By JOSH DUBOW
The Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Calif. — It is only fitting that Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon are serving as captains for this weekend’s NHL All-Star game.
The three high-scoring forwards are 23 or younger. They are part of a youth movement that is taking over the NHL and will be on center stage when the league’s best players gather at the Shark Tank for their annual midseason celebration.
“It’s a young man’s league,” said Chicago forward Patrick Kane, now an elder statesman at age 30. “These guys come in and maybe in the past your prime was 26, 27 or 28. Now your prime is maybe 22, 23 or 24. It’s definitely become a younger man’s game. A lot of teams these days are expecting their young draft picks and younger kids to come in and help the team right away. You’ll see more of these young guys get a chance.”
Scoring is on pace for its highest mark in more than two decades heading into the All-Star break, thanks in large part to some skilled youngsters who will be on display this weekend like the three All-Star captains along with the league’s leading scorer, 25-year-old Nikita Kucherov of Tampa Bay, and 25-year-old Calgary star Johnny Gaudreau.
None of the league’s top six scorers heading into the break has turned 26 and there are more All-Star skaters this weekend 22 and younger (11) than in their 30s (8). In all, 58 percent of the goals in the NHL this season have been scored by players 26 or younger.
“That’s just the way the game is trending,” Matthews said. “It seems a lot younger now, a lot faster, more speed and more skill. A lot of younger guys are coming in and making an impact immediately. That wasn’t the case in years past but it’s kind of changing now. It’s pretty fun to see.”
The league had long been looking to increase scoring by reducing the size of goalie pads, among other rules changes, and it seems to have finally materialized. Teams head into the break averaging 3.03 goals per game, which is on pace for the highest-scoring season since the 3.14 in 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were still among the league’s biggest stars.
There’s still a long way to go to get back to the level of the go-go 1980s, which featured a single-season team average of 4.01 goals per game in 1981-82 — the highest in the league since the end of World War II.
But there has been an 18 percent increase in scoring since the post-expansion low of 2.57 goals per game for teams in 2003-04, before a lockout canceled the following season and led to rule changes.
“The game’s being run by the twentysomethings now,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “Players have a positive arrogance when they come into the league that they can do anything and they try it. That’s what makes them so good. They’re not sitting there saying this might not be the right thing to do in this situation. Players are trying it and that’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing with the skill level in this game. These players are so good.”
There was a big jump in the first year back in 2005-06 thanks to a crackdown on stick work and obstruction that led to more power plays. But scoring fell gradually in the ensuing years and was down to 2.67 three years ago before starting to rise again.
An influx of young stars like McDavid, Matthews, Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Vancouver rookie Elias Pettersson helped contribute to the 13 percent jump in scoring in a three-year span.
“I came in the league out of college and I was 22 or 23 and I was the youngest guy on the team,” Columbus 29-year-old forward Cam Atkinson said. “Now it’s unheard of if you don’t have two or three guys under the age of 20. It’s great for the sport. It’s a fast game and that’s what the fans want.”
The surge hasn’t been limited to the youngsters. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 37 at age 33 and was slated to be the fourth captain this weekend before deciding to stay home and rest.
Hometown favorites Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks are also among the players posting big numbers this season. Burns leads all defensemen with 55 points, and Pavelski is tied for ninth with 27 goals, putting him on pace for a career-high 42 at age 34.