SAN JOSE, Calif. — The news this weekend that the National Hockey League’s puck tracking system can capture movement at the rate of 2,000 times a second comes just in time. The sport is getting faster than ever, and just as quickly getting younger.
Scoring is up and the age of top players is down in a league that held its All-Star Game on Saturday night at SAP Center.
Speed and youth have been the themes of an eventful All-Star weekend that featured consistent booing of John Tavares, who turned down the Sharks as well as the Islanders during free agency last summer, and raucous cheering for U.S. Women’s Hockey gold medalist Kendall Coyne, who brought down the house when she competed in the Fastest Skater contest during the Skills Competition Friday night.
“I thought she was going to win,” said Connor McDavid of the Oilers, who actually did win the event.
It is no coincidence that McDavid is considered the game’s brightest young star and has won the Fastest Skater race three years in a row. There’s a need for speed in the new NHL, where plodding brawlers are all but extinct. Young legs have all the steam.
McDavid was among 13 All-Stars who are 23 or younger, a group that also includes Islanders center Mathew Barzal, who was third in the Fastest Skater derby. League officials pointed out that in 1997, the last time its All-Star Game was held here, only four players 23 or younger were on the squads. This time, not one skater was 35 or older. Twenty-two years ago, there were seven.
Every sport evolves in its own way. Baseball is fueled by analytics-driven pitching matchups and defensive shifting, basketball is dominated by three-point shooting, football is mostly passing. (Anyone remember the days when fullbacks regularly carried the ball?) Hockey is trending fast and young.
“The game has changed a lot since I came into the league in ’05,” said Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, who won the only goalie-oriented portion of the weekend, the Save Streak contest, Friday. “There’s more speed, more skill. Being a goalie right now is a bit more challenging, but it’s a fun challenge.”
Drew Doughty of the Kings, whose big and strong team won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, said, “It just shows me you need to keep building your team, you need to keep getting these young guys. The young guys are taking over the NHL and these teams that are at the top of the divisions weren’t there five years ago. It just shows you need to keep building, you obviously have to make good draft picks and try to get some great players.”
On the other hand, no one has been able to quickly build a champion with young players. McDavid had to spend the bulk of his session during media day answering questions about his foundering team, which fired general manager Peter Chiarelli last week (in part for having traded the draft pick that the Islanders used to select Barzal).
Teams still seek proven stars, which is why Tavares was in such demand. Sharks fans gave him perhaps a warmup for his Feb. 28 Long Island return by booing him for spurning their team.
Tavares was asked by a Canadian television network at the start of the weekend to describe how much different this week is from the All-Star Game last year, when he was besieged with questions about his impending free agency.
“To me, it’s all kind of the same,” he said. “There’s still a lot of attention on the season. Obviously, there were questions about my future. But in a sense, there’s still the same attention on being an NHL player and being at the All-Star Game. I just try to worry about what I can control, to be the best player and person I can be.”