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A Look At Some of the NHL's Best Teenage Debuts

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Edmonton Oilers are hoping that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' success in junior hockey carries over into his NHL career -- even though there are no guarantees that it will start this fall.

The Oilers took Nugent-Hopkins with the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft, and they hope he'll be ready for a regular role at age 18 -- just as Taylor Hall was for Edmonton last season. Hall, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, went through some growing pains but was playing some of his best hockey when an ankle injury ended his season prematurely. He finished with 22 goals and 42 points in 65 games.

The two previous No. 1 picks, Steven Stamkos (2008) and John Tavares (2009), both look like they'll go on to long and successful careers after entering the NHL immediately after being drafted as 18-year-olds. Stamkos had 21 goals as an 18-year-old, but his 96 goals in the past two seasons are the most in the NHL, while Tavares is coming off consecutive 20-goal seasons with the New York Islanders and shows signs that he's capable of a lot more.

Here's a look at some of the best debut seasons ever by players who made their debut as 18-year-olds or in the first season immediately after turning pro:


Wayne Gretzky
Jan. 26, 1961
Signed with Indianapolis (WHA) for 1978-79 season
1978-79 in WHA (Indianapolis/Edmonton):
1979-80 in NHL (Edmonton): 51-86-137

The Indianapolis Racers are little more than a footnote in hockey history these days. But their name will live on for one thing: signing a skinny 17-year-old from Brantford, Ont., named Wayne Gretzky. The NHL wouldn't touch players that young -- but the WHA, then in its dying season, wasn't as picky. Gretzky, a star in junior hockey, played just eight games with the Racers before being sold to Edmonton and helping the Oilers make it to the last WHA final (they lost). No NHL team owned Gretzky's rights -- he'd never been drafted because of his age -- so Edmonton was able to keep him when the NHL absorbed four WHA teams in the summer of 1979. Though skeptics were sure he'd be banged around in the bigger, tougher NHL, Gretzky kept right on scoring. By the time he turned 19, midway through the 1979-80 season, he was already terrorizing goaltenders. Gretzky finished his first season with 137 points, tying L.A.'s Marcel Dionne for the scoring lead (Dionne won the Art Ross Trophy by scoring two more goals) and leading the Oilers to the playoffs.

Because he had played a pro season in the WHA, Gretzky was ineligible for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie. Though it's not listed as the rookie record, Gretzky 137 points are still the most ever by a player who was 18 for any part of a season. It's just another entry in the Great One's catalog of records.

Dale Hawerchuk
Birthday: April 3, 1963
Drafted: No. 1 in 1981 by Winnipeg
1981-82: 34-58-103

Hawerchuk came into the NHL after an incredible season with Cornwall of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, scoring 81 goals and 183 points in 72 games while leading his team to the Memorial Cup and earning Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year honors.

It was no surprise when the Jets -- coming off a season in which they won just nine of 80 games -- took Hawerchuk with the first pick in the 1981 draft and put him right into the lineup. He stepped in and became the first NHL rookie to score 40 goals and finish with 100 points in the same season.

Hawerchuk's spectacular rookie season not only earned him the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie, it helped the Jets to a 43-point improvement and a second-place finish in the Smythe Division. Hawerchuk led the Jets in scoring for nine consecutive seasons on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Sidney Crosby
Aug. 7, 1987
Drafted: No. 1 in 2005 by Pittsburgh
2005-06: 39-63-102

Crosby was the most hyped junior player in years, and the Penguins won a lottery after the work stoppage to obtain the No. 1 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft they used to take him.

"Sid the Kid" quickly showed why he was so highly regarded, becoming one of only seven players to reach the 100-point mark in his rookie season -- and only the fourth to do so as an 18-year-old (the third to do it in his first season after being drafted). Given the drop in scoring since the 1980s, an argument can be made that Crosby's rookie season was the most impressive by a first-year player of any age in the 40-plus years since expansion.

