The kids are alright: NHL’s youth movement is paying off

If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far in this NHL season, it’s that Whitney Houston was right: The children are our future.

Whereas once upon a time, NHL teams relied on face-punchers and journeyman grinders to populate their third and fourth lines, now they’re increasingly turning to the prospects they once used as trade bait and minor league fodder. And clubs that once thought spending big bucks on veteran free agents was the path to victory are stockpiling draft picks and going with young talent instead.

Of course, you can’t just call up a bunch of teenagers and expect immediate success. See the Edmonton Oilers of the last several years. Without good management and the ability to mix good young talent with veterans, youngster-laden teams can be fairly ineffective.

But this season, it seems there is a glut of young talent making an impression. It started in September during the World Cup of Hockey when Team North America’s collection of 23-and-unders took the tournament by storm with their up-tempo and exuberant play. The last two #1 draft picks, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews, played on a line together and formed a potent one-two combination.

McDavid has continued his strong play into the regular season and is currently the NHL’s leading scorer with 29 points. The Oilers got off to a strong start and still lead the Pacific Division, although things have tightened up considerably in the last few weeks. Despite unloading the likes of Taylor Hall to the Devils in the offseason, Edmonton is still loaded with young guns like Jordan Eberle, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse.

Another organization looking to turn around its fortunes is the Toronto Maple Leafs. With its Stanley Cup drought closing in on 50 years, the Leafs have given up the ill-advised free agent signings of years past and turned to a youth movement. Part of that meant shedding high-priced veterans and free agents and loading up on draft picks. The plan has been in the works for a few years now after Brendan Shanahan took over the reins. Last year, the Leafs essentially tanked the season and won the top pick in the draft: Matthews. But Auston of Arizona isn’t the only weapon the Leafs have. There’s the electrifying Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and more on the farm (Jeremy Bracco, Kerby Rychel, Kasperi Kapanen). The Leafs are young and impetuous and are still erratic and defensively challenged, but they’ve been exciting to watch on most nights and they’re on the periphery of a playoff spot.

But that’s just scratching the surface of the potentially great NHL youth. There’s forwards like Jack Eichel of the Sabres, Dylan Larkin of the Wings, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele of Winnipeg, Aleksander Barkov of Florida, Nathan MacKinnon of the Avs, Tampa’s Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov, Alex Galchenyuk of Montreal, Filip Forsberg of Nashville, David Pastrnak of the Bruins, Max Domi of Phoenix and Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary. On the defensive end, you have d-men Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers, Shane Gostisbehere of Philly, Colton Parayko of the Blues, Seth Jones of Columbus, Jacob Trouba of Winnipeg and Noah Hanifin of Carolina and goalies John Gibson of the Ducks, Matt Murray of Pittsburgh and Connor Hellebuyck of the Jets.

The future is bright for the NHL, now that young stars are allowed to shine with more regularity.