Here we are, finally, with opening night in the NHL only hours away. It really is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the day the NHL trots out all kinds of facts and figures in order to get fans excited. For example, did you know that the score was within one goal for 75 percent of the 74,758 minutes and 59 seconds of playing time last season? Which is pretty easy to understand when you consider almost nobody scores anymore.
It’s also the day the NHL releases its opening night rosters for the season. And we’re not saying this year’s rosters are young, but some teams might want to consider having their post-game gatherings at an all-ages party instead of a bar. To start the season, there are a total of 29 teenagers on NHL rosters. Some of them, such as Vili Saarijarvi in Detroit, Daniel Sprong in Pittsburgh, Luke Opilka in St. Louis and Jonne Tammela in Tampa, are injured and will likely be dispatched as soon as they are healthy, but it’s an eye-popping number nonetheless.
And when it comes to the effect teenagers will have this season, there are two teams that bear watching. One of them is the Arizona Coyotes, who have an 18-year-old Jakob Chychrun and two 19-year-olds in Lawson Crouse and Dylan Strome to start the season. The other is the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario League, which was counting on making a run for the Memorial Cup this season with Chychrun, Travis Konecny of the Philadelphia Flyers and Pavel Zacha of the New Jersey Devils in their lineup. As it is, the Sting are off to a 5-1-1 start, thanks in part to a league-leading eight goals from Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nikita Korostolev.
It is a rather staggering number and it is a further indication of how younger players are more prepared to play in the NHL than ever before. For instance, everyone knows about Auston Matthews and his skill set. Matthews is a player who has had the spotlight on him for a couple of years now and was on full display at the World Cup of Hockey. But with the Zurich Lions last season, Matthews had a 5-foot-8, 163-pound teammate named Denis Malgin, who was drafted by the Florida Panthers in the fourth round in 2015 and is on their opening day roster at the age of 19. The Calgary Flames, meanwhile, didn’t envision Matthew Tkachuk making the team, but it looks as though he’ll start the season on a line with Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer.
All told, 21 of the league’s 30 teams are starting the season with at least one player who has yet to see his 20th birthday on either their roster or injured list. That number is sure to dwindle as the season goes on. A good number of them will get a nine-game audition before being sent back to junior. Some will stick around until December, then be sent off to play in the World Junior Championship before being sent back for the rest of the season. Others, such as Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Matthews and Patrik Laine, will almost certainly produce and be impact players right from the start of the season.
The combination of NHL-readiness and the fact that they are salary-cap friendly makes putting young players in the lineup a more popular decision now. Sometimes it works out and other times it doesn’t. Can’t imagine there’s a worse way to develop a young player than the way the Ottawa Senators dealt with Curtis Lazar, a player they rushed into the NHL at the age of 19 and allowed him to play a limited, lower-six role for the better part of two seasons before dispatching him to the minors to start the 2016-17 season. So now you have a kid who’s probably wondering what he did wrong when, in reality, he did nothing wrong. The Senators were doing a great job of taking a kid with some real offensive skill and making him a 15-goal scorer as an NHL player. And now they’re basically back to scratch.
Which makes the Red Wings formula of having their players over-ripen before putting them in the NHL a wise way of doing it. Some kids are phenoms and they’re going to be great as teenagers. Others who are rushed might not have ever been good enough to be impact players regardless of when they came into the NHL. But one thing is clear. Hockey’s scrap heap is littered with players who came into the NHL too young and couldn’t handle the rigors of playing in the best league in the world, but nobody has ever been able to find a player who has been ruined by spending too much time in junior hockey or the minors.
Here’s the list of players from each team who have not yet reached their 20th birthday:
Jacob Larsson, 19, D
Jakob Chychrun, 18, D
Lawson Crouse, 19, LW
Dylan Strome, 19, LW
Brandon Carlo, 19, D (turns 20 in November)
Jack Eichel, 19, C
Matthew Tkachuk, 18, LW
Sebastian Aho, 19, RW
Noah Hanifin, 19, D
Mikko Rantanen, 19, RW (injured, turns 20 in late October)
Zach Werenski, 19, D
Vili Saarijarvi, 19, D (injured)
Connor McDavid, 19, C
Jesse Puljujarvi, 18, RW
Denis Malgin, 19, C
Mikhail Sergachev, 18, D
Blake Speers, 19, RW
Pavel Zacha, 19, LW
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Mathew Barzal, 19, C
Anthony Beauvillier, 19, LW
NEW YORK RANGERS
Thomas Chabot, 19, D
Travis Konecny, 19, LW
Ivan Provorov, 19, D
Daniel Sprong, 19, RW (injured)
Luke Opilka, G, 19 (injured)
Jonne Tammela, 19, RW (injured)
Mitch Marner, 19, RW
Auston Matthews, 19, C
Patrik Laine, 18, RW