VOORHEES, N.J. — There is Connor McDavid in Edmonton; Auston Matthews in Toronto; Jack Eichel in Buffalo — generational talents carving their marks across the NHL landscape and all doing it under the age of 20.
Across the NHL, teams are shifting toward bringing kids up faster and the kids are all right. Rookies, teenagers too, are making immediate impacts for their clubs.
McDavid, Eichel and Matthews are the cream of the crop. They're players that will define their generation, change the game and attract children to the sport in years to come. It's not just the McDavids, the Eichels and the Matthews, though. Max Domi is crafting his name in Arizona; Dylan Larkin is making his name in Detroit; Colton Parayko in St. Louis.
And then there is Shayne Gostisbehere with the Flyers. This year, it's Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.
When exactly has this philosophy among NHL front offices changed?
"I'm not looking back 30 years," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday. "I don't think you can look back 30 years, but you can look back in the last 10 years.
"The game has changed. In some ways, it hasn't changed that much. Yes, it's got a little bit faster. So yes, it's a little bit younger. Not as young as we think it is, though."
One theory Hextall offered as to why more teams feature younger kids is the number of teams in the league. Comparing today's NHL to that of the 1980s, there are more teams. With that comes the need for younger players because there are more spots to be won. In the 1980s, there were 21 teams in the NHL. Now, there are 30 teams. Come next season, it'll be 31.
According to Hextall, that has something to do with the influx of young players into NHL lineups. Certain players, Hextall said, make teams that wouldn't have in the past.
"You're keeping young players a little bit more than you did back in the '80s because there were 21 teams," Hextall said. "There were more veterans available for you. Now, again with the 30 and as we go to 31, if we go to 32, it's going to be some of the same. But the reality of it is, we have to do what's best for the organization. What's best for the organization is what's best for these kids. And right now, we feel like it's best for them to be here."
When asked if he had 1984-85 in mind when he decided to keep Konecny and Provorov with the Flyers, Hextall said he did not, saying everything has to come into consideration. The specific example was the Mike Keenan-coached Flyers in '84-85.
"They're not small decisions. You're keeping a 19-year-old in the NHL, that's not a small decision," Hextall said. "It's certainly not one that I take lightly. First of all, they have to make your team better. And second of all, you have to believe you're not going to hurt their development, so what do you do? You look at 19-year-olds, how they developed. Whether they stayed up the whole year, gone back to junior?
"So I looked at everything, I looked at all the evidence and then you make the decisions with your gut and that's what I did. In terms of looking back at that, you look at more history than that — that's one little snapshot of young players playing on a young team."
This season, Hextall has kept Konecny and Provorov around with the big club, the first time they've carried two 19-year-olds since the Keenan-led Flyers in '84-85 when Derrick Smith and Pete Zezel skated for the orange and black.
Konecny and Provorov are three games into their NHL careers, and already making impacts. Konecny is tied with Claude Giroux for the team lead in points with four assists, while Provorov has shown glimpses of brilliance and one game of growing pains. Overall, it's hard to be discouraged by how Konecny and Provorov have played. On Tuesday night, Provorov finished as a minus-5 and made a handful of costly miscues.
"Oh, [Provorov] doesn't need help through it," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. "It's a growing experience. First of all, you evaluate it for what it is. There's a couple plays where there were some bad luck involved. There's a couple plays where there's some mistakes. And as is everything in this game, it's never just about one player that's on the ice. So you take it, evaluate it, look at the things that you can learn from and quite honestly, you turn the page and move forward. I'm sure that's what Ivan will do."
Throughout preseason, Provorov was lauded for his maturity, both on and off the ice. In Los Angeles and Arizona, he showed poise beyond his years. His defensive partner, Mark Streit, has shown no hesitation in stepping up in the play with Provorov covering. That says a lot. A 38-year-old veteran is comfortable enough to allow Provorov to cover him while he pinches. There's a confidence there, and it's a lot to do with Provorov.
Provorov's game Tuesday was dreadful. He made rookie mistakes, and ones that he'll learn from — at least that's what Hextall believes.
"He's a mentally-tough kid," Hextall said. "I don't expect any hangover. We all have tough nights, and certainly Provy wasn't alone. He had a lot of help out there."
Hakstol doesn't believe Provorov's poor game in Chicago should be made a big deal, saying that he doesn't think anyone on the Flyers were thinking about one or two players who had rough nights against the Blackhawks. Provorov, in particular, he focused on the good.
"I love the positives of Ivan's game [Tuesday]," he said. "Even though there were a couple of mistakes and a couple of things that didn't go right, he just kept playing. He kept trying to make a difference in the game. I think that shows his overall mentality and his care of the team. Those are things that kind of tell you where his maturity level is at."
As for Konecny, there hasn't been a rookie moment yet for the speedy winger. He's created offense just about every time he's stepped on the ice, and when teams have targeted him, he's fought through the checking. He's created chemistry with Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek and he's fitting in well in the Flyers' top six.
For Hakstol, both Konecny and Provorov have faced challenges of their own thus far and they've both had areas they need to work on. It's part of the process of developing and building toward consistency the Flyers would like to see from their two 19-year-olds as early as their Thursday night home opener against Anaheim.
"It's interesting the different spotlights that can be put on any one player after the outcome of one game," Hakstol said. "We don't look at it that way, nor do the players. There's obviously the impact of one night, if it's particularly a good night or tough night, but this is a big-picture view in terms of the body of work of each and every player. That's not going to change throughout Year 1, Year 2 in this league. It's not an instantaneous jump to consistency as a player in this league. It's a lot of hard work. There's going to be some ups and downs to it, and we're going through the lows together."