‘Players for the ages’ usually happen early

by Gary Shelton on February 27, 2019 · 1 comment

in general

Stamkos was very good when he was very young./STEVEN MUNCIE

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

Do you ever wonder if they are ripe enough?

You look down the bench at the Tampa Bay Lightning, and you wonder if their beards are thick enough, gray enough. You wonder if there is still too much kid in them.

Oh, granted, Steven Stamkos has some miles on him. And Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh and Tyler Johnson. Nothing green about those guys.

But look at Nikita Kucherov, then remind yourself he is not yet 36 years old. Look at Andrei Vasilevskiy, and he hasn't turned 25 yet. There is Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph and Mikhail Sergachev, who are all impossibly young.

Then you dismiss the thought.

This is sports, after all. It doesn't matter how young you are. It matters how good you are.

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Maybe you forgot, because the non-stars among us, frankly, are getting older. But sports is a young man's game, and very often, they are in charge. Oh, we talk about Tom Brady's age, and Drew Brees', because age means familiarity. But the true impact on any sports season belongs to the kids.

Yeah, yeah. A player gets rich after he's 30. He signs big contracts that will outlast him, and he moves to another team and acts like a big shot. But the best days are when he was young.

Don't believe me?

Look around at the greatest seasons we have seen.

-- Steven Stamkos was 19 years old when he scored 51 goals in 2009-10 for the Lightning. He was a year removed from coach Barry Melrose wondering if he could play. Audie Murphy won the Medal of Honor at age 19.

-- At 20, Mike Tyson becomes the youngest undisputed heavyweight champion. At 20, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein. Any resemblance is coincidental. Chris Evert was 20 when she won her first Grand Slam tournament.

-- Stamkos was 21 years old when he scored 60 goals in 2011-12. He was barely old enough to buy a beer. Serena Williams was 21 when she won her first Wimbledon. Billy the Kid was 21 when he was shot killed after killing eight men. Elvis Presley had his first No. 1 song at 21.

-- Josh Freeman was 22 years old when he had one of the most perplexing seasons of all for the Bucs. He threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions, and he had the look of a star. He fooled us. Also, John Lennon was 22 when the Beatles released their first single Love Me Do. Lawrence Taylor was 22 when he was Defensive Player of the Year for the first time. Ted Williams was 22 when he hit .406.  Derek Jeter was 22 when he won his first World Series.

-- Brad Richards was 23 when he won the Conn Smythe award as the playoff MVP as the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. Vinny Lecavalier was also 23 on that team. Evan Longoria was 23 when he won his first Gold Glove and his only Silver Slugger awards. Michael Jordan was 23 when he won his first NBA finals. At 23, Dan Marino threw 48 touchdown passes. Butch Cassidy committed his first robbery.

-- Kucherov was 24 when he had his first 100-point season. You remember. It was last year. Matt Garza was 24 when he was the MVP of the ALCS. At 24, Denny McLain won 31 games. Mickey Mantle was 24 when he hit a career-high 52 home runs.  James Dean was 24 when he made Rebel Without a Cause. Bonnie Parker was 24, a year younger than Clyde Barrow, when they were gunned down by law enforcement.

-- Lee Roy Selmon was the Defensive Player of the Year when he was 25.  Blake Snell of the Rays was 25 when he won the Cy Young Award. Evan Longoria was 25 when he hit a walk-off homer in Game 162 for the Rays. Kucherov has 101 points this season at age 25. Dexter Jackson was MVP of the Super Bowl at 25. Kevin Kiermaier was 25 when he won his first Gold Glove. Joe Montana was 25 when he won his first Super Bowl. Wayne Gretzky was 25 when he had 215 points; it was the fourth time he had more than 200. At 25, Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs; he would hit as many or more in three other seasons.

-- David Price was 26 when he won the AL Cy Young Award. Ronde Barber was 26 when he ran back Donovan McNabb's interception for a 97-yard touchdown to clinch the NFC title game after the 2002 season. Lecavalier was 26 when he had a 52-goal season. Garza was 26 when he threw his no-hitter against the Tigers. O.J. Simpson was 26 when he rushed for more than 2,000 yards. John Lynch was 26 when he made his first (of nine) Pro Bowls. Joe DiMaggio was 26 when he hit in 56 straight games.Charlie Chaplin starred in The Tramp at age 26.

-- Warren Sapp was 27 when he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Derrick Brooks was 27 when he won the NFL Man of the Year award. Carl Crawford was 27 when was MVP of the all-star game. At 27, Nolan Ryan would win a career-high 22 games.

-- Marty St. Louis was 28 when he won the Hart Trophy as MVP of the NHL.

-- Derrick Brooks was 29 when he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

-- St. Louis was 31 when he scored 102 points for the Lighting.

Look, fame is an old man's game. He gets to gather all the trophies, and all of the memories, and maybe the particular Hall of Fame will call.

Compare, if you will, St. Louis and Kucherov. A case can be made that they're the best two players who have played here (although Steven Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier should be in the discussion).

But at age 25, there was no comparison. St. Louis was still convincing his coaches he could play. At age 35, he had just 38 goals (Kucherov has 177). His all-star games (all six) would come later. His hat tricks (all eight) would come later.

Kucherov? He started fast, and he hasn't slowed down. And the scary thing is that there is untapped potential. He hungers to be a great player on a great team.

Frankly, he plays with more wisdom that his years should allow.

That's true at any age.

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