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Boy Wonders
Michael Farber
May 22, 2000
Rookies have made their marks in postseasons past, but the depth and quality of the current crop of first-year players makes observers wonder whether this is the start of a youthful trend
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May 22, 2000

Boy Wonders

Rookies have made their marks in postseasons past, but the depth and quality of the current crop of first-year players makes observers wonder whether this is the start of a youthful trend

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The crowd at First Union Center in Philadelphia on Sunday toasted the Flyers' goalie with a throaty roar. While there is always a danger of misinterpreting 19,779 patrons in a city so demanding that when Phillies games are rained out fans drive to the airport to jeer at bad landings, it was clear they were braying "Booouch," and not "Boooo," in honor of 23-year-old Brian Boucher. Boucher, who was beaten high by New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer on the first shot in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, was being saluted because he had thwarted rookie center John Madden on a breakaway with Philadelphia trailing 3-1 in the first minute of the third period. Boucher used an aggressive poke-check to force Madden wide, and then, while sprawling on his back, he flailed his legs Hasek-style to block the shot. The save, one of 20, allowed the beleaguered Flyers to hang close in Game 1 longer than they deserved.

"Our game plan was to see what [ Boucher] had," Madden would say later. "Get traffic around him. Get shots on him. Move him side to side. I made a good move on the breakaway. He made a better save. He played well. He answered the questions."

In the end Boucher's highlight-reel stop would hardly matter. Less than five minutes later, with Philadelphia rookie defenseman Andy Delmore in the penalty box for high-sticking, wing Claude Lemieux hammered home the game's final goal from just outside Boucher's crease, a sequence of ticktacktoe passing that had been initiated by first-year center Scott Gomez. Yes. Another rookie.

The postseason will always be about goaltending and special teams and courage. These are among the verities that make hockey puff its chest every spring, but the back story of the 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs is the children's crusade. The rookies are all over the hockey landscape this May, playing prominent roles and playing in all situations. Given the influx of skilled, if not spectacular, first-year players in 1999-2000, this could be the NHL's new natural order or, at the very least, a phenomenon bordering on an honest-to-goodness trend.

Rookies are being trusted for a lot more than just remembering to bring a credit card to their initiation dinners. Brenden Morrow had been providing the left wing muscle on the defending Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars' No. 1 line until he broke his right ankle last Saturday in the final minutes of the 2-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The injury will sideline the 21-year-old Morrow, a key component in Dallas's attempt to become a younger, quicker team, for the remainder of the playoffs. Martin Skoula, a 20-year-old who is playing in place of the injured Raymond Bourque, has been a revelation on Colorado's No. 1 defense pair with Adam Foote, and third-line left wing Alex Tanguay, also 20, has a game-winner among his two playoff goals for the Avalanche. The 25-year-old Madden's speed and almost maniacal penalty-killing style have increased his playoff ice time by more than four minutes to almost 16 per game, temporarily surpassing the 20-year-old Gomez, the Devils' other prized rookie forward and presumptive Calder Trophy winner. The 26-year-old Brian Rafalski's slickness with the puck has been a worthy complement to the banging of Scott Stevens on New Jersey's top defense pair. For the Flyers, Del-more, 23, has as many playoff hat tricks as Bobby Orr (one) and, through Sunday, as many goals this spring (five) as the combined total of teammate Rick Tocchet, Colorado's Joe Sakic and New Jersey's Alexander Mogilny, a trio that has accounted for more than 1,000 NHL goals. Meanwhile, the Flyers' 20-year-old center Simon Gagne has been especially effective when given the extra time and space the Philly power play affords.

The NHL has been graced before with memorable playoff performances from rookies young enough to think that Where the Wild Things Are is a children's book by Maurice Sendak and not a description of the home crowd at Flyers games. Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 1971 even before becoming rookie of the year in 1971-72; wing Dino Ciccarelli scored 14 goals in 19 games in taking the Minnesota North Stars to the 1981 Stanley Cup finals; the pot-stirring Lemieux and goalie Patrick Roy helped push the brash Canadiens, a team with 10 rookies, to a surprise Cup victory in 1986 (page 57); and Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall won the Conn Smythe the following spring even though the Edmonton Oilers beat the Flyers for the Cup in seven games. The list is impressive, though not long. These performances seemed to exist in a vacuum, wild spikes on an otherwise unremarkable graph. Now first-year players seem to be woven into the fabric of the playoffs.

"What you're seeing with rookies is the domino effect, like it was with European goalies," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello says. "The belief was, European goalies weren't good enough to play here; then Dominik Hasek plays great when he finally gets the chance, and now everybody's looking for European goalies. Same with rookies. A couple of rookies had success—you see what [ Colorado's Chris] Drury did last year [scoring six goals as the Avalanche reached Game 7 of the conference finals]—and teams look to their own kids a little more. I also think the young guys these days are more capable of sustaining their success because they aren't being greeted as the next Messiah. The most consistent teams allow their kids to grow slowly."

If Philly's Delmore and New Jersey's Rafalski had been growing any slower, the next call would not have been to their agents but to an old-folks home. They were undrafted free agents who took wildly divergent paths, Rafalski traveling thousands of miles for his opportunity and Delmore wandering a little more than 200 yards.

Delmore shuttled between the Flyers and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, six times this season, going side to side as much as up and down considering that the Phantoms play in the Spectrum, across the street from First Union Center. "That's the world's longest 200 yards," Delmore says, "but when you finally get here for good, it seems a lot shorter."

Delmore had grown accustomed to disappointment. He bought a nice suit in advance of the 1995 draft, flying to Edmonton in anticipation of being picked late in the second round, or perhaps the third, and getting on TV. He sat in disbelief as nine rounds and 234 names were called—none of them his. The knock on the strong-skating, hard-shooting Delmore was an unexceptional hockey IQ and occasional problems with defensive positioning, flaws that hindered him when Roger Neilson was still coaching Philadelphia. But less than a week after Neilson left the team in late February to prepare for cancer treatment, the Flyers, undermanned because of an injury to Ulf Samuelsson, summoned Delmore. Interim coach Craig Ramsay, who was impressed with Delmore's speed, kept doling out important minutes to him.

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