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Steven Stamkos sat four months shy of his 19th birthday.

It was October, 2008 and the top pick at that June’s draft was primed to make his NHL debut.

Stamkos had the talent and skill. There was, however, a key ingredient missing – one he could do nothing about in that moment.

“As a young guy, the only thing you’re really lacking is going through different situations,” said the centre set to turn 34 in three weeks time. “And knowing how to respond.”

Players in their late teens and early 20s now step into the NHL with an ability to produce unlike generations past.

While the average age across the league has remained between 27 and 28 years old over the past 15 seasons, what’s being asked of peach-fuzzed youngsters when they step into the fray is markedly different.

And like Stamkos more than 15 years ago, they’re minus experience at the highest level.

“That’s what the older guys – the veteran guys – can bring,” added the Tampa Bay Lightning captain. “Every team that I’ve played on [where] we’ve been successful, we’ve had a great mix of young guys and older guys.

“You need a healthy balance.”

NHL rosters used to be largely filled out by players ranging anywhere from their late-20s to mid-30s. Veterans now often round out rosters rather than lead them.

But Chicago Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson said what those grizzled teammates provide youngsters can’t be measured on the stats page.

“Great guidance and some good sounding boards,” said the veteran of 21 NHL seasons as a hard-nosed defenceman. “That goes a longer way than the coaches.”

Richardson, whose organization brought in a number of older players to assist a core led by 2023 No. 1 pick Connor Bedard, said times have changed in terms of what younger players need.

“They’re coming from places where there’s a lot of individual skills coaches, and they have their own team working with them,” he said. “But now they’re with a team at the highest level. They need guys that have won Stanley Cups.

“It goes a long way.”

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano, the league’s oldest player this season at the age of 40, said rookies now enter the NHL better prepared and with a different mindset.

“Way better shape physically,” Giordano said. “Guys are stronger, guys are faster.”

He added the shifting focus to offence the past decade has also been noticeable in youngsters.

“I remember being really afraid to make mistakes, and I don’t really see that in young guys any more,” Giordano said. “They’re confident.”

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, however, said team’s “can’t put a price tag” on veteran value.

“Those guys just know how to get it done when it counts,” he said. “You want to surround your young superstars with those players. They’re coming into the league so young now they have nobody to look up to except for these guys in the NHL.

“Pivotal to have the right vets.”

Buffalo Sabres head coach Don Granato added that as the NHL moves to younger cores, the age of those veterans continues to decrease.

“But the oldest players in the league are [still] the oldest players in the league, and their experience is extremely valuable,” he said. “Guys just don’t last as long, but to have veteran leadership is key. That type of experience is key.

“When you don’t have it, you go through lots of ups and downs to get it.”

Stamkos rode that roller coaster early in his career as he learned the ropes before finally breaking through with consecutive Cup victories in 2020 and 2021.

By that point, he was the veteran helping his younger teammates along.

“They’re very important,” Stamkos said of the league’s relative greybeards. “You just lean on them in situations that you’re unfamiliar with. It’s good to have those guys that have been through pretty much anything that you can go through.

“On and off the ice.”

All-star preview

The Leafs’ visit to Vancouver to meet the Canucks on Saturday is important in the standings – and a sneak peek at next month’s NHL all-star festivities. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly headline Toronto’s contingent set to play on home ice in the league’s Feb. 3 showcase. Vancouver’s group will consist of Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser and Thatcher Demko. Matthews, Nylander and Pettersson are also among the 12 skaters poised to compete for a US$1-million prize in the revamped skills competition.

Sens switch it up

The Ottawa Senators, who sit a disastrous 30th in the overall in the standings, reassigned goaltending coach Zac Bierk and promoted Justin Peters from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate this week. It’s not hard to see why. The Senators – largely with Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg in the crease – are last in the 32-team league with an .884 save percentage.

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