NHL full of teen spirit this season
Deep 2008 draft and team needs have put almost a dozen teenagers in the NHL
Luca Sbisa (Flyers) and Luke Schenn (Leafs) are playing beyond their years
Coaches fret that teens pay price for being unaware of NHL's physicality
Not long ago, Flyers defenseman Luca Sbisa was evaluating his place on earth. "When I'm not at the rink," he said, "no one knows I exist."
Sbisa is 18 years old, but this was not your standard man-boy identity crisis. Raised in Switzerland, one year of WHL experience behind him, Sbisa doesn't yet have a U.S. social security number. Or a cell phone. Or a credit card. Or a bank account.
What he does have, at an age when most kids are packing on the freshman 15, is a load of responsibility in Philadelphia's defensive scheme. He's playing close to 20 minutes a night. "Sometimes I forget he's 18," says Ossi Vaananen, Sbisa's 28-year-old defensive partner.
Sbisa is young enough that he spent the early part of the season living with Flyers tough guy Riley Cote and Cote's family (Sbisa gets to borrow the car from time to time). Soon he'll start boarding with a housemother. Five months after going to Philadelphia at No. 19 overall, Sbisa is among a coterie of young players who are lending a decided whiff of teen spirit to the NHL. A combination of a deep 2008 draft and various team needs has landed nearly a dozen teenagers in NHL lockerrooms. Most years, there are four or five, if that.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," says Luke Schenn, the 19-year-old Maple Leafs defenseman who went fifth overall last June, "that the dream has come true that I'm playing in the NHL."
Or as Drew Doughty, the 22-minute-a-game, 18-year-old blueliner who may be the L.A. Kings' best player, says: "It's been awesome!"
Oh, there have been growing pains: Schenn is a minus-6, for example, and Sbisa, who played so steadily in preseason that Philadelphia cut loose veteran Bryan Berard to make room for him, is minus-4. But by and large this baby bunch is making an auspicious impression on its elders. "He's physically mature, he's emotionally mature," Toronto coach Ron Wilson says of Schenn.
Wilson likes having the teen up with the big club because, well, you send a kid to juniors and you just don't know what kind of crazy stuff he'll get into. "He might eat at McDonald's every night," said Wilson.
The coach has been impressed enough with Schenn's responsible play to send out him out among Toronto's top four defenseman each night. Schenn's teammates have been impressed with his edge. After Schenn, who goes at 6' 2" and 216 pounds, sought out Ottawa heavyweight Chris Neil last month and stood toe-to-toe trading punches with him (Neil had delivered a questionable hip check to Toronto's Matt Stajan, and Schenn didn't like it), the Leafs stood on the bench in appreciation. As forward Jamal Mayers later said: "He has some kohannas."
Those sizable attributes notwithstanding, Schenn has generally kept clear of dangerous contact, something not all teenage NHLers know to do.
"You live in fear of young players not being aware on the ice, of the tempo, the speed, the physical play," says Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, whose 19-year-old winger Jakub Voracek ranks fifth on the team with 11 points. "Three of the first eight guys [selected this year] have gotten dinged or hurt. The worry is that a player isn't ready for the seriousness of the play. Last year, Jake's awareness of sniffing out danger on the ice wasn't there yet. Now it's there."
Hitchcock dreads the kind of fate that befell Zach Bogosian, the 18-year-old Atlanta defenseman who is one science class shy of his high school diploma. Bogosian was becoming a blueine fixture until he got slammed into the boards by Philadelphia's 33-year-old roughneck Darroll Powe late last month. Now Bogosian's out until December with a broken leg.
Growing up can be hard to do in the NHL. Top pick Steven Stamkos, being nursed along in Tampa Bay, got a dose of humility after the team asked him to lead them onto the ice when the Lightning played in Toronto, his hometown. Out went Stamkos, in stayed the rest of the team, leaving their rosy cheeked 18-year to circle the ice by his lonesome.
Now there's some NHL exposure. This season, teenagers are getting plenty of it.