Fleury was an 18-year-old No. 1 overall pick in 2003, and despite an impressive early performance was dogged by persistent questions during his first month in the NHL about whether he would be sent back to his junior team, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
The QMJHL, like the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League, is mostly for players under 20, and teenagers are not eligible to be sent to an American Hockey League affiliate. Under NHL rules, once an eligible player appears in his 10th game of the season, he cannot be sent back to juniors without repercussions for the team.
Staal and Letang are now in a wait-and-see period similar to the one Fleury endured in 2003.
“Pretty much every day, you read about it in the paper, you hear it on the radio. I was always getting reminded about it,” said Fleury, who ultimately was sent back to Cape Breton and played for Canada in the 2004 world junior championships.
Staal, 18, and Letang, 19, each scored their first NHL goals in Thursday night’s 6-5 win in New York against the Rangers. Second-year player Sidney Crosby, 19, also scored for Pittsburgh, marking the first time in 24 years that three teenagers scored for one team in an NHL game.
It last occurred Oct. 17, 1982, when teenagers Dave Andreychuk, Paul Cyr and Phil Housley scored goals for the Buffalo Sabres in a 6-4 win over Edmonton.
But Staal, the centre taken with No. 2 pick in this past summer’s draft, and Letang, a defenceman and second-round choice in 2005, are not just contributing offensively. Each has taken a regular shift and is averaging more than 10 minutes of ice time per game.
Penguins head coach Michel Therrien has shown enough faith in the youngsters to employ them for special teams units – Letang on the power play and Staal as a penalty-killer.
“The more I play, the better I feel out there and the more confident I’m getting,” said Staal, brother of Carolina Hurricanes star Eric Staal.
Letang, too, said that he is feeling increasingly conformable with each game that he plays, and he said he hopes to stay with Pittsburgh.
“If I do well, they’ll keep me. If I don’t do well, they’ll send me back,” Letang said.
The organization has remained tightlipped about its plans.
“We’ll go one day at a time,” Therrien said. “Right now we are really satisfied.”
Backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault recalled going through a similar process as an 18-year-old first-round pick in 1993, ultimately sticking with the Quebec Nordiques for the entire season. He said Letang and Staal need to keep a positive attitude no matter what happens.
“Sometimes 18-year-olds can be impact players in this league,” Thibault said. “Sometimes, they might be better served to go back to juniors for a year and be that much better for it down the road. It’s management’s decision.”