Leave those kids alone
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It was an honest mistake that Penguins director of player personnel Tom Fitzgerald made in December 2007. Halfway through his first season on the job, Fitzgerald experienced one of those duh! moments while visiting a prospect in Vancouver.
"Seeing this prospect was tied into us playing out there, and I was sitting in the stands watching at practice and I kept looking at (Penguins center) Jordan Staal," Fitzgerald said. "To this day, I remember thinking to myself, 'He's only 19 ... he's a kid!'
"It was easy to forget that because you expect so much of him."
Staal is not alone among young men facing enormous expectations at an age when former longtime NHL players were happy to have a pro contract and a spot in the minors.
As Fitzgerald recalled, "Like, when I was his age, I was playing pro hockey in the minors, telling my friends, 'Who makes more money than me?'"
Staal, in the final year of his entry-level contract, likely will soon make more money than he possibly could have imagined before his 21st birthday. That is the reality of this salary-cap NHL world - one in which would-be prospects strike it rich after three seasons as restricted free agents, laying to waste general managers' best-laid cap plans.
Of course, the reason players such as Staal or Chicago captain Jonathan Toews or Boston right wing Phil Kessel hit the jackpot so quick is because, well ...
"There are a lot of cases where guys are able to come in and it doesn't take them very long to adjust," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, himself no slouch at 21 with 344 points through 250 games.
"You're going to continue to see young guys that have an impact. With so many new guys at a young age doing so well - it's a confidence thing; other young guys realize they can do the same thing."
Staal is the youngest player to appear in 200 league games. His 201st will come tonight at TD Banknorth Garden, where the Penguins will look to snap the Boston Bruins' nine-game winning streak.
The Bruins have stolen the thunder from Staal and the young Penguins, who are led by Crosby and 22-year-old NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin and last season came within two wins of lifting the Stanley Cup.
Boston's surge to Eastern Conference supremacy this season is not without some veteran help, but a lot of the heavy lifting has been done by Kessel (23 goals), 20-year-old left wing Milan Lucic (10 goals) and 22-year-old center David Krejci (40 points).
For coaches, such as Boston's Claude Julien and the Penguins' Michel Therrien, the days of relying on veteran-heavy rosters are long gone. A coach who cannot deal with so-called kids will not stay employed for long.
Ask Denis Savard, who was fired by Chicago only four games into the season.
The Blackhawks, who consider Toews and 19-year-old winger Patrick Kane the Western Conference-version of the Penguins' Crosby-Malkin star duo, have played inspired hockey since Savard was replaced by Joel Quenneville, whose reputation is that of an expert player developer.
"From my perspective, you deal with young players in the NHL like you would a young player at any level," Julien said. "You've got to be patient with them."
That is especially true for coaches and managers given the many avenues die-hard fans have to voice frustrations with a player such as Staal. His 52 career goals have not been enough to prevent internet message-board threads and talk show discussion regarding his trade value.
"There's so much attention on these players, much more than when I played, and it's easy for them to get caught up in a lot of negativity," Fitzgerald said. "A young guy, like Jordan - he's 20, and he's a fixture in the NHL and he's a big part of a team that played for the Stanley Cup last season. That's a pretty good start to your career.
"We expect a lot of players like Staal at a young age. I keep coming back to what I thought in Vancouver last year: 'He's a kid!'"Additional Information:
Two stars at 250
A statistical look at where Penguins C Sidney Crosby and Washington RW Alex Ovechkin, the last two NHL scoring champions, rate among the all-time leading point producers through 250 games:
Player, team -- Points -- Per-game avg.
Wayne Gretzky, Oilers -- 537 -- 2.15
Mario Lemieux, Penguins -- 423 -- 1.69
Peter Stastny, Nordiques -- 403 -- 1.61
Eric Lindros, Flyers -- 360 -- 1.44
Mike Bossy, Islanders -- 345 -- 1.38
Sidney Crosby, Penguins -- 344 -- 1.38
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals -- 313 -- 1.25
Notable: Penguins C Evgeni Malkin has recorded 250 points in 197 games, a 1.26 per-game average; he has averaged 1.39 points over his past 100 games.
Source: Elias Sports Bureau