Keep your eye on the kids
In the salary cap era, championship hopes rest on young, talented core players
As many as seven of 2010's top 10 draft picks could stick in the NHL this season
Mark Fraser of the Devils topped my five under-the-radar rookie successes
Last time out, I wrote about how the salary cap era has created a growing reliance on young players at the core of many NHL teams and that the great expectations in Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago are based on the skill of groups who are under the age of 25. Hopes might not be as high as the Presidents' Trophy or Stanley Cup in St. Louis, Colorado and Los Angeles, but those teams' goals for the upcoming season also rest on an emerging nucleus of young players.
Many teams are heading down the road of "draft and dress" when it comes to building their rosters. In Edmonton, Taylor Hall, the first overall draft pick this summer, leads the way with as many as seven of the first 10 selections possibly sticking in the NHL this season at age 18.
In Hall's situation, it's obvious that the Oilers are in a complete rebuild mode and as such he will get plenty of ice time -- just like the previous overall number one pick, John Tavares, did last season on Long Island. As this year's second overall pick, Tyler Seguin of the Boston Bruins will be a nice addition to an established team that doesn't have to rush his development. But while Hall, Seguin and Tavares are big names by virtue of their draft status, there are always unsung kids who begin to play vital, valuable roles for their teams. Given the premium placed on young, less expensive talent, unheralded upstart stories are now one of the more interesting and important developments.
This season, keep an eye on the progress of my top five under-the-radar rookie successes from 2009-10 (the Colorado Avalanche deserve a list of their own):
1. Mark Fraser, D, New Jersey Devils
2. Ryan Wilson, D Colorado Avalanche
3. Peter Regin, C, Ottawa Senators
4. Scott Parse, RW, Los Angeles Kings
5. Cody Franson, D, Nashville Predators
Fraser, in particular, is an example of how youth can play a role in a place like New Jersey or Detroit where assembling veteran teams is still how those organizations prefer to operate. A 6' 3", 220-pound, stay-at-home defenseman, Fraser is a prototypical Devil who had become so invisible during his three seasons at Lowell of the AHL that team brass practically had to be reminded of who he was. The Devils' third-round (84th overall) pick in 2005, he was running out of minor league options if the big club didn't have a place for him. What was the organization going to do with him?
Given a chance in New Jersey last season, Fraser played 61 games on the Devils' third pairing and made a smooth transition to the NHL, distinguishing himself as a dependable defender and solid depth option heading into this season. Fraser, who turns 24 on Sept. 29, will still be the youngest blueliner on the team this season and the second youngest player on the roster if winger Vladimir Zharkhov makes the squad. With the Devils adding veteran defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, Fraser's is now uncertain. His rookie season, however, certainly proved that he could play at the NHL level, and his value has grown now that the Devils need to create cap space in the wake of Ilya Kovalchuk's new contract.
In Detroit, the Red Wings have worked in some young players, particularly goaltender Jimmy Howard and defenseman Jonathan Ericsson last season. This season might see defenseman Jakub Kindl, 23, or winger Mattias Rittola, 23, in the mix. And Jiri Hudler is back after a KHL hiatus following an arbitration case that didn't go to his liking.
Having Hudler again has to be to the liking of coach Mike Babcock. Hudler, 26, is a versatile player who is adept in many situations and at all forward positions. His combination of skill and versatility gives the Wings and Babcock a little more of each than they had last season -- all in one player who carries a reasonable price tag of $2.875 million. That makes Hudler a big part of why the Red Wings should be stronger than they were last season and closer to the team that finished the regular schedule on a roll than the one that skidded into the Olympic break.
Everywhere you look this season, you'll see kids starting to blossom, and for teams trying to win while they navigate the cap, that's a great blessing.