New wave of talent ready to take stage
Later, they might simply remember this as the spring the kids took over the playoff garden.
Or maybe they'll remember it as the spring the bloom returned to places like Chicago or Boston or St. Louis.
Or maybe there's simply no way to separate the two; maybe they are inexorably linked.
Whatever your vantage point as these NHL playoffs begin, this stands as a seminal moment for the NHL in its fourth playoff season since the lockout, a nod to a new wave of talent and a return of the old markets.
"Actually, I think it's the year of the return of the big city," John Shannon, longtime hockey producer and NHL executive vice president of production and programming, told ESPN.com on the eve of the playoffs. "All of a sudden, we're in a situation where it's actually less about players and more about the team. It's the first time in a long time, for me. That's not to say there aren't great young players."
Chicago, St. Louis and Boston are all back, and back with a vengeance. The Bruins captured the top seed in the Eastern Conference; the Blackhawks rolled into their first playoff berth since 2002 with home-ice advantage and realistic hopes of capturing their first playoff series victory in more than a decade. Then there are the Blues, one of the most compelling stories this season, less than three years removed from drafting Erik Johnson first overall and being roundly ignored by their fans.
When former NHL netminder and broadcaster John Davidson arrived as Blues president in 2006-07, the team sold out four games. One game was all-you-can-eat night at Scottrade Center and another was Brett Hull's sweater retirement night. This season, the team sold out 29 games as it stormed to the NHL's best second-half record.
"That's the biggest story for us," Davidson told ESPN.com as he jetted to Vancouver where the Blues will open their first playoff series since the end of the lockout. "These people have fallen in love with our team."
In many ways, this Blues team is at the crossroads of youth and rebirth; they are inexorably linked.
Even though Erik Johnson didn't play a game this year after ruining his knee in a freak golf-cart incident in the preseason, the Blues' reconnection with their fans is built on the effort and promise shown by players like T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund, who are among 10 forwards who are 26 or younger.
"It's just so pure and natural, and it's people of all ages," Davidson said of the relationship between the fans and this team. "It's a hockey city, and the fans just wanted to be treated honestly, and they wanted some hope."
The Blues overcame a series of potentially crippling injuries and rode their young guns to not just a playoff berth, but also a sixth seed, rewarding fans and justifying the team's patient plans for rebuilding the franchise.
If the rewards of youth and patience are being profoundly felt in St. Louis after three straight playoff misses, imagine the scene that will greet the Chicago Blackhawks when they take the ice for their first playoff game since 2002.
"You just kind of feel 'finally,' because you've worked so hard," Chicago GM Dale Tallon said in a recent interview. "It's going to be a fun spring, finally."
Tallon would normally be planning to go to the World Championships and wondering about adding free agents and draft picks after another season out of the playoffs. "I look forward to every day now," he said.
The Blackhawks saw their season-ticket base jump from 3,500 to 14,000 before the start of this season, and fans have embraced the franchise after years of dormancy. The only question was whether the young team could reward the fans on the ice.
Charging into the playoffs after going undefeated in regulation in April, sweeping defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit on the final weekend and securing home-ice advantage might be just the start of the payback.
"It kind of tells you you're doing the right thing," Tallon said.
• How about Columbus netminder Steve Mason, who might attract attention not just as rookie of the year, but as the league's top netminder and most valuable player? Did we mention the Blue Jackets will play in the franchise's first playoff game against Detroit this week?
• Or 21-year-old Philadelphia forward Claude Giroux, whose appearance on the ice prompts cries of "Girooooooo" from the Wachovia Center faithful.
• Or Anaheim's big rookie Bobby Ryan, who wasn't on the Ducks' opening-night roster because of salary-cap issues but still managed to lead all rookie scorers with 57 points in 64 games.
"I'm amazed at him. What a player," Shannon said.
Kind of makes guys like Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby look like grizzled veterans, even though the NHL's three top scorers are all kids themselves. In fact, in a couple of years, it's gone from Crosby and Ovechkin's being the faces of the new NHL, the touchstone for fans across the NHL landscape, to a host of teams that have captured the enthusiasm of fans.
Go ahead, Shannon challenges: Pick three players to put on your NHL marketing poster.
"Gosh, I have a difficult time. I think there are 10 or 12 guys," he said. "Those guys are going to have really prominent roles [in these playoffs]."
Tallon had a unique perspective on the infusion of youthful talent and dramatic resurgence of the game's profile in his city. He was a top draft pick himself, the second overall pick in the 1970 draft.
"Young players are so much more advanced than what we were at their age," Tallon said. "They have so much more confidence, and they have so much more exposure to everything."
Part of it is the talent. That's there in abundance. There's also the continued enforcement of rules that prevent hooking, holding and obstructing, allowing skilled players -- and, specifically, smaller skilled players -- like the Blackhawks' defending rookie of the year Kane, to excel. In the past, Tallon said, "Guys would have been tired. Now they don't get worn down. You don't see much of that anymore."
National analyst and former NHL coach Pierre McGuire covers the World Junior Championship for TSN every year. He recalled talking to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman before the end of the lockout and saying if the NHL was a stock, he'd be buying it based on the talent coming down the pipe.
"The young players have carried the day in the league," McGuire told ESPN.com. He said the league has never seen a time when so many young players have played such key roles with their teams. "Basically, the bucket is full in terms of talent."
Davidson, too, marvels at what he sees set to unfold in NHL rinks this spring.
"When you look around the league -- these first-year and second-year kids -- I've been around this league since 1973 and this is the best I've ever seen," he said. "They don't take a back seat to anybody. And this league is really, I think, in good hands, real good hands because of that youth."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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