Hockey is a kids' game -- and in the NHL, those kids are making a lot of impact at a very young age.
In today's NHL, the premium put on finding young talent has resulted in players getting more opportunity and responsibility at an increasingly early age. With today's speed-oriented game, teams are more willing than ever to give their draft picks a chance at a younger age -- and that has led to a host of players 21 and under who've made an impact in their short time in the League.
Here's a look at 10 of the NHL's top players who will be 21 or younger through 2011. We're not just rating potential here -- all of these players have played at least one full season in the NHL.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning (21)
Stamkos won't turn 22 until February, but he already has an impressive resume that includes a 51-goal season and a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2009-10. His 96 goals are the most of any player in the NHL in the past two seasons, and the 45 he scored last season were second in the League. Tampa Bay signed him to a five-year contract this summer, and he's the cornerstone of a team that went from three straight playoff misses to within one goal of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
John Tavares, New York Islanders (20)
Tavares, who set scoring records in junior hockey, followed Stamkos as the top player taken in the Entry Draft when the Islanders grabbed him in 2009. His rookie numbers were actually better than those of Stamkos, and he followed that by scoring 29 goals and finishing with 67 points for the Islanders, who have made him the centerpiece of their rebuilding efforts. As he enters his third season with a young, improving team, Tavares is poised for a breakout.
Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche (20)
Duchene fell to Colorado with the third pick in 2009, but the Avs -- Duchene's favorite team as a youngster -- have had nothing to complain about. His 24-goal, 55-point rookie season helped Colorado to a surprise playoff berth, and he improved those numbers to 27 goals and a team-high 67 points in his second season. Like Tavares on Long Island, Duchene figures to be the face of his franchise for years to come.
Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes (19)
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A lot of skeptics thought the Hurricanes made a mistake when they selected Skinner with the seventh pick in the 2010 Entry Draft -- he was 34th in Central Scouting's final rankings of North American skaters. Skinner not only made the 'Canes as an 18-year-old, he was selected for the All-Star Game, led all first-year players in scoring and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. That's a lot of accomplishments for a kid who played the whole season as an 18-year-old and still has plenty of room for growth.
Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers (19)
"Taylor or Tyler" was the big question entering the 2010 Entry Draft -- would the Edmonton Oilers
take Hall or Tyler Seguin
with the No. 1 pick? They opted for Hall, a left wing, and after a slow start he managed 22 goals and 42 points in 65 games with the last-place team in the standings before a broken ankle ended his season in early March. Hall was playing his best hockey before being injured and shows every sign that he's as good as the Oilers felt he was when they made him the first pick last year.
Evander Kane, Winnipeg Jets (20)
How good is Kane? Good enough that hockey icon Bobby Hull
gave his OK for the fourth pick in the 2009 Entry Draft to bring his No. 9 out of retirement in Winnipeg as the relocated Atlanta Thrashers
get ready for their first season in their new home. Kane had 14 goals as a rookie and increased that total to 19, along with 43 points, in his second season. Kane likely won't put up Hull-like numbers, but all signs indicate that he's on the cusp of stardom.
John Carlson, Washington Capitals (21)
Carlson already owned an AHL championship ring and had scored the OT winner to give Team USA the 2010 World Junior Championship when he made the jump to full-time NHL defenseman with the Caps last season. All he did was make the All-Rookie Team while putting up 37 points and a plus-21 rating, while averaging 22:38 of ice time. By the end of the season, Carlson was arguably the Caps' best defenseman.
Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres (21)
Myers stayed with his junior team for another season after the Sabres took him with the 12th pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, and the extra time paid off. Myers jumped into the NHL in 2009-10, became a regular and won the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. He got off to a slow start last season but came on strong and finished with 10 goals and 37 points to help the Sabres to the playoffs. At 6-foot-8 and 227 pounds, he's likely to fill out a little more, making him even more formidable -- especially now that the Sabres have added veterans such as Christian Ehrhoff
and Robyn Regehr
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning (20)
The Lightning were more than happy to take Hedman with the second pick in 2009 after the Islanders snapped up Tavares at No. 1 -- the 6-foot-6 defenseman was the top-rated European skater and was drawing comparisons to Chris Pronger
. He's had a pair of solid seasons for the Bolts, putting up 20 points as a rookie and 26 last season while playing 21 minutes a night. Hedman is emerging as a force on the blue line who will put up enough points to make a difference.
Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks (19)
With Scott Niedermayer
headed for retirement, the Ducks were more than happy to grab Fowler after he slipped from an expected top-five pick down to No. 12. He more than held his own as an 18-year-old, putting up 10 goals and 40 points to help Anaheim to a fourth-place finish in the West. Fowler may not turn out to be Niedermayer, but there's every indication he's on his way to being a first-pair defenseman with significant offensive upside.
Follow John Kreiser on Twitter: @jkreiser7nhl