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  Saturday, December 20, 2014
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A New Generations of Stars (Part 4)
By Paul Noonan

     With their recent signing of Phil Kessel, the Bruins threw another ingredient into a youthful mix, which may bring the NHL back to respectability.  For the NHL, the days of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Dale Hawerchuk, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy, etc. etc. are gone. 

     As of now, the eighties and early nineties were probably the best years for the NHL.  Scoring was the new craze.  Excessive goonery dropped off, but the NHL did not yet institute rules to try to eliminate fighting as much as possible.  Goalies developed into double threats.  They could stop the puck, and they could pass it now, too.  Everything was going good for the NHL. 

     Then the devastating decade came.  It was a decade that saw the NHL almost run itself out of the sports scene:  Two stoppages totaling a season and a half.  The trap.  Rules that discouraged fighting and may argue have led to an increase in injuries, especially to the stars. 

     It was also a decade headlined by negative press, such as the Marty McSorley incident (which was blown way out of proportion) and the Todd Bertuzzi incident (that one was bad).  While a lot of the new rules have hockey slowly rising from the ashes again, it will be this next wave of young stars, the new Gretzkys and Bourques and Roys who might be able to take it farther than the NHL dreamed. 

     Last year was the poster year for the youth movement.  Many big names (Mark Messier, Ron Francis, etc.) called it quits before the season even started, realizing their days were done.  In their place came new faces that generated more hype than their predecessors.  Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby stole most of the spotlight, but Dion Phaneuf, Henrik Lundqvist, Marek Svatos, etc., got their names out of the shadows as well.  And that’s just the rookie class. 

     Other youngsters joined in on the action.  In fact, of the top ten scorers, only three are older than 27.  That leaves the other seven (Ovechkin, Crosby, Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jonathan Cheechoo, Dany Heatley and Eric Staal) with plenty of good years.  And as they get better, the scoring races of the future should be even more exciting.  Five rookies finished with fifty points or better, including the Bruins’ Brad Boyes. 

     Phaneuf, a defenseman, was one shy of that marker.  A great hitter, too, Phaneuf has the tools to be one of the best all-around defensemen ever.  He has a long way to go, but if he keeps getting better he has a shot. 

     It’s not just the rookies.  After all, five of those seven scorers weren’t rookies; other young guns are making names for themselves.  Patrice Bergeron has the makings of a great player.  With a supporting cast that keeps getting better, he and his teammates (most notably Kessel and Boyes) may make B’s fans forget about Thornton and Samsonov quickly. 

     In Chicago, a wave of young defensemen, as well as a few young forwards, are giving that franchise hope of revival.  Anaheim made it to the Western Conference finals with help from a good crop of productive young talent.  Without strong performances by their youngsters, Colorado would not have returned to the postseason last year.  Even the ever- aging Detroit has plenty of young talent that keeps them in the hunt every year.

             

     With help from the new rules, the new stars of the NHL may make the game as exciting as it has ever been.  Heck, they’ve already started.  Ovechkin scored what could arguably be the best, most impressive, goal of all time.  Sidney Crosby became the youngest player to score 100 points.  If he gets a better supporting cast (most notably touted prospect Evgeni Malkin), he will be even better.  The same goes for Ovechkin who was a legitimate contender for league MVP.  Henrik Lundqvist has provided the Rangers with their most stable goalie since Mike Richter.  Dion Phaneuf may soon challenge Scott Stevens title as hardest hitter.  Ilya Kovalchuk may be the next Pavel Bure.  The slick Russian even taunted Crosby during the season, creating a bit of a rivalry between the two.  Forward Jussi Jokinen of Dallas would have won the shootout award if there was one.  The skilled Finn scored on his first eight shootout tries.  The best part is that even more talent will be coming in this year:  Kessel.  Quebec Major Junior standout Alexander Radulov will likely crack Nashville’s lineup.  If Malkin is allowed to play, he may be better than Ovechkin.  Patrick O’Sullivan may crack L.A.’s lineup.  Darren Haydar, Erik Westrum, Dustin Penner, Gilbert Brule, Jiri Hudler, Denis Grebeshkov, etc., are some names that may be well known by the end of next season.  No matter what, a once bleak future now looks bright for the NHL.  It looks like a much better decade lies ahead.         



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