The rise of youth in the NHL has been a frequent topic since the second* lockout created a salary cap. (*That was 2004-05, in case you tried to wipe it from memory or suffer from lockout confusion.)
The cap's limit on expenditures, combined with the efficient value of younger players whose salaries are restricted by the entry level contract (ELC) system (and later, by restricted free agency), has generally enticed teams to rely on younger players at an earlier age than they did in the past.
Granted, generational talents and franchise players like John Tavares have always gotten early looks at young ages. But the old school aversion to relying on too much youth -- the tendency to make them "earn it" before you let them play over another grizzled 30-something veteran who cashed in on the old cap-free UFA market -- has diminished even as the cap has risen.
Money and necessity via the cap were no doubt major factors. But there is another one: These players, who were always talented, now arrive in the NHL with more of the body development insights that used to only come after spending many years gleaning them from established pros and pro training staffs. They've already been trained; the best already know about nutrition or are taught it in their first NHL team prospect camp.
Always natural physical specimens at a young age, today they are literally better athletes making better use of their physical gifts, taking better advantage of the ways nature favors the young.
John Tavares was talking to Pierre LeBrun about making the Olympic team, but his thoughts speak to this larger trend:
"The development is so much greater and there's so much more exposure and more importance on things like nutrition and off-ice training," Tavares said. "And that really wasn't there even 15, 20 years ago. It makes a big difference for a lot of us young guys when you're exposed to it all and you can see what it takes and you have a better understanding of what it is to be an impact player earlier in your career.
"Whether me, Steven, Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, all these guys, I think we're talented hockey players and we're driven to be great players and want to succeed and want to be a part of stuff like this. I don't think you want to let your age hold you back, you want to take advantage of every opportunity you can."
LeBrun references all the 25-and-unders vying for Canada, and it's a similar story in USA camp. For the Olympics, both federations learned lessons after using older players on big ice in 2006. But it's more than that.
When teenagers are watching what they eat. When young Nazem Kadri is shamed at age 21 by his AHL coach for his eating habits -- not for the old "hasn't paid his dues" motif. And when teenagers are turning to Gary Roberts' magical camp to learn the nutrition and fitness routines that keep old pros producing in the NHL long after their physical peak...
...when those things are happening, then you know the shift of the NHL toward youth is here to stay.
It's beyond salary cap and budgetary causes, and it's beyond stray cases of desperate franchises hyping (or rushing) young stars. When the playing field for fitness, nutrition, and training info has leveled across the age spectrum, you can now conceive of Sidney Crosby, the world's best player at age 26 today, being in decline five years from now. And you can expect Tavares, 23 next month, is already entering his peak years.