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Youth movement has teams on the rebound

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - One needs only to look at Sidney Crosby's trophy rack to see that hockey is quickly becoming a young man's game, and that trend has a few teams in the Western Conference excited about the future.

Just to refresh your memory, Crosby, who turned 20 on August 7, exceeded expectations last season by winning the league's scoring title, and picking up both MVP trophies in earning the Lester B. Pearson Award and the Hart Trophy. Only Wayne Gretzky won the Hart Trophy at an earlier age, but Crosby became the youngest player to achieve the rest.

While Crosby's 2006-07 season seemed like a one-man show, he also received great assistance from a couple of youngsters in forwards Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Malkin notched 85 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, while Staal posted 29 goals.

That is the same formula the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and St. Louis Blues hope to use in climbing back to the top of the league. All three clubs have replenished their rosters with talented youngsters, and although none of the players may turn out to be the equal of Crosby or even Malkin, it's still an exciting time for these teams.

Out of the three clubs, the team that is most desperate for success is the Blackhawks, an Original Six franchise that has fallen on hard times. Chicago has made the playoffs just once in nine seasons and has been out of the postseason in four consecutive campaigns.

The Blackhawks' fan base has been angry at management for quite some time now, and most of their animosity has been directed at team owner William W. Wirtz or "Dollar Bill", a derisive nickname given to the CEO to describe his frugal nature. A prime example of Blackhawks owner-bashing can be found at www.wirtzsucks.com.

But, the Blackhawks' down years have allowed the team to stock up with a handful of high draft picks. Patrick Kane was selected with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, and the 18-year-old right wing has an outside chance at making the team this year. In 2005, Chicago nabbed right wing Jack Skille with the seventh overall pick, and the following year the club selected centerman Jonathan Toews third overall. The team hopes both players will make an impact in 2007-08.

Anze Kopitar
Anze Kopitar posted 61 points in 72 games as a 19-year-old rookie.
Brent Seabrook, 22, was the 14th pick in the 2003 draft, and has turned into the team's top defenseman. Fellow blueliner Cam Barker was selected with the third overall pick in 2004, but the jury is still out on the 21-year-old after his first 36 games in the NHL.

The Kings have also missed the playoffs in four straight seasons, but have been close to making the second season on a few occasions in that stretch.

While L.A. missed the postseason once again in 2006-07, the team had a promising year thanks largely to the arrival of playmaking center Anze Kopitar. Kopitar, the first Slovenian-born player in NHL history, posted 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists) in 72 games as a 19-year-old rookie and displayed the size, hands and skill needed to be an offensive force.

Dustin Brown, a 22-year-old winger, also improved in his second year in the NHL, as he played in 81 games and notched career-highs in goals (17) and assists (29).

In addition to those talents, the Kings possess a potential franchise defenseman in Jack Johnson. The 20-year-old Johnson was originally selected by Carolina third overall in the 2005 draft, but the Hurricanes then traded Johnson and Oleg Tverdovsky to the Kings for Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger. Many scouts believe Johnson will be one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league one day.

Meanwhile. the Blues appear ready to claw back into the playoff picture after being a fixture in the second season for a quarter of a century. St. Louis had made 25 straight appearances in the postseason, but has missed the party the last two years.

After posting a paltry 57 points in 2005-06, the Blues rebounded with an 81- point season last year, but still was left out of the playoffs.

Out of the three teams listed above, the Blues will feel the impact of their youngsters a little further down the road because the team's rebuilding process has been more of a recent occurrence. In fact, the organization has gone the free agent route this offseason, and signed veteran forwards Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk.

Still, St. Louis has had five first-round picks in the last two years and none of those players comes with higher expectations than Erik Johnson, the American defenseman the Blues made the top-overall pick in the 2006 draft.

The 19-year-old Johnson is a 6-4, 220-pound defenseman who the Blues hope will be a two-way threat in the NHL. The youngster from Bloomington, Minnesota should start the season with St. Louis, and is a top candidate to win the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2007-08.

These three teams are certainly not the only clubs who are rebuilding their franchise with a youth movement, but they are the squads with the best chance at making the strategy a success.

More importantly for the NHL, these are a trio of key media markets that need to do well for the league to regain its standing as a major sport in North America.

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, "Youth comes but once in a lifetime", and the three teams listed above should take advantage of their youth while they have it.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo