Most NHL teams have some young guns.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have an entire arsenal.
Eleven rookies have played at least one game for the Penguins this year. While it doesn’t come close to the franchise’s record of 19 newbies in the 1987-88 season, it’s pretty significant when nearly half of the team is considered a rookie.
“We have a good crop of young guys here. They are getting more and more experience every game they’re in,” said Penguins defenseman Ric Jackman, a six-year NHL veteran. “A lot of guys have stepped their games up. Hopefully, we can put a good run together here.”
According to Bob Waterman from Elias Sports Bureau, a player is considered a rookie if:
He has not played more than 25 games in any previous single season, or played six or more games in each of any two previous seasons.
So, if you played in only one previous season, and played exactly 25 games, you would still be a rookie (Fedor Tyutin of the Rangers is an example), but if you played 26 games, you would not. If you had brief NHL stints in two prior years, and played, say, 22 games one season and four in the other, you would still be a rookie, but if you played eight games one season and six in the other, you would not.
Even if a player has not exceeded the games maximum, he is not considered a rookie if he was at least 26 years old by Sep. 15 prior to the season in question. That’s the “Sergei Makarov rule,” put in effect after the 31-year-old former USSR star won the Calder Trophy in the 1989-90 season.
The Penguins have 11 players who fit into those criteria and have appeared in at least one NHL game this year: forwards Sidney Crosby, Erik Christensen, Michel Ouellet, Colby Armstrong, Maxime Talbot, Matt Murley, Shane Endicott and Jani Rita; defenseman Ryan Whitney; and goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin.
Defenseman Rob Scuderi, who played in 13 NHL games prior to this year, would have been considered a rookie, but the 27-year-old exceeds the age limit.
The Penguins, currently with eight rookies on their NHL roster, lead the league in newbies.
“You look around the league at the other teams and I don’t think they have as many rookies as we do. I think, for the most part, most of the guys are doing pretty well,” Armstrong said. “They are working hard. I think that’s what it comes down to – just working hard and doing the right things. Coach Therrien has a system that he puts in place and if you follow it and work hard, you’re going to get rewarded with points or playing more and whatnot.”
While they may be in a new environment this year, a majority of the Penguins rookies are very familiar with each other. Christensen, Ouellet, Armstrong, Talbot, Murley, Endicott, Whitney, Fleury and Sabourin all played for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, last season. Crosby was the first-overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, while Rita came to Pittsburgh via trade on Jan. 26.
“We pretty much all played together last year. It’s fun to have the same bunch of guys,” said Fleury, who saw action in 21 games in Pittsburgh in 2003-04. “We all get along well. We know everybody wants to win and work hard, so it’s pretty cool.
“All the guys have good skill. I think we will play in the NHL for a while, too.”
Also, the fact that head coach Michel Therrien and assistant Mike Yeo were promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to take over the Penguins on Dec. 15 allows most of the rookies to play a familiar system.
“It’s nice to see a lot of faces here that I’ve known from Wilkes-Barre, so it makes it easier,” Armstrong said. “One thing with our system is that we have to be on our toes. A lot of the guys have played [the system] now for a few years now down in Wilkes-Barre with Michel Therrien, so they know that you have to be on your toes. If you’re a first-year guy coming up, you’re going to have to work really hard if you want to stay here.
“I think all the guys know that. I am just trying to work hard and stay here as long as I can and doing all the right things,” he continued. “That means working hard and playing my role, killing penalties and chipping in here and there and having good shifts. I think everyone has that in the back of their heads, too.”
The rookies enjoyed much success under Therrien in his two and a half seasons in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“Usually you have one or two rookies and they are pretty quiet. With the amount of rookies we have, those guys feel comfortable because some played two years together [in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton]. So it makes their transition a little better,” Therrien said. “First of all, when they come to the dressing room, they feel comfortable because they already know half of their teammates and most of their coaches. It’s a different atmosphere when they’re coming in because they feel comfortable right from the start.”
The rookies aren’t just coming along for the ride, either. They are contributing in a major way. Through 59 games, they have combined to score 63 of the team’s 165 goals (38.2 percent).
Individually, the 18-year-old Crosby (28+37) is second in overall rookie scoring and first in assists, while the 23-year-old Ouellet (13+11) ranks 16th in NHL rookie points and third among first-year right wingers. However, he has played the fewest games (28) of the NHL’s top 30 rookie scorers. Whitney (1+17) is 11th in NHL rookie defenseman scoring.
“Ouellet is scoring some pretty big goals for us. You can go right down the line to other guys, too,” Armstrong said. “It is kind of a trickle effect, I guess, but I think everyone’s doing what they have to do. For now, it’s looking good.”
Ouellet attributes a lot of his success to his familiarity with Therrien’s system.
“I think it’s all about Michel’s systems. We got used to it the last two years in Wilkes-Barre. We are playing the same way – we are just putting forth the effort for the entire 60 minutes. That’s what we learned the last two years and we’re doing it here and having success, too,” he said. “It’s like leadership. When a guy is working hard, you follow him and you’re going to have success, too. You’re going to be a hard worker. It’s the same way when someone has success. The other guys just want to follow him and get success, too. When everyone has success, you win hockey games.”
The Penguins had nine rookies appear in games twice this season – Jan. 3 in Montreal and Jan. 6 in Atlanta. That’s the most since they played 10 on Jan. 27, 1988, in a 4-1 loss to Winnipeg.
The rookies put their names in the record books in that 6-4 win in Montreal, too. All six Penguins goals were scored by rookies. Crosby had two, while Ouellet, Talbot and Endicott tallied goals. According to Waterman, it was only the fifth time in the NHL’s “modern era” that a team produced six or more goals in a game and they were all scored by rookies.
Coincidentally, the Montreal Canadiens were the last team to accomplish that feat. They did it on Oct. 15, 1986, as Kjell Dahlin and Stephane Richer scored twice and Sergio Momesso and Brian Skrudland both had goals in an 11-6 loss at Hartford.
In addition, that Penguins rookie outburst was the most in the most in the NHL since the Mighty Ducks had goals from four rookies (Frank Banham, Mike Crowley, Josef Marha and Pavel Trnka) in their 4-1 win in Los Angeles on April 18, 1998.
Therrien is pleased with the talent Pittsburgh’s organization has churned out so far and will continue to produce.
“We feel very confident with our young players. Being in the American Hockey League, I had the chance to compare our young players to other organizations,” he said. “We feel these [rookies] progressed through their careers and they have the stuff to play in the NHL. We are pleased and proud with having quality young players.”