Tender Years Taking A Toll


"May you have a long & prosperous NHL Â career."

Each day we see increasingly younger sports phenoms wowing us with their performances in various sports. The age of elite athletes has dropped considerably and drastically.

All of today’s superstars are younger, stronger and more developed than their counterparts of the past. Accordingly, never in the history of the NHL had there been so many young players dominating the league.

Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews, Jeff Skinner were all “tender aged” when they first stepped on the NHL ice. One might argue that you can dose the time those players have on the ice by playing them less, scratching them more but reality is, you can’t. Because of the ever increasing training regiment programs, human evolution and player development, which is better than ever, increases the chances of them making an immediate impact. And that impact is often such that you can’t afford to keep them out of the game. Just think of Lebron James when he first entered the NBA or Lionel Messi when he first played for Barcelona.

This topic might just be perfect when considering the rookie camp is about to start. The reason behind this article is a notion I’ve heard from various sporting consultants such as biomechanics experts, coaches and fitness experts. A lot of them stipulate that because of the age these athletes break through in elite competitions like the NHL, they will possibly suffer from early burnout and risk more injury during the early parts of their sporting careers, especially in a game like hockey.

Throughout history, the majority of sports teams have trained their players in a way that would have them playing their best at the time of their highest physical ability. Today, players like Lionel Messi and Sidney Crosby can suffer from burnout prior to having a chance to play like Lionel Messi or Sidney Crosby at their highest physical peak. Not saying it will happen, especially with my two examples, but it’s more likely to happen today than in Gretzky times. That would certainly be a shame since our bodies and musculature peeks, and to see a phenom player not using his peek it to a full extent is a loss, for the player, for the team and for the fans.

The truth is, because of all the preparation these players take in their efforts to become better, make it, or just take a spot on the roster the injuries seemingly become less of a worry but I don’t think they are. One of two things can happen. A player can either be very young but also well conditioned and not suffer injuries in his early career because of that, but he can become increasingly injury prone later in his career because of the exertion and stress he put on his body during the early years. That is of course coupled with a highly demanding playing schedule. The second thing that might happen, and is an ever increasing problem in soccer clubs around the world, is the fact that players get injured earlier in their careers more often because of the toll all of this is taking on their young bodies, no matter how hard they train or how well they are conditioned. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine Jeff Skinner playing Martin St. Louis hockey at Martin St. Louis’ age.

Now, what’s important to keep in mind is that some of this specifically correlates to the Leafs. We are (or were, prior to the Connolly, Liles deals) amongst the three youngest teams in the league and some of the players on our roster are indeed in a period of their careers which I like to call phenom years.

While it may be argued that we don’t really have a phenom of Sid’s, Ovechkin’s or Stamkos’ caliber on the roster the real reason behind my calling this the phenom years is because I consider the very early twenties, or years just below that (18, 19) a very early age to be playing in the NHL. Any player that does that and manages to have some success (in our case, Luke Schenn) can’t be considered normal, even if the age of NHL’s prime performing players is significantly dropping.

This is why I have started looking at Nazem Kadri in a different light. Maybe seeing him develop gradually and “old school” is a good thing, even if the reason behind it is probably his specific skillset, body type and even if we would like to see him tearing it up like Skinner right away. It just might make him more hungry, less injury prone and a more durable player in years to come.