In 2006, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin set the NHL on its ear. The two rookies together amassed 91 goals and 117 assists, good for 208 points (Ovechkin 52-54-106; Crosby 39-63-102). They both finished top ten in scoring with Ovechkin coming in at third in the entire NHL and Crosby sixth.
Fast forward ten years and two new rookies and one fantastic sophomore are bursting onto the scene causing tongues to wag and writers to exclaim the next generation is here. But excuse me if I don’t think it’s time for Patrik Laine (Winnipeg, 8 G-3 A-11 P, 13 games), Auston Matthews (Toronto, 6 G-5 A -11 P, 12 games) and Connor McDavid (Edmonton, 5 G – 9 A -14 P, 13 games) to rule just yet. It’s nothing against the three young guys who will go on to win the Rocket Richard, Selke and Art Ross Trophies respectively with ease in the future. It’s not that I don’t see their potential and know their time is coming. It’s just that I’m not sure it’s here right this second.
Perhaps the biggest reason behind that has nothing to do with any of the five players named so far. Because it’s not that I don’t think those three are as good as 87 and 8 were then, it’s that I don’t think the NHL in 2006 and the NHL in 2016 could be more different.
Let’s start with a simple look at what I’m talking about. The top ten scorers at the end of the 2005-2006 season:
The top ten scorers from that season couldn’t be more indicative of what makes 2016 different. Because in 2006, the NHL was going through its awkward teenage years. The young guys were coming in but the guys who were in their prime weren’t necessarily the type of players who could consistently put up big numbers. Look no further than Dany Heatley and Jonathan Cheechoo for evidence of that.
Then you look at the top ten scorers to end the 2015-2016 season (the sample size is far too small to be drawing conclusions from this year so far):
While only Crosby and Joe Thornton make both lists, the top four players mentioned in the 2015-16 have all finished atop scoring in an NHL season. Karlsson is a perennial Norris Trophy threat. Johnny Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker and all three of Kuznetsov, Tarasenko and Panarin only came to the NHL after winning a host of scoring, league and other awards in the KHL.
Simply put, the guys who are already in the league aren’t ready to be done yet. It’s not like Lemieux with back problems and Yzerman on one knee. Aside from Thornton at age-37, the other nine guys above all comfortably in their primes or not even fully in them. No one’s getting ready to decommission Crosby or Kane like they’re outdated robots from Westworld.
Add to that the increased impetus on nutrition, conditioning and specific skill work? And the competition in the 2016 NHL is head and shoulders above that of the NHL Crosby and Ovechkin entered. Players are better longer and there is more technology than ever to make them improve their skills constantly. So yes, Laine, Matthews and McDavid will run the NHL – it’s just not quite their time yet.