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First weeks find numerous 18-year-olds making impact

by Davis Harper
Even as the NHL learning curve has steepened in recent years -- a faster game requiring supreme technical ability -- some players continue to ascend to the upper regions of the sport much sooner than their peers.

The contingent of these instant-impact freshmen is getting younger and younger, as evidenced by this year’s crop of 18-year-olds already making their mark around the League.

No. 1 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has met -- and maybe even exceeded -- lofty preseason expectations by putting up point-per-game numbers for the Edmonton Oilers with 4 goals and 1 assist through five games. In his first NHL game, he tallied a game-tying goal in regulation in a shootout win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, then bagged a hat trick in a losing effort against the Vancouver Canucks. Nugent-Hopkins is already outpacing the No. 1 pick from 2010 -- teammate Taylor Hall, who had just a goal and an assist during the same period last season.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Center - EDM
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 5
SOG: 14 | +/-: 1
Elsewhere, four more 18-year-olds have hit the score sheet for their respective teams. After being drafted just after Nugent-Hopkins at No. 2, Gabriel Landeskog solidified his place on Colorado's roster with 2 goals and 1 assist in six games, including a tally with just seconds to play to send the Avalanche into overtime against Columbus, a game they would win in a shootout as part of a 5-0 road trip. Landeskog made an impact again Saturday night as he netted the tying goal for Colorado against Chicago with under two minutes remaining in regulation. The Avs eventually won in a shootout.

No. 6 pick Mika Zibanejad, who with a late-April birthday is the youngest 18-year-old left in the top tier, has yet to find the net for Ottawa, but recorded his first NHL point with an assist in the Senators’ 5-3 loss to the Red Wings.

While Winnipeg has gone through early-season struggles, No. 7 pick Mark Scheifele got on the board by scoring his first goal Wednesday night in a shootout loss to Toronto.


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The eighth selection in June, Sean Couturier, has made the most of his minutes on the talent-laden Philadelphia Flyers with 1 goal and 2 assists through five games.

And there's also No. 4 pick Adam Larsson, who is still looking for his first point, but has averaged nearly 24 minutes of ice time over New Jersey's first four games.

Each of these skilled rookies must still survive a long, grueling season in order to reach the level of their prolific predecessors. Just last season, Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner scored 31 goals and added 32 assists at the age of 18 for Carolina. In 2005-06, Sidney Crosby wasted little time establishing himself as a star, notching 39 goals and 63 assists, becoming just the second 18-year-old to clear the 100-point barrier. And yes, Crosby was already on a blistering pace at this point that season, with 2 goals and 9 assists in Pittsburgh’s first eight games.

The recent emergence of such teenage game-changers is reminiscent of the 1980s, when nearly every year saw the introduction of another 18-year-old legend-in-waiting. Dale Hawerchuk totaled 103 points on 45 goals and 58 assists in 1981-82 for Winnipeg. Steve Yzerman scored 39 and set up 48 more for Detroit in 1983-84. Jimmy Carson tallied 79 points on 37 goals and 42 assists in 1986-87 for Los Angeles.

It is clear players like Yzerman, Hawerchuk and Wayne Gretzky -- who in 1978-79 had 46 goals and 64 assists at 18 for the Edmonton Oilers during their final season in the WHA -- separated themselves early on. But perhaps never in its history has the League seen such a large percentage of 18-year-old rookies turning games with one swipe of their stick. The question now is not whether these young players have point-scoring prowess, but if they can keep their momentum going for an entire season.
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