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NHL 101: Teams handle influx of 18-year-old players

Monday, 10.17.2011 / 4:14 PM / NHL Insider

By Tal Pinchevsky - NHL.com Staff Writer

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NHL 101: Teams handle influx of 18-year-old players
While many 18-year-olds are settling into their college dorm rooms, a select group of top prospects are cracking NHL rosters -- creating challenges for themselves and their teams when it comes to acclimation.
In the fall, while many parents are tearfully sending their 18-year-old children off to college, some hockey moms and dads are also bidding farewell. Except their kids aren't moving into a dorm room, they're finding their way onto an NHL roster.

"The leaving home kind of crept up on us. We didn't anticipate one way or another if he was going to make the team," said Andy Skinner, whose son Jeff won last year's Calder Trophy as an 18-year-old. "But it is an adjustment for the parents and the family when an 18-year-old leaves home unexpectedly like that."

Last season's Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner took the League by storm at only 18-years old. (Photo: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI)
Skinner was part of a stellar group of 18-year-old players who catapulted from their draft year right into the NHL spotlight. That group included Taylor Hall, who led the Oilers in goals despite only playing 65 games, Tyler Seguin, who won a Stanley Cup in Boston, and Cam Fowler, who ranked fifth on the Ducks in average ice time.

Even more players are being asked to make that transition at the start of the 2011-12 season. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick this past June, is here to stay in Edmonton. Gabriel Landeskog has made the team in Colorado and the same goes for Adam Larsson in New Jersey. Mika Zibanejad has survived the cut in Ottawa, as has Sean Couturier in Philadelphia. Mark Scheifele is still hanging around in Winnipeg, although it is unclear if he will make it past the nine-game cutoff.

Once an NHL team keeps a player on his entry-level deal past nine games, a year of that contract is burned.

While the on-ice transition seems to be getting easier for these younger players, as evidenced by the fact Nugent-Hopkins already has a hat trick to his credit and some scouts are asserting that Larsson may be one of New Jersey's two best defensemen, plenty of off-ice adjustments still have to be made -- as those who came before this crop of talented 18-year-olds can attest.

"It was fun. Crazy, kind of, to be that young and sit beside Eric Staal and Cam Ward and all these guys you grew up watching," Jeff Skinner said. "You sort of have to grow up fast when you move away and get into a professional lifestyle at that age."

To be sure, NHL teams handle these young players with care once they decide to reserve a roster spot for a teenager on which they just spent a high draft pick. For the most part, they are encouraged to live with an established team veteran, a process most fans learned about when an 18-year-old Sidney Crosby moved into Penguins owner Mario Lemieux's guest house. These veterans don't just serve as landlords, but mentors who help teenaged players adapt to life as an NHL player.

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It's a model many teams have followed, with Skinner bunking alongside Hurricanes teammate Justin Peters and the Islanders' John Tavares living with recently retired Doug Weight. In Philadelphia, Couturier just recently moved in with veteran forward Danny Briere.

Now an established veteran at the age of 21, Tavares must decide if he's ready to leave the Weight household.

"There's definitely a chance to go back to him again. He's been in my ear," Tavares said. "Dougie's been a big influence on me and there's a good chance of staying with him again."

After two decades of teenagers jumping directly to the NHL, teams suddenly stopped keeping such young players around the time of the work stoppage. But the trend reversed again in 2008, when five players spent the entire season in the NHL immediately after being selected in the Entry Draft. Those five players (Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, Josh Bailey and Mikkel Boedker) were the most to spend their entire post-draft year with their NHL clubs since 1995.

Teams did the same in 2009, when each of the top four picks in the Draft (Tavares, Victor Hedman, Matt Duchene, and Evander Kane) spent their post-draft year in the NHL. Ryan O'Reilly broke the mold entirely that season by becoming the first second-round selection in years to play an entire NHL season as an 18-year-old.

While most 18-year-olds graduate from junior hockey to living with an NHL veteran, Tampa's Victor Hedman followed a different path. As both a foreign player and a defenseman, Hedman was a true anomaly among NHL teenagers. Rather than live with a Lightning vet, Hedman also moved into his own apartment with his girlfriend, whom he lived with in Sweden while playing for Modo. While he relied on veteran Swedish defenseman Mattias Ohlund for help, Hedman was remarkably independent for an NHL teenager.

"It's always a big difference but I got used to it pretty quickly," Hedman said. "Being 18 and moving from one country to another is not an easy thing to do. But I've been learning a lot and I never regretted my decision to come over at such a young age."

As for the parents of these young pros, they generally agree that the jump to the NHL at such a young age is a difficult move that's well worth the sacrifice.

"He has handled it well. He's always been mature," Andy Skinner said of his son. "He doesn't try to be more mature than he is. We have a big family and they keep him grounded and we have a lot of fun together. It's worked out well."

Quote of the Day

It's pretty crazy, but believe me when I say we didn't draft these players with the mindset we had to because they had good hockey-playing dads. It just turned out that way. But we're certainly glad they're a part of our organization.

— Arizona Coyotes director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt regarding the coincidence that six of the organization's top prospects are sons of former NHL players