Before we get to anything, first let me give shameless, free plug for The Athletic – if you’re a hockey person, subscribe. Some of the best hockey content on the internet.
Anyway, really good piece by James Mirtle here, who asked some of the veteran guys in Leafs camp what they thought about what seems to be a league-wide shift to younger players. The older players, of course, don’t love it (nor should they, considering it’s essentially shortening their careers), but they gave interesting, thoughtful answers on the subject.
A player who I thought spoke the best on the subject was Dominic Moore, a guy who has made a nice career for himself by being a solid bottom-six forward who can kill penalties, and is currently sitting on the bubble of making Toronto’s roster. The 37-year-old is also a great source on this subject because, well, he can still play but his age and the way the game is played now (speed, skill, more speed, and a little more speed), Moore might be getting squeezed out. Ten of fifteen years ago he’d already be pencilled in the lineup for opening night.
Here’s what he told The Athletic:
“I’d be interested to see what the stats say about the quality of the on-ice play that’s gone with that trend… Sometimes with trends, it can be an imitation thing where teams are just going a certain direction thinking it’s better.
“I’m obviously biased, being in my shoes. But it’s a matter of evaluating players based on what they’re able to do. I don’t want to put my GM hat on too much because I’m a player, but one reason to say ‘go young’ is for cost.
“For me, I don’t worry about any of that… For me, it’s just about being as good of a player as I can be. Improve every year, maintain, be healthy and that’s about it.”
He got into the speed and skill aspect and how the game is played now, etc., that seems to be consensus No. 1 reason why the league has gone younger – and I certainly don’t disagree with that notion. But Moore brings up an interesting question – is this all cyclical? Do younger players with less experience begin making more mistakes for the liking of coaches and GMs, leading them to go with veterans that might have better sense for the game – especially at the NHL level – and obviously more experience.
It’ll be interesting to see if that becomes the case in three or five years.
Eric Fehr mentions how guys are coming into the league more mature, more ready to play at that level, harkening to the idea these guys eat, sleep, and breathe hockey. As Fehr put it, “the days of seeing the prairie boys work on the farm, play hockey once in a while, and make it to the big leagues, that’s pretty much over”, which I’d contend has been the case for quite some time.
There were other good points made – Colin Greening mentioned the impact of new technologies, advancements made in research on nutrition, etc., on allowing guys to player deeper into their 30s (I’d add that fortune has a thing or two to do with guys playing that long as well). Fehr also mentioned the impact of the salary cap, as younger players on ELCs or second deals being much cheaper and more manageable than players on third contracts or over-35 deals.
My personal feeling is there’s pros and cons to where the game has gone. Obviously less clutching and grabbing, less goonery and a game more based on skill and speed has allowed younger guys to come in and play to their strengths. I think the league has become one more similar to the college and junior game in recent seasons, which tailors the game for these young guys coming in. But there’s also the part where there’s fewer jobs available for veteran players, who can bring a lot to a room. Think about a guy like Moore, what he’s been through on and off the ice (especially off the ice), and the value that can bring to a team.
Like I said, I think – like most things – it all comes full-circle eventually. You see the McDavids and Matthews and Marners and Laines come in the way they have in past couple years and the natural inclination is we need to put every 19-year-old kid in the lineup. Then those 19-year-old kids that are accustomed playing other teenagers from Barrie and Sault Ste. Marie don’t react as well to playing grown men and then all of sudden it’s ‘let’s get guys with more experience’. It might not happen that way, who knows. But it’ll be interesting to see how this continues to evolve.