18-year olds don't belong in the NHL

This week's starting lineup, 18-year-olds in the NHL and an explanation of the umbrella power play.

Updated: October 31, 2003, 8:44 PM ET
By Barry Melrose | Special to ESPN.com

Open Ice

Have you noticed all the 18-year-olds on the ice?

Marc-Andre Fleury
The Penguins had to sign Marc-Andre Fleury or he would have re-entered the draft.
So far, eight 18-year-olds have played at least one game in the NHL this season. There's Patrice Bergeron in Boston, Brent Burns in Minnesota (injured), Milan Michalek in San Jose (injured), Eric Staal in Carolina, Dustin Brown in L.A., Dan Fritsche in Columbus, Nathan Horton in Florida, and Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh.

Each team has its own reason for pressing them into action. But overall, I personally believe we hurt players bringing them into the NHL at such a young age. While they should be on their junior clubs playing 25 minutes a night and playing 75-100 games a year, they're sitting on the benches of NHL teams.

It's also too much pressure for a young player to deal with. I remember a few years ago when the Rangers had Manny Malhotra as an 18-year old rookie. The Rangers were going to build their team around him and instead traded him a few years later to the Dallas Stars when he didn't pan out.

Another example is Boston Bruins' star Joe Thornton, when he came into the league he played terribly. If he wasn't a strong, tough individual the pressure to be great could've eaten him alive.

But not only does it hurt the players, but it also hurts junior hockey in Canada. Instead of having their best players playing and making those around them better players, they lose their stars before they're ready for the NHL.

I know why the general managers of the league make this decision, they want to make themselves and their scouts look good. If their top draft pick is on the ice on opening night, then it must mean the scouts did a great job right?

Not always. It also could mean they've rushed a kid along and put him in the spotlight way too early.


This week's starting lineup

Martin Biron
Biron
Goaltender
Martin Biron, Buffalo Sabres: He won three straight on the road -- allowing only four goals -- including a 3-1 win at Colorado, where he stopped 32-of-33 shots. He's doing a wonderful job in goal.

Defensemen
Nick Boynton, Boston Bruins: He's turned into the Bruins' all-around guy. He's playing almost 25 minutes a game, has a plus-minus rating of plus-7 and has four assists. The Bruins can't ask for much more.

Marek Zidlicky, Nashville Predators: He's come out of nowhere to contribute seven points in eight games. Even though the Predators are 3-5, they've been in every game. No one thought the Predators would play this well and he's partially the reason why.

Forwards
Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers: He's been a mainstay in my starting lineup and he's earned it. He leads the league with 10 goals and has turned into the on-ice leader of this team.

Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators: As always, he's playing great defense (he's plus-5) and he has five goals to go with it. Without a doubt, the Senators are the best team in the Eastern Conference and Alfreddson is a major reason why they've lost only one game in regulation.

Cory Stillman, Tampa Bay Lightning: He's done a great job taking the heat off Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis with seven points and good defense. He's getting the job done for the Lightning.


Puckology

Check out the different formation teams use on the power play. When you see three players along the top half of the zone, they're in the umbrella formation. There will be one player at the top of this umbrella, moving back and forth along the blue line, and two players a little bit lower on each side. The other two players are down low, jockeying for position and causing traffic in front of the net.

This formation allows the players on the sides to one-time the puck if they have the chance and if not they can kick the puck up top for a clearer shot at the goal. The player at the top of the umbrella has to be able to shoot very well, as well as pass and play defense. Playing defense is probably the most important part because that player will be the last line of defense if the penalty-killing team is able to get the puck past the other players.

In the umbrella, teams have numerous shooting options from different angles and it's very hard to defend with just two players (the other two players are defending down low). Also, teams are less likely to be able to consistently block shots because of the different options they are faced with defending.

However, in this formation, a team doesn't outnumber the opposition down low. If there's a loose puck around the goal, there aren't extra numbers and the penalty-killing team has a better opportunity to dig the puck out. Also, it's difficult to find a player who can skate, shoot, pass and play defense well enough to handle the top of the umbrella position.

Detroit and Atlanta are able to play the umbrella on a regular basis with Nicklas Lidstrom and Kovalchuk, respectively. These two players have the skills necessary to play the top position. Many teams try and play the umbrella for a little while during a shift, but don't have the personnel to maintain it.


Alexei Kovalev
The Rangers have to show a commitment to defense for their talent to flourish.
E-mail bag

Hey, Barry:
I'm a native New Yorker and was wondering why when a good player like Alexei Kovalev comes to New York (or leaves and comes back) does he stink?
-- Ray, Johnstown, PA

Ray, the problem the past few seasons has been that the Rangers haven't had a structured system. They felt they could just throw a great amount of money and talent on the ice and make it happen. But that's not how it works in hockey.

For instance, last season the New Jersey Devils didn't have the best talent in their conference, much less the league, but they still won the Stanley Cup because of a commitment to defense and team chemistry.

That's something the Rangers front office hasn't seemed to want to embrace until this season. The past six years, no one on this team has checked or played any defense and that's why they haven't made the playoffs. Right now, the Rangers are saying the right things about defense and checking. Time will tell though if they are able to maintain their commitment and if shows up on the ice.

Hey, Barry:
Is there anyone in the NHL who can handle the puck better than Sergei Samsonov?
-- Brian, Johnstown, PA

Sergei is an unbelievable talent and he reminds me a lot of Marcel Dionne. But right now there are a great amount of puck handlers in the NHL today. Off the top of my head, I think Peter Forsberg and Kovalchuk may be better puck handlers. Don't get me wrong though, Samsonov is a great player and definitely a guy I love to watch handle the puck.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He'll answer selected questions submitted to his e-mail bag each week.

Barry Melrose

NHL studio analyst
Former NHL player and coach Barry Melrose is an NHL studio analyst for ESPN.