The World Cup of Hockey is a creature of the NHL and its players, hatched mainly because the financial windfall from Olympic tournaments was passing them by. So it’s natural that the event should reflect the league’s current preoccupations and conundrums, one of which has become a staple of beer-parlour debate.
Youth and vigour, or age and experience—which counts for more?
The chance to test this question is arguably the greatest novelty of next September’s tournament. Organizers stumbled on a gem in the idea of a team made up of the best players under 23 from Canada and the U.S.
Team North America, as they’d like us to call it, named its first 16 players this week, and it was a roll call of the game’s most electrifying stars, starting with Edmonton’s sublime 19-year-old forward, Connor McDavid.
Hockey pundits call them the “Young Guns.” They include top-tier picks Aaron Ekblad (No. 1 in 2014, Florida); Jack Eichel (No. 2 in 2015, Buffalo); Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1 in 2013, Colorado). Many will still be battling acne as they go up against national teams populated with Stanley Cup and Olympic veterans like Henrik Lundqvist of Sweden and two-time gold medallist Sidney Crosby.
From the perspective of the league and its broadcast partners, the attraction of this brainwave was clear. Why pass up added viewer interest by excluding players that any number of national teams would be thrilled to have in their lineups? Sure, Canada would likely tack McDavid onto its roster. But his ice time would be limited, and an established star would be left at home. Why sacrifice any star power unnecessarily?
The effect, however, has been to add a whole layer of intrigue to a tired trope of the international hockey tournament. This time, nationalism will share airspace with intergenerational rivalry—a drama we’ve been watching play out in a more subtle form in the NHL. For a full decade now, general managers have been weighing the benefits of youth against experience, keeping their rosters as young as possible because doing so offers the best value for dollars spent under the salary cap. It hasn’t been easy. There are few things hockey execs love more, after all, than the faithful warhorse.
The table below shows what’s been going on.
From 1980, the average age of an NHL player had been climbing, especially that of forwards and especially during the playoffs, when coaches lean hard on hoary veterans. Medical science played a part, saving careers from previously devastating injuries. So did the growing international competition for NHL roster spots. The days when players smoked and drank their way through the off season gradually came to an end.
But the 2004-05 lockout produced a discernible pro-youth bias. The new salary cap made younger stars more attractive to general managers, because there were limits placed on the amounts of early-career contracts. The risk of keeping older players rose, as the rules stipulated any salary owed to a player 35 and over would count against the cap—even if the player couldn’t make the lineup.
To be sure, there were countervailing forces. Rules in the CBA allow teams to keep players in entry-level contracts, provided they don’t play more than 10 games per season.
Still, the young stars were back with a vengeance, starting the year after the lockout with the newly drafted Sidney Crosby, who cracked the 100-point mark in his rookie season. As a sophomore, the 19-year-old Crosby became the youngest player to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point-getter, racking up 120 points. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals won it the next year, followed by Evgeni Malkin, a teammate of Crosby’s on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both were 22.
Ever since, they’ve counted among the dominant stars of the game, suggesting a sort of golden era of talent occurred following the lockout. And clearly age counts for something. Experts believe NHL players peak, on average, around the age of 29.
But the new lot look pretty golden, too, and the configuration of this tournament will pit their virtues—speed, hubris, taste for risk—against the efficiency, discipline and cunning of their elders. Will Todd McLellan, coach of the Young Guns, seek to contain their élan to limit costly mistakes? Or will he embrace it, knowing it might be kryptonite against superpowers like Canada, Russia, U.S.A. and Sweden?
To be sure, nothing beats veteran calm in times of crisis (who can forget the poise of Canadian captain Scott Niedermayer during the “Golden Goal” game of 2010?) But one should never underestimate the magic of youth. The New York Islanders did in 1984, when they were the oldest team in the league, on average. That spring, the Edmonton Oilers—average age, 25.17; most of their top players under 23—deprived the Isles of a record-tieing fifth straight Stanley Cup.
Whatever strategy McLellan chooses, it will be worth watching. For once, the best young players are to be spared hockey’s clichéd insistence on “paying dues” and “getting whiskers” before taking centre stage at major events. We should be glad of it.