After making his playoff debut at age 19 and winning the Stanley Cup at 20, Brandon Saad knows all about the value of youth in the NHL postseason.
He looks at 18-year-old Kirby Dach and 19-year-old Adam Boqvist now and is glad to have them as Chicago Blackhawks teammates.
”To be that young and to be able to hold their own and contribute, we’re happy to have them,” Saad said.
More than a dozen players age 20 younger are benefiting from an extra few months of maturation and thriving in the most unique playoffs in NHL history. Dach and Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes each have four assists, Andrei Svechnikov led Carolina with five points in a three-game sweep and youngsters Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi have been among Montreal’s best players.
Turns out summer hockey is a very young man’s game.
”A lot of times, those guys get worn down as the year goes on,” Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton said. ”They were able to have a couple months off and regroup and get some training in and get their rest and come in fresh and older. They’ve used that to their advantage.”
The 2020 playoffs are a showcase of youth, speed and skill. Experience is still valuable in the chase for the Cup, but coaches aren’t worried about throwing teenagers into the fire.
”I’ll err with the youth,” said Columbus coach John Tortorella, who has teenage forwards Alexander Texier and Liam Foudy in his lineup. ”I like guys that just go out and play, make some mistakes but they don’t worry about it.”
Or don’t make many mistakes at all.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien showed that in Game 1 against Pittsburgh when he sent Suzuki out as the only forward in a 3-on-5 penalty-killing situation. Julien said Suzuki hit a wall before the regular season was shut down in March, then noticed a different kind of player come back for training camp 2.0 and is relying on him like a veteran.
”I was confident going in,” Suzuki said. ”Just nice to get the confidence from the coach to trust me in that situation.”
Trusting young players could be an ingredient to a long playoff run. Not stopping them is a recipe for an early exit.
The New York Rangers found that out as Svechnikov recorded a hat trick against them in Game 2 of Carolina’s qualifying-round sweep. When Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour first met Svechnikov at age 18 during training camp in 2018, he thought the Russia-born forward was 24 and ”built like an ox.”
Now in his second playoffs, Svechnikov is playing and producing beyond his years.
”There’s really not a lot he can’t do,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. ”He’s been one of the best players in every level he’s been at, and he’s quickly emerging as one of the best players in this league.”
He’s not alone in making that kind of impression. Hughes leads the Canucks in scoring after three games and might have taken his play up another notch after being a finalist for rookie of year honors in the regular season.
”I don’t think you can put a price on experience, and I think this is really big for all the young guys here,” Hughes said. ”I’m trying to stay pretty level headed no matter what happens, and I think I’ve done a good job of that so far.”
Born almost eight months after Dach, Toronto’s Nick Robertson is the youngest player in the playoffs and scored a goal in his third opportunity. Coach Sheldon Keefe figured playing in empty arenas with no fans would benefit Robertson, but the 18-year-old from Pasadena, California, looks comfortable in any situation.
”My confidence level’s obviously getting higher and higher each day,” Robertson said.
Confidence is the common denominator between point-producers like Dach and Svechnikov and players like Philadelphia’s Joel Farabee and Arizona’s Barrett Hayton who are looking to make a difference. Getting ice time gives them that chance.
”As a player it’s a welcoming challenge,” Dach said. ”You want to be put in those situations and succeed in them.”
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