When this production was last staged, in 2005, the NHL fed its puck-starved fans a steady diet of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, two of the most exciting first-year players in history.They weren’t the only brilliant rookies to make their debuts; the class of 2005-06 includes luminaries such as Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Zach Parise, Shea Weber, and Pekka Rinne.
It follows that teams wanting to shift the 2013 conversation away from escrow and “make-whole” will at least consider ginning up fan interest by sticking a young hotshot in their lineup.
Yet the chances of junior-aged players such as Nail Yakupov, the first pick in last summer’s draft, or Alex Galchenyuk and Morgan Rielly, the third and fifth selections, of being in NHL sweaters during this truncated season still depends heavily on organizational philosophy and financial math.
The 48-game schedule opens Saturday and features five of seven Canadian franchises, including Toronto at Montreal.
From then, teams are expected to have five games to decide on whether to retain their junior-aged players (in past years they’ve had up to nine games).
Doing so will activate that player’s three-year entry-level contract – some teams evidently believe it doesn’t make financial sense to burn one of those years on a shortened season.
On the other hand, the league needs sizzle.
Every season sees one or more teams usher an 18-year-old into the NHL – Buffalo draftee Mikhail Grigorenko centred the third line during the first day of practice and may well be one of them.
Another recently arrived in Edmonton.
Yakupov, the Oilers prospect, turned 19 in October and says he’s aware of the pressure that comes with being the hot new thing.
“I don’t think about it, but everyone knows,” he said. “Sometimes you want to do something crazy on the ice, but I think you just try to be you, play hockey.
Yakopov’s former junior linemate Galchenyuk, who tore up the OHL before winning world junior gold with Team USA, is similarly confident.
“I can only control what I can control. I feel if a player is ready, he’s ready,” he said Sunday.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as rushing or not rushing.”
It’s true there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to determine whether a prospect has the maturity to handle the weight of expectation.
Some do, some don’t. Either way, it’s a demanding adjustment.
“The NHL is not a league you ease into,” said Oilers forward Taylor Hall, the first pick in 2010. “It’s a league that comes right at you, full force, right off the bat.”
Edmonton wing Jordan Eberle, arguably the shiniest of the Oilers’ recent pearls, was sent back to junior as an 18-year-old and later spent a year in the minors.
He points out rookies such as Yakupov, who spent the first half of the season playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, and defenceman Justin Schultz, who dominated the AHL, are different cases.
“For them, I don’t think the leap’s going to be as big as coming out of junior. So, in that aspect, I think they’re ready to go… I don’t think there’s any other better way to prepare yourself for the NHL than that,” he said.
Many factors, then, go into the decision; several Canadian teams are grappling with them.
The Toronto Maple Leafs brought in Rielly, who like Galchenyuk missed almost all of last year because of knee surgery.
Winnipeg invited Mark Scheifele, the seventh pick in 2011 who played nine NHL games last season.
“That’s my goal, to stick with this team for the full year and I’m going to do whatever it takes to do that,” Scheifele told reporters on the weekend.
Ottawa is taking a quick look at 2012 draftee Cody Ceci as it looks to plug holes on its ailing blueline.
Vancouver brought in OHL blueline dynamo Frank Corrado.
Montreal could certainly use Galchenyuk’s dynamism, but it’s hard to imagine the American will be in the lineup on Saturday even if it can be argued he has nothing left to learn in junior.
The last 18-year-old to play a full season for the Canadiens was Petr Svoboda – in 1984. The Canadiens are not known for impatience.
“We’ll evaluate him on a day-to-day basis ... we haven’t made any promises,” general manager Marc Bergevin said.
Others executives are not so cagey.
The New York Islanders may well give 2012 draft pick Griffin Reinhart a shot at a blueline position, and could well put 2011 first-rounder Ryan Strome in the lineup – in the past they’ve given 18-year-olds such as Josh Bailey and John Tavares a chance to play immediately.
Teams such as Colorado (Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog), Carolina (Jeff Skinner), New Jersey (Adam Larsson) and Tampa (Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman) have done likewise in the past half-decade.
Boston brought in 19-year-old defenceman Dougie Hamilton this week, the Florida Panthers invited his Team Canada world junior teammate Jonathan Huberdeau, both are expected to stick.
But it doesn’t always go according to plan.
Ottawa Senators forward Guillaume Latendresse played nine games with his original team, the Canadiens, as an 18-year-old before returning to junior and joining the team full-time the following season.
“It’s like being on a cloud, you just float along with it,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
Now 25, he’s on his third NHL team, and despite his scoring ability, has yet to live up to the expectations that had the Bell Centre chanting “Gui, Gui, Gui.”
“There’s not too many places that make you grow up more quickly than the NHL. I went through more stuff at 18, 19, 20 than a lot of people do in their lives,” he said. “One day I was in Drummondville eating at East Side Mario’s and the next day I was playing for the Canadiens.”