appleton, Jansen Harkens and Kristian Vesalainen are looking like NHL players. They are 25, 23 and 21 respectively. David Gustafsson is 20 and split last year between the Moose and the Jets. There is a humbling factor in earning your place on a team. Players on the Jets have to work and prove their worth to earn ice-time now. Ben Chiarot did not play a full season until he was 24 and now plays on the top pairing in Montreal. Look at Jack Roslovic. He is spending time as a number 1 or 1A centre in Columbus. He was a third line winger here.
The Jets draft and develop plan is working. Don’t think that Paul Maurice doesn’t want the best players on the ice each night. He does. There is value in older, experienced players playing specific roles on a team. In the Jet’s case, those are mostly bottom six roles. Patrick Laine stepped in at 18 but most players won’t (and can’t). Turn down the fire Maurice chatter.