A look at the best 21-and-under NHL talent
Saturday, 07.17.2010 / 9:42 PM / Features
By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
In today's NHL, the premium put on finding young talent has resulted in players getting more opportunity and responsibility at an increasingly early age. While in years gone by, teams would have mandated that young players spend more time in juniors or a couple of years in the minors, today they're giving those kids the chance to play in the NHL -- and many of them are showing they're already capable of being contributors, with the possibility of stardom not far off.
Here's a look at 10 of the NHL's top players who will be 21 and under when the new season faces off in October. We're not just rating potential -- all of them have played at least one full season in the NHL.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Like many youngsters, it took the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft some time to get his bearings in the NHL. But after scoring 23 times as a rookie, Stamkos took off in 2009-10, tying for the League lead in goals with 51 and finishing fifth in the points race with 95. He was the runaway leader in power-play goals with 24 (no one else had more than 18), and with veterans like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, Stamkos gives new Lightning GM Steve Yzerman a solid foundation to build on.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
As he prepares for his fourth NHL season, Kane (who will outgrow this group in November) has already had enough thrills to last for a career. The No. 1 pick in the 2007 Entry Draft won the Calder Trophy in 2008, then helped the United States to a silver medal at the Winter Olympics in February before scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime four months later. He's coming off a 34-goal, 88-point season and appears ready to be an elite player for years to come.
John Tavares, New York Islanders
Tavares, one of the most heralded junior players in years, stepped right into the NHL after being taken No. 1 in the 2009 Entry Draft and gave the Isles -- last in the overall standings in '08-09 -- an offensive boost. He didn't tear up the League, but he did finish with 24 goals, 30 assists and the promise of a lot more to come as he gets stronger and smarter. The Isles are banking on Tavares to be the cornerstone of their rebuilding efforts.
Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche
Despite a late-season offensive slump, the Avs were more than happy with what they saw from Duchene, whom they selected with the No. 3 pick in 2009. The speedy center finished with 24 goals and a rookie-leading 55 points in 81 games, helping the Avalanche improve from last in the Western Conference in 2008-09 to a playoff team last spring.
Josh Bailey, New York Islanders
Bailey is the only 2008-selected forward other than Stamkos to play two seasons in the NHL. He's still got some growing to do, but the Islanders can't be displeased with what they've seen so far. The 20-year-old, picked No. 9 in '08 after the Isles traded down twice, had 16 goals and 35 points in his second NHL season and showed signs that he's going to be a big part of the future on Long Island.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
The Kings had to "settle" for taking Doughty with the No. 2 pick in 2008 after Tampa Bay grabbed Stamkos at No. 1. But don't cry for GM Dean Lombardi -- Doughty has become the linchpin of the vastly improved Kings. At age 20, he's already their best defensemen, was a Norris Trophy finalist this past season after scoring 16 goals and 59 points, and owns a gold medal after helping Team Canada win the title at the Winter Olympics.
Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres
Myers went to the Sabres 10 picks after the Kings chose Doughty, and both appear headed for stardom. Myers spent 2008-09 in junior hockey, but made an immediate impact this past season with 11 goals and 48 points while averaging 23:44 of ice time. At 6-foot-8, he's hard to get around, and he's only going to get better as he matures.
Michael Del Zotto, New York Rangers
Del Zotto, selected No. 20 in 2008, was an immediate sensation on Broadway, getting off to the kind of start Rangers fans hadn't seen from a defenseman in years. He slowed down somewhat as the season went along but still averaged nearly 19 minutes of ice time in 80 games and finished with 9 goals and 37 points, leading New York's defensemen in both departments.
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
The No. 2 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft had some ups and downs in his first NHL season, but showed the Lightning they weren't wrong to have picked him that high. Hedman, a 6-foot-6, 230-pounder, had 4 goals and 20 points from the blue line as a rookie while averaging 20:50 of ice time in 74 games. Defensemen usually take longer to blossom than forwards, and Hedman showed every sign of being a building block for the Lightning's blue line.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
The Senators probably got more than they expected last season from Karlsson, a Swede who was the 15th choice in the 2008 draft. Karlsson worked his way into a regular spot on the blue line and never gave it back, finishing with 5 goals and 26 points while averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time in 60 games. In the playoffs, he had 6 points in six games and saw an average of 25:51 of ice time. The addition of Sergei Gonchar should speed his development this season.
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist