The NHL's greatest teen sensations include Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby

wayneasaking.jpgSince the NHL finally allowed speed and skill to usurp groping and grinding after the lockout, the league has seen wave after wave of instant sensations straight from the draft. From Sidney Crosby to Alex Ovechkin to Drew Doughty and beyond, it almost seems like hockey players are hitting their primes the second their skates hit the professional ice.

That doesn’t mean sensational teen seasons are totally unprecedented, though, even if the Dead Puck Era made those campaigns more or less impossible. John Kreiser spotlights some of the NHL’s “best teenage debuts” in this article and I’ll highlight some of the best bits.

Forwards

Wayne Gretzky

The WHA’s Indianapolis Racers are little more than a footnote in hockey history. But their memory 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, was more than willing to do so. Gretzky 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 rights, so Edmonton was able to keep him when the League absorbed four WHA teams in the summer of 1979, and though skeptics were sure he’d be banged around in the bigger, tougher NHL, he kept right on scoring. By the time Gretzky turned 19, midway through the 1979-80 season, he was already terrorizing goaltenders. He 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.

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Mario Lemieux

Despite missing seven games with injuries, Lemieux became the 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.

Of course, Lemieux isn’t even the highest scoring teen in Penguins history, as Sidney Crosby narrowly edged him with a 101-point debut in the NHL. Other forwards who made the list include Dale Hawerchuk, Steve Yzerman and victim of the Wayne Gretzky Trade Jimmy Carson.

Defensemen

While better overall players Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr also made Kreiser’s list, one very good defenseman had an even better debut season than those two Bruins legends.

Larry Murphy

Since the expansion era began, 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 the 1980 draft 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.

tombarrasso.jpgGoalie

Finally, the teenage goalie performance stands alone.

Tom Barrasso

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.

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.

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    Sabres welcome back oft-injured Kulikov, who has missed 26 games

    CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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    Dmitry Kulikov‘s first year in Buffalo has largely been defined by his lingering back injury, but he’ll set about changing that narrative when he returns to the lineup tonight in Nashville.

    Today, Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed Kulikov would play for the first time since Dec. 27, having missed nearly a month with his lingering ailment.

    Kulikov also missed 13 games earlier in the year with the same back problem.

    Acquired at last year’s draft in a deal that sent Mark Pysyk to Florida — along with picks being exchanged — Kulikov was expected to play a big role in Buffalo this season, and projected to play on the club’s top defensive pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen.

    “You watch Florida when they go on the PK; he was the first guy on the ice, when they needed a goal on the playoffs he was on the ice, when they needed to protect a lead late in the game he was on the ice,” Sabres GM Tim Murray said at the time of the trade, per NHL.com. “So we certainly liked what we saw.”

    All told, the 26-year-old Russian’s appeared in just 20 games this year, registering a single point. He has averaged over 22 minutes per, though — meaning head coach Dan Bylsma has used Kulikov quite a bit, when available.

    Kulikov didn’t take this morning’s skate, so no clear indication on who he’ll pair with this evening.

    Coyotes’ Holland fined for punching Palat

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    Arizona’s Peter Holland has been fined $3,611.11, the maximum allowable under CBA, for punching Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat during Saturday’s Coyotes-Lightning game in Glendale.

    Holland threw the punch halfway through the second period after getting taken out along the boards by Palat. Holland didn’t like the hit, so he got up, dropped his gloves, and leveled the unsuspecting Palat with a bare fist to the face.

    Holland received four minutes for roughing, but the Lightning failed to capitalize with the man advantage.

    The Coyotes would go on to win, 5-3.

    Ladd back for Isles, who are playing well lately

    NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 26:  Andrew Ladd #16 of the New York Islanders skates against the Montreal Canadiens at the Barclays Center on October 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Canadiens defeated the Islanders 3-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    The streaking New York Islanders will get a key piece back on Tuesday, as Andrew Ladd returns from a four-game absence to face the visiting Blue Jackets.

    Ladd has been out of the lineup since Jan. 16 with an upper-body injury.

    “I just wanted to be a part of the way we’ve been playing the last little bit, last five games and have put ourselves back in the position where we can get into the playoff race,” Ladd said, per the Isles’ website. “You try to inject some energy, some emotion into getting back in the lineup and just want to be a part of winning some hockey games. I’m excited to get back in there.”

    As mentioned, the Isles are on a bit of a roll. They’re 4-1-1 in their last six and have points in four straight games, all of which came under interim bench boss Doug Weight. Weight, of course, took over from Jack Capuano after the longtime head coach was fired from his post last week.

    Ladd’s largely been a disappointment this season after signing a monster seven-year, $38.5 million deal in free agency. He has just eight goals and 12 points through 41 games, but did have a decent stretch of production prior to getting hurt.

    The biggest reason for New York’s improved play lately has been Thomas Greiss. Now firmly locked into the starting gig — after Jaroslav Halak cleared waivers and sent to the minors — Greiss has gone 2-0-1 in his last three starts with a 0.98 GAA, and .971 save percentage.

    Unsurprisingly, Greiss will get the nod against Columbus this evening.

    If the Isles can get another result tonight, they could draw closer to the idle Flyers in the wild card chase. New York currently sits just five back of Philly for the final spot, but needs to leapfrog five teams — Boston, Florida, Carolina, New Jersey and Detroit — to get there.

     

     

    Elliott has cooled off, and so have the Flames

    EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Goalie Brian Elliott #1 of the Calgary Flames covers up the puck while playing against the Edmonton Oilers on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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    It looked for a while like Brian Elliott had regained his form. From Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, he went 5-0-0 with a .922 save percentage.

    Alas, things have gone sideways again. From Jan. 6 onward, Elliott has gone 0-3-1 with an .872 save percentage. Last night, he allowed four goals on 28 shots as his Calgary Flames fell, 4-0, in Toronto.

    “I think the difference tonight was they capitalized on some chances that they had and we had some really good looks that we didn’t capitalize,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano, per the Calgary Herald. “That’s the end of the story — it’s a 4-0 game. You have to score at least a few goals to win games in this league.”

    Indeed, it’s hard to blame the goalie when he doesn’t get a single goal of support. The Leafs’ first goal, the winning goal, certainly wasn’t Elliott’s fault.

    But the second goal could’ve been stopped…

    …and the third was the back-breaker, coming with his team on the power play.

    The Flames didn’t put up much of a fight after that. The loss was their third in a row, and tonight they have to play in Montreal.

    Expect Chad Johnson to get the nod against the Canadiens. He hasn’t been too good lately either. In fact, he only lasted 5:58 of his last start, before he was pulled after allowing three goals on four shots in an eventual 7-3 loss to Edmonton.

    Read more: ‘It’s embarrassing,’ says Gulutzan after lopsided loss to Oilers

    The Flames are still in a playoff spot, thanks in large part to the struggles of the Kings and Jets. But for a team that thought its goaltending problems had been solved by the addition of Elliott, it has to be frustrating that the position remains a weak spot.

    Both Elliott and Johnson are pending unrestricted free agents.

    Related: An interesting goalie market awaits in the summer