TAMPA — It’s a fine line that NHL general managers have to walk in the salary-cap era. On the one hand, everyone knows it’s important to develop prospects properly, and that rushing youngsters can be ruinous.
“It’s very difficult to just jump into the NHL and be an impact player,” said Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “It’s not easy. The schedule, the travel, the different buildings you go into. I mean, you have to experience all that so you sort of get that out of the way, then you can play hockey.”
On the other hand, young players are inexpensive, and there aren’t many, if any, teams that win the Stanley Cup without youngsters making a major contribution.
“You need young players to succeed in this day and age,” confirmed Bowman, who would certainly know.
Not only do youngsters come with a relatively low cap hit, they possess certain physical attributes that make them ideally suited for the pace of today’s NHL.
“That’s kind of what today’s game is getting to, that quick and speed game,” said Lightning veteran Brenden Morrow. “I think those young legs really help.”
As such, those one, two, or three years after a prospect is drafted have become more vital than ever.
“What we try to do with our young players is not rush them to the point where the expectations are unrealistic,” said Bowman. “We try to give these guys a chance. When they do make it into the NHL, they’ve had some time to develop their game, to gain some confidence usually in the [American Hockey League].
The Lightning, like the Blackhawks, are stocked with players that they’ve drafted and developed.
“When you look back at any team that gets to this point, any team that has any kind of long‑term sustained success, it’s really true home‑grown talent,” said GM Steve Yzerman. “It’s just impossible, even more so with the salary cap, to try to build a team to be successful over a period of time just through free agency and through trades.”
Oh, and it helps to have a bit of good fortune too.
“We’ve been lucky,” said Yzerman. “If we’d have known [Ondrej Palat] was going to be that good, we wouldn’t have waited ’til the seventh round to get him.”
In 2010, when the Blackhawks won their first Cup since 1961, Jonathan Toews was only 22 and Patrick Kane was just 21.
Whoever wins it this year will have players of a similar age.
If it’s Chicago, it’ll be 22-year-old Brandon Saad and 20-year-old Teuvo Teravainen.
If it’s Tampa Bay, it’ll be, well, take your pick. Captain Steven Stamkos is only 25, and he already considers himself an “old fart”.