The Penguins had finished last in the overall standings in 2003-04 before landing Crosby and were only marginally better (29th overall) with him in the lineup as a rookie. But two years later, Crosby and the rebuilt Penguins were Stanley Cup finalists; one year after that, they were champions.

Mario Lemieux
Oct. 5, 1965
Drafted: No. 1 in 1984 by Pittsburgh
1984-85: 43-57-100

The Penguins' reward for finishing last in 1983-84 was the chance to draft Lemieux, an immensely talented 18-year-old center from Laval of the QMJHL. He showed his skills immediately, scoring on his first shot during the first shift of his NHL career.

Despite missing seven games with injuries, Lemieux became the second-youngest 100-point scorer in NHL history and earned the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. The Penguins improved by 15 points -- though they were still next-to-last in the League with 53.

Lemieux continued to pile up points, though the Penguins needed five years after his arrival to get into the playoffs. He led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, and won a third Cup as an owner (and Crosby's landlord) in 2009.

Steve Yzerman
May 9, 1965
Drafted: No. 4 in 1983 by Detroit
1983-84: 39-48-87

It might seem incredible now, but Yzerman wasn't the player the Detroit Red Wings had hoped to draft with the fourth choice in 1983. They really wanted Pat LaFontaine, who had played in the Detroit area and (they felt) might help sell tickets for a team that was having trouble at the box office. But when the New York Islanders nabbed LaFontaine with the No. 3 pick in the draft, the Wings had to "settle" for Yzerman, a high-scoring center with Peterborough of the OHL.

Though Yzerman had the best scoring numbers of any rookie in 1983-84, he finished second in voting for the Calder Trophy to Buffalo goaltender Tom Barrasso, a fellow 18-year-old. Yzerman's presence helped the Wings improve by 12 points and make the playoffs. He became the Wings' captain when he was 21, went on to score as many as 155 points in a season and later became one of hockey's greatest leaders while sparking the Wings to three Stanley Cups and earning a berth in the Hall of Fame.

Jimmy Carson
July 20, 1968
Drafted: No. 2 in 1986 by Los Angeles
1986-87: 37-42-79

The Kings were in disarray after finishing 1985-86 next-to-last in the overall standings -- their 54 points left them ahead of only the Red Wings. After the Wings took Joe Murphy with the No. 1 pick in the 1986 Entry Draft, the Kings used the second pick to grab Carson, a Michigan native who was a high-scoring center with Verdun of the QMJHL.

Carson stepped right into the Kings' lineup at age 18 and began putting up points. He finished second on the team in goals (behind fellow rookie Luc Robitaille, a 20-year-old) and third in points, helping the Kings improve by 16 points and make the playoffs. Carson was even more spectacular as a 19-year-old, scoring 55 goals and 107 points.

In the summer of 1988, Carson was part of the package the Kings sent to Edmonton for Wayne Gretzky. He scored 49 goals and 100 points in his first season with the Oilers -- but he was not Gretzky, and quickly became uncomfortable in Edmonton. Carson was traded to Detroit in 1991 but never reached the heights he'd hit in his early years.

Jeff Skinner
May 16, 1992
Drafted: No. 7 in 2010 by Carolina
2010-11: 31-32-63

His numbers don't rival those of Gretzky or Lemieux, but considering that he plays in an era when points are harder to come by, Skinner's achievements may be just as impressive.

Skinner's selection by Carolina with the seventh pick in the 2010 draft was a stunner -- Central Scouting rated him just 34th among North American skaters despite a 50-goal, 90-point season with Kitchener in 2009-10. More stunning was that he earned a job with the Hurricanes and looked right at home in the NHL despite being the League's youngest player.

Skinner scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 20, became the first 18-year-old since Steve Yzerman to make the All-Star Game when he was named as an injury replacement for Crosby and finished his first NHL season with 31 goals and 63 points. That was good enough to win the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie, making Skinner the first player since Tom Barrasso in 1983 to do so while playing all or most of his first season as an 18-year-old.


