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Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid celebrates one of his two goals in a 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 17. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid celebrates one of his two goals in a 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 17. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NHL’s young guns steal early spotlight with sights set on Calder Trophy Add to ...

We welcome Connor McDavid back to the Calder Trophy race.

It’s certainly shaping up to be an incredible one.

After some early grumbling in Edmonton over their latest No. 1 pick’s slow start, McDavid exploded for the Oilers on Saturday, scoring twice and adding an assist in their first win of the season. That bumped him up into the top 10 in rookie scoring heading into Sunday’s game in Vancouver, and there’s little doubt he’ll stay there given he is playing more minutes per game (18:13) than every other first-year forward save for Buffalo’s Jack Eichel.

Coming into the year, almost every prediction for rookie of the year was either for McDavid or Eichel, the two 18-year-old wunderkinds who went first and second overall back in June.

But they have some serious challengers around the league right now, as NHL rosters get younger and younger and GMs and coaches give more opportunities to players in their first few seasons.

In Detroit, Dylan Larkin has emerged as a top-line force, meshing well with Henrik Zetterberg and producing six points in his first five NHL games.

In Chicago, KHL rescue Artemi Panarin is playing with Patrick Kane and has seven points in his first six games after outscoring Ilya Kovalchuk last season in Russia. Panarin has an advantage over McDavid and Eichel in that he’s 23 years old and has been playing in a top pro league for six years. Being on a great team doesn’t hurt, either.

Then there’s Max Domi – son of Tie – and Anthony (The Duke) Duclair, who have single-handedly made the Coyotes must-see TV with their highlight-reel plays through the first five games.

The list goes on and on: Ben Hutton in Vancouver, Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg, Colton Parayko in St. Louis, Oscar Lindberg in New York with the Rangers. It’s too early to draw broad conclusions, but the impact on the scoring race is there. Even with the age-defying Jaromir Jagr, 43, in the mix, the average age of the NHL’s top 30 scorers so far is 26.4 years.

That’s down almost a full year from last season.

The two youngest players among the NHL scoring leaders a year ago were Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov; so far this year there are six players younger than those two, with McDavid potentially on the way.

And nearly half of the NHL’s top scorers are under 24 years old, led by budding superstars such as Aleksander Barkov, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan Johansen, Mark Stone, Tyler Seguin and Vladimir Tarasenko.

A few older players are off to good starts – Jagr, Zetterberg and Zach Parise – but a lot of young ones are.

Part of it is there are simply more of them. Nearly 44 per cent of the minutes played in the NHL this season have been by players 25 and under, which is up about 10 per cent in the past decade.

Almost all of that shift has been at the expense of players 32 and older.

The reasons the NHL is turning to youth have been fairly well documented. There are the salary cap impacts: All players on entry-level contracts are cost controlled, with a base cap hit of less than $1-million. There is also the league’s ever-evolving style of play, which continues to favour speed and finesse over simple brawn, a change that benefits players who haven’t fully matured.

Puck possession has become king. If you watch the young players who are excelling early this season, they almost universally have remarkable puckhandling and puck-moving skills.

“I watch Domi – it’s not even the goals,” Jagr said to TSN last week regarding all the young stars in the league. “I like the way he played one-on-one. He won battles. He made passes and got open. That was impressive, too. Mostly because he is Tie Domi’s son.”

The big question for these young players is staying power. Is what we’re seeing from Larkin and Domi and Hutton and Ehlers simply early flashes of what they’ll be able to do later in their careers? Or are they ready now?

What should work in their favour is opportunity. Domi and Duclair are playing four minutes a game on Arizona’s power play. McDavid, Eichel and Panarin are getting three a game on the man advantage. Players such as Larkin and Ehlers will have longer looks on the power play if their even-strength successes continue.

As long as they’re on the ice in those key minutes, they’ll get points.

It could ultimately translate into a repeat of last season, when the Calder race between Aaron Ekblad, Stone and Gaudreau was one of the closest in NHL history.

And this year’s race might not be between who we predicted, given all the competition McDavid and Eichel have already.

Half of the contributions by NHL players are now from those 26 years old or younger, the result of a shift in league demographics from players in the 32-and-up range to those on their first or second contract.

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