Who's the best young forward?

As I began the research for this feature, I quickly realized that some great younger players, including some favorites, wouldn't even see the light of day. Because of that, I nearly expanded the focus to break it down by position -- centers, left wings and right wings.

Here at Hound Central 2.0, I don't take the easy way out. I stick to my principles and follow the rules. Though I'd never, ever, want to be considered for the Lady Byng, following the original mandate is the right thing to do.

Having said that, though, these top players should not come as a surprise. The order, perhaps, but not the talent. As always, rankings are based on overall play -- they must put up lots of points, post solid plus/minus numbers, contribute to the power play and penalty kill, and put in a full season, unless, of course, they have a ridiculously high point-per-game average. Winning Lord Stanley's Cup provides bonus points, too.

Finally, in classic countdown fashion, here are my top five young (under 25 years old at the time of the writing) forwards in the NHL:

No. 5: Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators, 23 years old (6.13.83)
From piling up the points (19 goals-71 assists=90) and posting a plus 23 last season, this center does it all. Spezza is living up to the hype (remember, he was The Next One before some kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, came along) but needs to play a full season before he moves up the chart. Ilya Kovalchuk was a strong contender here, but he still hasn't learned to play defense.

No. 4: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, 19 years old (8.7.87)
If you haven't heard of Sid the Kid, you're most likely helping my cousin teach English in Mongolia. Sure, some Russian wunderkind may have stolen a bit of his rookie-year thunder, but it's not like this center is a one-hit wonder. It's not so much that the sky is the limit for Crosby, it's more like he must avoid a dark hole in outer space. He's still growing -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- and will be a fixture on not just this list, but any other top-player list produced by anyone with a granule of hockey intelligence.

No. 3: Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes, 22 years old (10.29.84)
Let's see, the center scored 100 points (45 goals and 55 assists), potted power-play, shorthanded and game-winning goals and won a Stanley Cup in his second year in the NHL. Maybe his defense (a minus 8) could improve, but Staal is the type of player that teams and dynasties can be built around. Know what's scary? He may not even be the best Staal to ever play in the league.

No. 2: Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 20 years old (9.17.85)
OK, I still admit to practicing his sensational rolling-on-his-back goal, but have taken it outside now that Bella runs at the sight of a hockey stick and the good folks at Target have stopped asking why I buy so many lamps. Ovechkin (who I pray plays at this level for a long, long, long time) is simply amazing. What I like most, though, are not his insane rookie year numbers (81 games played, 52 goals-54 assists=106 points, a plus 2, 21 power play goals, 3 shorties and 5 game-winners), but this left winger's sheer joy for the game. It's intoxicating.

No. 1: Dany Heatley, Ottawa Senators, 25 years old (1.21.81)
Feel free to check out this left winger's stats on your own. You'll see how he stacks up and, based on numbers alone, is deserving of this ranking. What impresses me the most, however, is how he responded to the change in scenery after the memories of a tragic night in Atlanta proved too hard to shake. Though Heatley will be too old for next year's list, good health should keep him among the NHL's elite for many years.



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