Hockey is a kids' game - even at the NHL level, where a lot of those kids are making an impact at a very young age.
With today's speed-oriented game, teams are more willing than ever to give their draft picks a chance at a younger age. That has led to a plethora of players 21 and under who've made an impact in their short time in the League.
Here's a look at the NHL's best players who don’t turn 22 until 2010 and have played at least 40 games (except where noted) -- meaning that no 2009 draft picks are included.
Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets
Talk about making the most of an opportunity: When Pascal Leclaire
went down with an ankle injury early last season, the Jackets called up Mason, a third-round pick in the 2006 Entry Draft. Their reward was the first trip to the postseason in franchise history -- largely due to Mason's stellar play. He went 33-20-7 with a 2.29 goals-against average and 10 shutouts, the most by a rookie goaltender in more than three decades, and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. As for Leclaire, hardly an old-timer (he's 26) -- he's now in Ottawa following a Deadline Day trade.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Not many 18-year-old defensemen can step right into the NHL. But that's exactly what Doughty did after the Kings made him the No. 2 selection in the 2008 Entry Draft. He made the team in training camp -- and by the end of the season, he was arguably the top defenseman on a talented young team. Doughty averaged 23:49 of ice time -- by far the most of any first-year player -- while scoring 6 goals and adding 21 assists for 27 points. He turned out to be everything the Kings could have asked for … and more.
Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues
Though he missed all of last season after a fluke preseason knee injury that required surgery, the Blues have no regrets about making Johnson the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft. Johnson spent one season at the University of Minnesota before turning pro and stepped right into the Blues' lineup in 2007-08, scoring 5 goals and adding 28 assists for 33 points while taking a regular shift. He's bigger and stronger after a summer of working out and should give St. Louis (which got just 15 goals from defensemen in 2008-09) a big boost on the blue line.
Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh Penguins
Age: 20 (turns 21 on Sept. 18)
Given what he's accomplished, it's almost impossible to believe the youngest of the NHL's three Staal brothers is a few weeks away from his 21st birthday. The No. 2 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft made the Penguins as an 18-year-old and promptly set a rookie record with seven shorthanded goals while scoring 29 times. He dropped to 12 goals in 2007-08, but rebounded with 22 goals and 49 points for the Penguins in '08-09 -- despite facing ice time limitations caused by the presence of Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
. He has 63 goals and 119 points in three seasons, with the promise of lots more to come.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago chose Toews immediately after Pittsburgh selected Staal in 2006 -- and the Blackhawks have no complaints. The Hawks valued Toews' leadership skills so much they named him their captain at age 20 -- making him the third-youngest player in NHL history to wear the "C." Toews was a finalist for the Calder Trophy after a 24-goal rookie season, and improved on that in '08-09 with 34 goals and 69 points while helping Chicago to the Western Conference Finals.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
One year after hitting the jackpot with Toews, the Hawks did it again by taking Kane with the No. 1 pick in the 2007 Entry Draft. Though he barely looks big enough to be a stick boy (he's listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds), Kane made the Hawks as an 18-year-old and promptly won the Calder Trophy by scoring 21 goals and putting up 72 points. Despite a lingering ankle injury, he improved to 25 goals and had 70 points in his second season and helped the Hawks to their best season since 1992-93.
Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles Kings
Goaltender is the one position at which teams are often reluctant to use under-21 players, but the Kings thought enough of Bernier, their top pick in the 2006 draft, to start him in their 2007-08 season-opener in London -- where he promptly beat the defending Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim Ducks
in his NHL debut. Bernier lost his next three decisions and was returned to his junior team, but had a solid first full pro season in the AHL -- posting a 2.40 GAA and .912 save percentage for the Kings' farm team in Manchester. Though the Kings have a lot of young goaltending talent, Bernier is still very much in their plans.
Zach Bogosian, Atlanta Thrashers
He's only spent one season in the NHL, but Bogosian is arguably the best defenseman on the Thrashers -- and could be the best in team history before he's 21. The No. 3 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft made the Thrashers out of training camp and became the youngest player in team history when he made his NHL debut against Washington on Oct. 10. Despite missing time with a broken leg, he finished his rookie season with 9 goals and 19 points in 47 games, while offering the promise of better things to come for a team that's spent a decade looking for a franchise defenseman.
Luke Schenn, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs paid a big price at the 2008 Entry Draft to move up two spots and choose Schenn with the No. 5 pick. Though he doesn't have the offensive skills of players such as Doughty or Bogosian, Schenn proved to be more than capable of playing at the NHL level as a 19-year-old. He scored 2 goals and added 12 assists for 14 points while averaging 21:32 of ice time in 70 games and giving the Leafs a physical element on the blue line that they had lacked.
Honorable mention: Luca Sbisa
, 19 (Anaheim); Karl Alzner
, 20 (Washington)
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Stamkos' first NHL season didn't get off to a very good start after the Lightning made him the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft. He needed nine games to score his first NHL goal and had just three by Christmas. But with hard work and the guidance of coach Rick Tocchet
, Stamkos blossomed in the second half, finishing with 23 goals and 46 points while showing why the Lightning were eager to take him with the top pick. With a year of experience under his belt, look for Stamkos' totals to improve.
Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders
Neil Smith's tenure as Islanders' GM in the summer of 2006 lasted all of six weeks. His legacy to Long Island may be Okposo, the seventh pick in the Entry Draft, who was the Isles' best player during the second half of last season. He led the team with 18 goals and played well enough to earn an invitation to Team USA's Olympic Camp this month -- the second-youngest player (after Patrick Kane
) to be invited. The Islanders hope Okposo will blossom into a Jarome Iginla
-like forward who provides both scoring and a physical element in his game.
Milan Lucic, Boston Bruins
Unlike most of the best 21-and-under players, Lucic wasn't a high draft choice -- Boston took him in the second round (No. 50) in 2006. But after helping Vancouver of the Western Hockey League win the Memorial Cup in 2007, Lucic made the Bruins that fall and has been cutting a wide swath through the NHL ever since. He had 8 goals and 27 points as a rookie, then improved those totals to 17 and 42 in 2008-09. But he's also become one of the most fearsome hitters in the NHL -- he finished tied for fifth in the NHL with 262 hits while making life miserable for opponents.
Honorable mention: David Perron
, 21 (St. Louis); Sam Gagner
, 20 (Edmonton)