For the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue jackets, there was a dollop of good news last week: Britney Spears was back on the market after her 55-hour marriage, which means the club's 19-year-old left wing, Rick Nash, has a shot. Of course, Nash has always had a shot—he had an NHL-leading 25 goals through Sunday—but now he has a shot. Nash, who is unattached and dashing in a high-school-prom-picture sort of way, is razzed regularly by teammates for his fascination with Spears. But Nash is unfazed and says he knows he could have "a great relationship and trust" if only they could meet. He might not be able to guarantee her TV specials, but he could arrange between-periods interviews on Fox Sports Net Ohio. � If the NHL does a little navel gazing itself, it will find that despite the continued excellence of 43-year-old New York Rangers captain Mark Messier and the AARP All-Stars on the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL is being dominated by young players. It's the nature of sports that some kids who grow up with posters of athletes on their bedroom walls one day replace the players they worshipped, but this NHL generational shift has been tectonic. Fresh faces such as Nash's, who was the first pick in the 2002 draft, have made the learning curve flatter than Saskatchewan.
Given the opportunity in a bloated league that expanded from 21 to 30 teams over the last 12 years, Nash and his contemporaries readied themselves for the NHL by starting regimented off-ice training at a young age. That plus a recent shift in attitude toward allowing teens to develop while in the league as well as the economics of marketing future stars have given youngsters a chance to succeed earlier than previous generations had.
This new generation was announced informally at the 2003 All-Star Game when 22-year-old right wing Dany Heatley of the Atlanta Thrashers scored five goals. (Heatley has missed this season because of injuries suffered in a September car crash that killed his passenger and teammate Dan Snyder.) Three of the top five goal scorers at midseason—Nash, Atlanta left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (22) and Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk (21)—all have played fewer than 200 NHL games. The average age of the top 10 NHL scorers has dipped from 30.8 in 2001-02 to 28.6 the last two years. Also, the Team Canada roster that won the 2002 Olympic gold medal could undergo as much as a 50% turnover for this summer's World Cup as Nash, Heatley and 20-year-old Florida Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, among others, elbow their way onto the club.
The NHL always will be a man's league, as general managers are fond of saying, but those G.M.'s are increasingly putting top draft picks to the test in their first training camps and leaving them on NHL rosters. The 1997 decisions by the Boston Bruins and the San Jose Sharks to keep the first two choices in the draft, centers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, respectively, instead of returning them to juniors raised eyebrows then, but within three seasons both teams looked prescient. The first four choices in the June 2003 draft began the season or are currently playing in the NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andr� Fleury, centers Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes and Nathan Horton of the Panthers, and Jackets right wing Nikolai Zherdev. They have been joined by others from their draft class, including Minnesota Wild forward Brent Burns, the 20th pick, and Boston forward Patrice Bergeron, the 45th selection.
"When you get a difference maker, which Nash is, I'd get him in there as quickly as I could," says Columbus general manager Doug MacLean, who stepped down as Blue Jackets coach on Jan. 1. "When I was coaching, I wanted to call his name on every shift." Even as MacLean and Nash's agent, Gord Kirke, were trying to hammer out a deal in October 2002 that would spare Nash from playing another season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, the Jackets were selling tickets to the season opener with Nash's picture printed on them. (The parties agreed on a three-year contract worth a potential $12.1 million, and Nash played and scored in the opener.)
There is an economic reason for some clubs to keep high draft choices on the team—"You have so much invested, you want to keep an eye on them, almost like your child," says Wild assistant G.M. Tom Thompson—but MacLean did not need to watch Nash as much as the 17,000-plus fans who regularly attend Columbus matches did. For a three-year-old franchise in a gate-driven league, a glimpse of the Jackets' future was paramount. As MacLean puts it, " Rick Nash, the Number 1 pick, was instantly the biggest hockey name in Ohio. Like any other business, we're desperate for that kind of marquee guy."
With the league growing more receptive to putting elite 18-year-olds on a fast track, the new draftees were ready to meet the challenge. Over the past five years draft-age players, often schooled by national development programs and spurred on by their agents, have been better prepared for pro hockey than any previous generation. The same kind of conditioning that is prolonging the careers of NHL veterans is also hustling more young players into prominent roles. "We used to jog a little in the summer and play some softball and think we were in good shape," says new Columbus coach Gerard Gallant, who began his 11-year NHL career in 1984. "Now at 16, these kids are on teams with strength and conditioning coaches."
As a 13-year-old, Nash spent a week with his Toronto-based team at a conditioning camp and went to a similar camp two years later. When he was 16, Kirke's agency arranged for him to work out on a regular basis with former NHL forward Mike Mar-son, who incorporates martial arts into his training. "I'd be doing 1,500 sit-ups and 500 push-ups, and he'd be doing it right alongside me," Nash says. "I look back and wonder how I did it. But if you wanted to [play pro hockey] the rest of your life, this is what it took."
Nash was 6'3" and 188 pounds when MacLean traded up to draft him, and over the past 18 months he has added one inch and 20 pounds to his frame. Last year, Nash says, he was dazzled not by NHL play but by NHL life, such as the swank hotels and the equipment men who did all the dirty work. But he quickly settled in, getting his own apartment as an 18-year-old instead of staying with a host family, coping with the quotidian stuff his college-age contemporaries have yet to tackle.
Nash, who scored 17 times as a rookie in 2002-03, surpassed MacLean's first-year expectations by five goals despite playing just 14 minutes per game on the third line. MacLean forecast a 25-goal season for him in '03-04, another myopic prediction. Nash, who was averaging 17:28 minutes per game through Sunday, had scored 30.1% of the Blue Jackets' goals; in the past 60 years, only four other players have accounted for more than 25% of their team's goals. That list is topped by Pavel Bure, who tallied 29.5% of the goals by the '00-01 Panthers.