Three Cup contenders who will count on their kids
Four young players will try to help the Capitals become more defense-minded
Tyler Seguin's the story in Boston, but Johnny Boychuk's emergence is key
Rookie center Logan Couture of the Sharks should be in an ideal spot
In our third and final piece on the impact of the infusion of young players around the NHL, let's look at the top teams that are turning major roles and minutes over to up-and-comers.
In some respects, the nine young players below will have better situations than some of their peers who are on teams that will be battling just to get into the playoffs. They'll be on deep rosters and surrounded by veterans, so they won't have to carry their teams. Delivering in their specific roles and contributing to their teams' high expectations, more so than earning individual accolades, will define these young players during the upcoming campaign.
No elite club is counting on younger players in key positions more than the Caps. John Carlson stepped in late last year and showed he is a top four blueliner, despite still having his rookie status. Karl Alzner isn't as offensively flashy as Carlson, but this is his year to finally be in the backline corps' top-six mix after years as a top prospect. That could mean a lot of minutes on an offensively stocked team that's looking to develop a defensive consciousness in order to advance further in the postseason.
The Capitals will be even more intriguing in their own zone this season with the still largely unproven Semyon Varlamov and rookie Michal Neuvirth tending goal. Varlamov had an uneven, injury-riddled 2009-10 that saw him play only 26 regular season games after he burst on the scene by displaying some postseason excellence in the spring of 2009.
Neuvirth has backstopped the Hershey Bears to two Calder Cups in the AHL and he appeared in 17 games for the big club last season, so he could end up as the go-to guy in goal for the Capitals as his battle with Varlamov for playing time with unfolds. No matter what transpires through 82 games, the Capitals will hope that one of these 22-year-old netminders provides the answer to their often dicey situation in net come April.
They turned to rookie goalie Tuukka Rask to good effect a season ago. He led the NHL in save percentage and unseated veteran Vezina-winner Tim Thomas as the B's starter. This season, rookie center Tyler Seguin should have a similarly positive effect on a squad that many -- me included -- feel has the makings of a Stanley Cup contender. With Marco Sturm on long-term disability and Marc Savard still exhibiting post-concussion symptoms, Seguin begins the season as an integral part of the Bruins' attack scheme.
As I look at this team, though, defensemen Matt Hunwick and, particularly, Johnny Boychuk stand out as players who will play pivotal roles. Injuries on the backend last season opened up opportunities and the two young backliners took full advantage. Hunwick, 25, played a career high 76 games and Boychuk, 25, seemingly came out of nowhere to get into 51 as a rookie. The revelation came, though, when Boychuk went from playing under 18 minutes a night during the regular season to averaging over 26 in the playoffs. His emergence in part allowed GM Peter Chiarelli to deal Dennis Wideman to Florida for power forward Nathan Horton. This season, Boychuk will be a key cog on the Bruins' blueline.
As they continue to tinker with that ever-elusive formula of players who can take them to the Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks have two who should be main ingredients this season: centerman Logan Couture, 21, and defenseman Jason Demers, 22. Both saw substantial time last season as rookies.
Demers had some ups and downs during his inaugural NHL season, but he appeared in all of the Sharks' playoff games. With Rob Blake retired, there will be plenty of minutes to go around on San Jose's blueline this season. Couture is still rookie-eligible by one game despite playing in 25 during the regular season and 15 more in the postseason. Playing behind Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski is a perfect fit for the ninth overall pick in the 2007 draft. Couture plays an energetic, smart, two-way game, which is exactly what the Sharks need in that spot. He won't put up the eye-catching numbers needed to win the Calder Trophy, but that won't matter if the Sharks do indeed put it all together this season.