Why is this rookie crop making an impact? Preparation is key
"First of all, I think it's due to the draft class this year. As early as three years ago our guys were targeting that draft, that if you were picking in the top 10, you were going to get a guy that could probably step in and play in the NHL," Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com on Wednesday.
"They've proven beyond a doubt they're all fitting in nicely and they're all playing a part on their teams."
He's from the same NHL draft in June that produced the other 18-year-olds in the league this season: Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, Zach Bogosian of the Atlanta Thrashers, Luke Schenn of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nikita Filatov of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Luca Sbisa of the Philadelphia Flyers and Mikkel Boedker of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Last season, two 18-year-olds played the whole season. Only one played in 2006-07. The record is 10 from the 1983-84 season. Here's a look at those 18-year-olds who started that season and how they fared.
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"I think everybody in hockey knew that that was probably as good a draft as we've seen in a long time," said Kings GM Dean Lombardi. "You could have gone to maybe 9 or 10, and it wasn't out of the realm of fantasy to say the 10th pick in last year's draft could have arguably been No. 1 in a lot of years. That might be pushing it, but it's a strong class."
The crackdown on obstruction and hooking coming out of the lockout is seen by others as another reason less physically developed youngsters can compete with men. Just look at Chicago's Patrick Kane last season.
The downside of these 18-year-olds making the grade this quickly is that the collective-bargaining agreement states they can qualify for unrestricted free agency at 25. But most teams will find a way to sign most of these players to long-term extensions before then, which has been the trend in the past two years.
The record is 10 in 1983-84, and there were also eight the season before the 2004-05 lockout, but what people around the league seem to agree on is this class as a whole is more ready for the NHL.
"None of the kids that I've seen weren't capable of playing," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "We're not playing Luke Schenn for any other reason than he's been one of our best -- if not our best -- defensemen, period."
And the depth of the 2008 draft class is not the only reason these 18-year-olds made the jump.
"I think they're better prepared than they have been in the past," said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier. "The skill level of these kids is very high. I just think the training at the amateur level and the grassroots level continues to get better, and [it] better prepares them physically."
Lombardi, who still scouts as much as his GM duties allow, agrees with Regier. These teenagers are coming into the league more buff than the 18-year-old players of a decade ago.
"The kids are more physically trained," Lombardi said. "I think you see kids in junior hockey more and more realizing that nutrition and conditioning is important. Tied in to that is that when kids are drafted now, they are given a definitive program in terms of conditioning and nutrition. I see more of that than I did in the past with these kids, being physically ready. Not all of them, mind you."
Doughty, self-admittedly, wasn't quite up to the physical standards of some of his fellow 2008 prospects, but he made amends for that over the summer.
"I lost a bunch of weight and then I hit the gym pretty hard because, at this level, the guys are in the best shape in order to play at the best of their abilities," Doughty told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "So that's one thing I really had to work on this summer, just to get my fitness up.
"And I know at the NHL combines a lot of guys had great showings. So yes, I think that's definitely one of the main reasons [more 18-year-olds have made the jump]."
But it's not just physical fitness. What differentiates today's 18-year-old rookie is his understanding of the game.
"This crop that's come in now, I'm thoroughly impressed by everyone from Doughty to Luke Schenn and others, just how stable they are defensively," Gretzky said.
He's seen it firsthand in Boedker and also fellow 2008 first-rounder Viktor Tikhonov, who is 20 years old.
"They're young, but they've stepped right in," Gretzky said. "We know what they can do as players, but what I've been more impressed by is how they've been taught to protect the puck and how responsible defensively they are. I think that's the hardest transition for a young guy, is learning to play defensive hockey. You can tell Tikhonov has had good teaching in Russia and you can tell Boedker, coming from Peter DeBoer in Kitchener [now coach in Florida], has been coached outstanding.
"It makes it a little bit easier for them to step in. We know what they can do with the puck, but to be so far ahead without the puck and know their responsibilities defensively is just a bonus at that age."
To Lombardi, what's even more impressive is that five of the eight 18-year-old rookies are defensemen, who traditionally take longer to develop than forwards.
"It's really incredible," Lombardi said. "It's tough for young defensemen. It's one thing for a forward to be doing it; for a defenseman, it's pretty special. It was a pretty special class for defensemen."
Wilson argues it's easier to coach an 18-year-old player because he doesn't have the "bad habits" of a veteran that need to be weeded out. Regier says in many ways the coaching is so good in today's game that 18-year-old players can more easily fit into a team's system.
"Age is more beneficial where there's more thinking in the game," Regier said. "Youth is more beneficial when there's more speed in the game. You have a game right now that, when you turn the puck over, most teams backcheck through the middle, most teams collapse through the front of the net, and so the young kids can quickly get back in position and stay in position."
Another factor is the polishing of skills. Some kids have different coaches for different parts of the game.
"I can remember interviewing [Wojtek] Wolski [who plays for Colorado] for the draft and he told us that he had a 'moves' coach," Regier said. "And I knew it had nothing to do with dancing. There are coaches out there that have taken niches of the game and broken them down and are teaching how to have success in certain areas of the game."
They're bigger, they're stronger, they're more skilled. But they're still 18.
"You go from playing against 16- and 17-year-olds, guys in Grade 11 in high school, to coming here," Schenn marveled. "The first thing I noticed was that, after practice, guys go home to their families. They have kids. So you are playing with and against men, there's no question."
Doughty says it's been unbelievable, and somewhat surreal.
"Just growing up watching these guys, it's kind of cool playing against some of my favorite players," he said. "It's just something you really can't explain. But now I know when I'm out there, I can't just be watching them in awe. I have to play hard against them and make sure they can't do anything to get by me. But it's different, and it's definitely a task. I love it."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.