Ray Bourque
Dec. 28, 1960
Drafted: No. 8 in 1979 by Boston
1979-80: 17-45-62

After seven teams passed on him, the Boston Bruins chose Bourque, a Montreal native coming off back-to-back 22-goal seasons on the blue line with Verdun of the QMJHL, with the eighth selection in the 1979 draft.

Most of the 18-year-olds who were able to make an impact did so largely because they were chosen by weak teams. That wasn't the case with Bourque, who was joining a team that had come within two minutes of making the Stanley Cup Final the previous spring. Despite joining one of the NHL's elite, Bourque showed he was more than ready for a full-time job by putting up 17 goals and leading Boston's defensemen in scoring. The Bruins improved to 105 points from 100, though they finished second in the Adams Division and were upset in the preliminary round of the playoffs.

Bourque went on to a Hall of Fame career, finally winning a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001 after two decades with the Bruins.

Larry Murphy
March 8, 1961
Drafted: No. 4 in 1980 by Los Angeles
1980-81: 16-60-76

In the expansion era, no defenseman has had a bigger effect on his team in the first season after he was drafted than Larry Murphy did with Los Angeles in 1980-81.

The Kings, who historically had struggled defensively, took Murphy with the fourth choice in 1980 and wasted no time putting him into the lineup. They were rewarded with a 16-goal, 76-point season -- still the most assists and points by a first-year defenseman in NHL history -- and a 25-point improvement in the standings.

Los Angeles dealt Murphy to Washington in 1983-84, and he went on to win Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh and Detroit en route to the Hall of Fame.

Bobby Orr
March 20, 1948
Not drafted; signed by Boston in 1962
1966-67: 13-28-41

The Boston Bruins and New York Rangers spent much of the pre-expansion 1960s battling to avoid last place in the six-team NHL. Both teams finally dug themselves out, and the arrival of Orr was a big reason for Boston's improvement.

Orr was a sensation almost from the time he began playing hockey at age 4. The Bruins discovered him at a bantam tournament and paid to sponsor his team, then signed him at age 14. He played for Oshawa of the Ontario League at 15, and in his final season led the Generals to the league title with 94 points in 47 games.

Teenagers didn't get NHL jobs in the Original Six era, but Orr did -- and promptly showed what all the fuss was about by scoring 13 goals and 41 points in 61 games as a rookie playing for a last-place team. That was more than enough to earn him the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie -- and generate one of hockey's most famous quotes. Rangers defenseman Harry Howell, who had a career year and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman, said, "I'm glad I won it now, because it's going to belong to that Orr from now on."

It did -- for the next eight years. Orr was the game's greatest player through the first half of the 1970s before knee problems did what opponents never could -- shut him down. He played only 36 games after 1974-75 and hung up his skates for good at age 31.


Tom Barrasso
March 31, 1965
Drafted: No. 5 in 1983 by Buffalo
1983-84: 26-12-3, 2.84 GAA, 2 shutouts

It's hard enough for any rookie to step into the NHL just a few months after being drafted. That goes double for kids coming out of U.S. high schools -- and especially for goaltenders. But Tom Barrasso did just that after the Buffalo Sabres took him with the fifth selection in the 1983 draft.

Barrasso had been spectacular at Acton-Boxboro in Massachusetts, piling up 17 shutouts in 46 games in his last two seasons. He quickly showed those numbers were no fluke by coming to a veteran team, earning a regular job by beating out two experienced NHL goaltenders (Phil Myre and Jacques Cloutier) and winning 26 games with a 2.84 goals-against average while helping the Sabres improve from 89 to 103 points.

Not only did Barrasso win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie, he took home the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender and was named a First-Team All-Star. No teenage goaltender has come close to his accomplishments, and it's hard to see anyone doing it in the near future.

Barrasso went on to win two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in the early 1990s and retired with 369 victories, now the second-highest total by a U.S.-born goaltender.

Follow John Kreiser on Twitter: @jkreiser7nhl

Author: John Kreiser | Columnist

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