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The Case for ... Showing Off the Kids

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ON OCT. 13, the morning after the NHL's 2016--17 regular season officially began, commissioner Gary Bettman received an email from NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, who highlighted the historic four-goal NHL debut of the Maple Leafs' 19-year-old rookie center, Auston Matthews, which had left the sports world slack-jawed. "We should do more," Flood wrote, indicating his network's desire to feature Matthews and Toronto.

"We're thinking the same thing," Bettman replied.

NBC Sports soon received permission to flex Toronto's home opener, an eventual 4--1 win over Boston, into its Saturday-night prime-time slot. Though such moves are more commonly reserved for spring's playoff push, Matthews's instant stardom was too juicy to ignore. "This is purely based on a player," Flood says. "There's no other reason we're doing this than Auston Matthews."

Such is the power of today's fledgling stars, not quite movers of mountains but certainly of needles and national broadcasts. Winnipeg right wing Patrik Laine, the second overall pick behind Matthews last June, also scored in his debut. Edmonton center Connor McDavid, who at 19 was recently made the youngest captain in league history, became the first teenager to open back-to-back seasons with three-point games. By the weekend 35 players unable to legally drink in the U.S. had appeared in the league.

"There's no doubt that teams are featuring that talent earlier," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says.

The paradox? Many of the league's most thrilling individual draws—Matthews, McDavid, Laine and Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau, to name several—rarely appear on national TV in the States. The recent struggles of Canada's seven clubs are partially to blame, because that has steadily sent high draft picks across the border. Plus, viewership in the Lower 48 simply doesn't justify regular appearances from the small-market teams up North; Toronto and Montreal remain the only Canadian teams scheduled to appear on NBC this season.

Still, the NHL could do well to take a cue from the O'Jays'"Give the People What They Want." Namely, the speedy, skilled superkids. Blending under-23 players from the U.S. and Canada for September's 2016 World Cup of Hockey was a decent start. High-flying Team North America became a fan favorite, and its early exit contributed to ratings drops during the elimination round.

Toronto-Boston shouldn't be an outlier. Matthews delivers the unique appeal of someone raised in the Sunbelt (Scottsdale, Ariz.) and playing for an Original Six franchise. McDavid's home run potential in the open ice belongs in prime time. So does the diminutive Gaudreau's creativity in close quarters and Laine's powerful shot, which has drawn comparisons to that of his childhood idol, Alex Ovechkin.

So as Washington's Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby did after the 2004--05 lockout, today's young stars should receive the spotlight. "Everyone can skate, everyone can play at the top speeds," says Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid's 23-year-old Oilers teammate. "The league's turning in that direction."

Just look at Matthews's second goal. He stick-handled the puck through the legs of two opponents, undressed the Senators' All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson along the wall and beat goaltender Craig Anderson short side. It was a superhuman solo effort, which had Mathews trending on Twitter and NBC Sports rushing to squeeze the Leafs into prime time. As for future peeks at Matthews, though, Stateside fans might have to wait. "There's no need to get ahead of ourselves," Flood says. "If he scores four goals again, we'll jump on it."

"We should do more," Flood wrote, indicating NBC's desire to feature Matthews and Toronto.