The Penguins changed the hockey world by doing the improbable – winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era with a plethora of young players in their first or second year. Teams across the league, and especially in the Metropolitan Division are copying the new model of success.
With young legs, the Penguins set a new standing for a fast, offensive style of hockey, where defensemen either fed the puck forward or join the rush.
The Metro Division is also following that lead, too.
The first place Devils are using a handful of players with little NHL experience. The Islanders also have two players who are potential game changers. The Flyers are in the mix with the number two overall draft pick Nolan Patrick and Robert Hagg. The Capitals lost defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, which opened space for rookie Christian Djoos.
So who are these kids?
No one could have predicted how well the Devils would be doing at the quarter post of the season. In fact, they are currently first in the Metro Division! There are two kids that are fueling this fire.
Will Butcher (Defense): Signed as an NCAA free agent, he has a lot of offensive upside. Butcher, 22, has a more than respectable two goals and 14 assists in 20 games. He is also a +7. Butcher is essentially a third pairing defenseman, but even with limited ice time, is producing amazing numbers.
Nico Hischier (Center): The first overall draft pick has made an immediate impact. Hischier, 18, is already a top-six center with the numbers to match. In just 19 games, the Swiss product has three goals and 12 assists.
What isn’t on the score sheet is his speed. He has that scary breakaway speed and a high hockey IQ. Combine that with his speed, and he is one dangerous opponent.
Nolan Patrick (center): The second overall pick has a fast, well-rounded game with the potential to be a top line center. The Winnipeg native has four points (2g, 2a) in 11 games. Staying healthy has been an issue.
Robert Hagg (Defense): The rookie d-man is currently on the top pairing on the Flyers top pairing. He is averaging just short of 20 minutes of ice time, per game. Hagg passes the eye test, but the advanced stats community doesn’t agree, as Hagg’s Corsi Against total is higher than most top pairing defensemen.
Mathew Barzal (center): Remember that night that Matt Duchene was traded and made a mid-game exit? That over-shadowed Mathew Barzal’s breakout game. Barzal had five assists and is currently the NHL leading rookie scorer. The kid from British Columbia has 19 points (4g, 15a) in 20 games. His emergence has given the Islanders a strong second line with scoring. He has the potential to be another fast, productive, two-way centerman.
Joshua Ho-Sang (right wing): His game might not be perfect yet, as is evident by his recent tour in the AHL despite notching four points in his first six NHL games this season, but Ho-Sang has a lot of offensive potential. The controversial youngster who also wears #66 could be a top-line winger. He has great offensive skills and speed. The knock on Ho-Sang has been work ethic, but those issues appear to be dissipating.
Christian Djoos (Defense): Remember this guy?
Christian Djoos might have one major issue: he only weighs 168 lbs. In almost every other aspect of his game, it’s all upside. He is fast, likes to join the rush, has good passing, overall stick and puck handling skills, especially for a rookie.
The Kids are All Right
The common threads with the wave of kids are speed and offensive potential. Teams must score to win the Metro Division. All of the new players are, in their own way, potential game changers for their respective teams.
Bonus round: The Penguins will not be outdone at their own game. There are a few young players marching toward the NHL…
Daniel Sprong (RW), Zach Aston-Reese (F) and Lukas Bengtsson (D). Perhaps next season, one of those players will be part of hockey’s young breakout. Given the Penguins success with young players, they will have a prime opportunity.