Over the past three or four years, the NHL has become a young man's game. That said, something is distinctly different about the early stages of this season that suggests we might have opened a door to a new frontier, where Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and others are not only commanding attention, but are forever changing the NHL landscape.
Every week we'll look at young players who are on a roll and others who need to step it up. Behold, the under-24 player rankings.
As of Friday, three of the league's top six point producers were 20 years of age or younger (McDavid, Matthews and William Nylander), but it's hard to ignore the way McDavid has come out of the gate for the red-hot Oilers. After being named captain before the season, McDavid hasn't missed a beat and has 11 points in seven games while averaging 21:09 in ice time. What impresses me is that McDavid has eight even-strength points as the 6-1-0 Oilers have beaten some of the league's elite teams while moving to first place in the Pacific Division and top spot in the Western Conference. It's been a long time since that's happened for the Oilers.
It's been an up-and-down start for the Jets, who have yet to win back-to-back games this season. But if they're going to get back in the playoffs, it's clear Laine, the No. 2 pick in June, is going to lead them. The big 18-year-old Finn with the big shot has six goals, tied for the league lead and most among rookies, along with two assists for eight points in seven games. His 19:12 in average ice time is the most among rookie forwards.
The 19-year-old London, Ontario, native has been a revelation to the youthful Flyers, with seven points in eight games, fourth among all rookies. The slight (he's listed as 5-foot-10, 175 pounds) center has points in six of eight games, and head coach Dave Hakstol continues to show confidence in the 24th-overall pick from 2015, moving him up the lineup and expanding his ice time.
Sometimes it's easy to think of Gibson as a grizzled veteran in spite of the fact the 39th-overall pick in 2011 is just 23. But after hiccups to start his career, the highly touted goalie is now in a position where he has to step up for the Ducks. With backup Jonathan Bernier out with an injury, Gibson has to prove he's got the goods and consistency to lead a talented team like the Ducks. Gibson started slowly but has gone 3-0-1 in his past four appearances. He's got to keep performing to keep the doubters at bay.
After an impressive training camp that saw the 16th-overall pick in 2015 stick with the big club, Barzal, 19, has managed to get into just two of the Islanders' first six games and is back to being a healthy scratch after a game against the Montreal Canadiens in which a Barzal turnover led to a goal. There were also other defensive issues. The Islanders are off to a 3-5 start and coach Jack Capuano told reporters he can't keep experimenting with his forward lines and needs to find continuity, although he wouldn't cite Barzal's miscues as the reason for his return to the press box.
One might have expected the Panthers to struggle, especially offensively, without top six forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau, who are lost long-term to injury. And they have, losing two in a row, giving the defending Atlantic Division champions a 3-3-1 record. In the absence of those players, the Panthers will be looking for their leaders to fill the void. And although former rookie of the year Ekblad leads the team in average ice time at 24:12, playing mostly against opposing teams' top offensive units, he has struggled on the offensive side of the puck. Ekblad, 20, has one goal and zero assists, his lone score coming on the power play. The Panther power play, by the way, is 22nd in the league.
Young Guns Showdown
Much is expected from defenseman Stecher, 22, after an outstanding training camp, and he'll get a chance to earn his keep in a prominent role as he gets just his second NHL start Friday, likely playing against the NHL's leading scorer. Coach Willie Desjardins told reporters in Vancouver that Stecher, who signed as a free agent with the hometown Canucks after three years at the University of North Dakota, will likely be paired with veteran Alexander Edler against the Oilers' top offensive unit, led by McDavid. A solid showing Friday would put Stecher in line for a repeat performance Saturday against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.