Scoring is down slightly in the NHL – an average of 5.22 goals a game were scored entering the NHL's schedule Sunday compared to 5.46 for all of last season – but the surprising thing is who is doing the scoring.
The youngsters are taking over the offence this season, as three of the top five and six of the top 15 scorers were 25 or younger. At the top of the list is Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel, 24, followed by Claude Giroux, 23, whose rapid development made the Philadelphia Flyers feel comfortable trading star centres Mike Richards and Jeff Carter last summer.
A look at the scoring statistics for individual NHL teams is even more startling. The leading point-producer on 13 of the league's 30 teams is 25 or younger. Teenagers such as Jeff Skinner (Carolina Hurricanes), Tyler Seguin (Boston Bruins) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers) dot the lists.
Hockey experts say this is a trend, not one or two bumper crops of great prospects moving through the system. The youngsters at the top of today's scoring parade are not likely to fade.
"You're getting 20-, 21-year-olds stepping up now and doing more things," Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel said. "They are more confident in their abilities.
"When you look at players now, when they're 21 years old some of them have two, three years of [NHL]experience and they're good players in the league. Before, the maturity [age]used to be 27. Now it's 21, 22."
Both Noel and Tim Bernhardt, whose playing and scouting career in the NHL goes back 30 years, say the improvement of coaching and training techniques in minor and junior hockey is driving the youth movement. So is the dedication of hockey parents and coaches, who send their children to hockey schools, put them in summer leagues and hire nutritionists and personal trainers.
"Before, when you were 20, you had so much to learn about becoming a pro, the training and conditioning it took," Bernhardt said. "Now, the process has been sped up. Junior hockey is now like a miniature NHL and midget hockey is crazy. These kids have personal trainers and they're hitting full stride at 21, 22."
"You go into any minor-league rink, like the American Hockey League, see the facilities and they're better than any NHL rink was 20 years ago. It's the same in junior."
Several of these precocious young men go head-to-head this week and the details are in the Five Games To Watch list.
Despite the payoff for the NHL, Bernhardt is ambivalent about the single-minded preparation for the big leagues among minor hockey players. The vast majority of parents and players spending thousands of dollars in the hope of making the NHL will see their dreams go unfulfilled.
"I was talking about this to someone a while ago and we both said we had a lot more fun when we were younger," Bernhardt said. "You see these kids now, they're 18 years old, they can't eat hamburgers, can't go have a beer. Most of them aren't going to make it and they miss out on a lot of stuff."
Goals hard to come by in Hockeytown
The Detroit Red Wings are hoping a trend continues this week, as they broke out of a six-game losing string by scoring five goals on the Anaheim Ducks. They have three games left on a six-game homestand and need to show their fans they can score some goals.
In their six losses leading up to the 5-0 win Saturday, the Red Wings could not score more than once in each game. This ruined an excellent run by goaltender Jimmy Howard, who has a 1.77 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
"If you're Jimmy Howard, you've got to be suing for no run support," Wings head coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com, comparing him to a pitcher whose teammates can't hit.
The aging Red Wings, long among the NHL's top offensive teams, were 22nd in the NHL in goals a game (2.42) by Sunday. One reason for the offensive slide is the lack of good young players coming up on a team whose average age is 30.2. The Wings' best prospects are on defence.
Defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom, 41, and winger Johan Franzen, 31, lead the Wings with 10 points each, while veteran forwards Pavel Datsyuk, 33, and Henrik Zetterberg, 31, only have two and three goals, respectively.
The trouble for the Wings is that all three teams they face this week – the Colorado Avalanche, the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars – are all young, quick and can score. The Oilers won six of their past seven games and the Stars are 8-2 in their past 10.
The Young Guns Points before Sunday's games
Player Team Age Pts.
1. Phil Kessel Toronto 24 21
2. Claude Giroux Philadelphia 23 19
3. Nicklas Backstrom Washington 23 18
4. Joffrey Lupul Toronto 28 16
5. Thomas Vanek Buffalo 27 16
6. Anze Kopitar Los Angeles 24 15
7. Joe Pavelski San Jose 27 15
8. Jaromir Jagr Philadelphia 39 15
9. Jason Spezza Ottawa 28 15
10. Jason Pominville Buffalo 28 15
11. Daniel Sedin Vancouver 31 15
12. Patrick Kane Chicago 22 15
13. M.A. Bergeron Tampa Bay 31 15
14. James Neal* Pittsburgh 24 14
15. Tyler Seguin* Boston 19 14
*Seven players tied with 14 points.
Player Team Age Pts.
Kessel Toronto 24 21
Giroux Philadelphia 23 19
Backstrom Washington 23 18
Kopitar Los Angeles 24 16
Kane Chicago 22 15
Seguin Boston 19 14
Neal Pittsburgh 24 14
Jeff Skinner Carolina 19 13
Jamie Benn Dallas 22 13
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins* Edmonton 18 12
Kris Versteeg Florida 25 12
John Tavares Islanders 21 12
Matt Duchene* Colorado 20 10
Ryan O'Reilly* Colorado 20 10
*Tied for team lead.
Predators milestone: On Saturday, the Nashville Predators will play the 1,000th game in their 13-year NHL history when they play the Montreal Canadiens. Preds general manager David Poile might have signalled a new era for the budget-conscious team last week when he signed goaltender Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49-million (all currency U.S.) contract. But the real test will be in the coming months, as Poile needs to get star defencemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter under contract to make the Rinne contract worthwhile. In the next couple of weeks, Poile will begin negotiations with Suter, who can become an unrestricted free agent next July 1. Since Weber is a pending restricted free agent, he cannot begin contract negotiations until January. Most NHL GMs think Poile will only be able to sign one of them, given the Preds' history of staying well below the salary cap. But Preds co-owner Tom Ciggaran told reporters, "We have every intent of signing both Shea and [Suter]"