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Prospects get early chance to prove themselves in NHL

Dylan Larkin got two points in his first NHL game. Andre Ringuette/NHLI/Getty Images

For the few teenagers mere months removed from their draft day and lucky enough to make an opening night roster, earning an immediate NHL spot is a tremendous honor. But if recent history is any indication, it almost always guarantees a whole lot of losing.

It's practically a rite of passage by now. Teenage phenoms such as Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane face a few hard-luck seasons before becoming superstars on championship teams. But a few teams in 2015-16 are tweaking that trend and showing that an early start to an NHL career doesn't have to come with all that losing.

Top picks Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel aren't expected to see any playoff action for a few seasons. But another collection of teenage phenoms are getting the call from teams that have their sights set not just on the playoffs, but a championship run.

"It is remarkable. I think it's part and parcel of the salary-cap era," said Neil Smith, a former NHL scout, coach and general manager who was the architect of the New York Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup team.

"You've got to keep your costs on certain positions to a minimum. If you can use a young guy, then it's going to be better for your cap. I think that's why you're seeing a lot more young players used these days. They take up less cap room."

Perhaps no team better demonstrates this sudden philosophical shift than the Detroit Red Wings. Owners of a league-best 24 consecutive playoff appearances, the Red Wings have become a picture of consistency by being extra cautious when it comes to promoting prospects. But they did an about-face this season when they added 19-year-old Dylan Larkin to their roster.

The Michigan native and 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft didn't just defy the franchise's golden rule. He defied expectations, scoring seven points in his first nine games and inspiring Detroit to keep him aboard for more than nine games, which financially requires the Wings to keep him all season. The last teenager to spend a season with the Red Wings was Jiri Fischer in 1999-2000. Fischer is now the Wings' director of player development.

Teams are forced to burn the first season of a player's entry-level contract once they play their 10th game of the season. So the decision to keep Larkin isn't one the Red Wings took lightly, and it's one other competitive teams are making.

A look around the league sees a number of teenage players suddenly planted on the roster of established teams looking to make a playoff run. Nikolaj Ehlers has made an instant impact with the Winnipeg Jets, scoring four goals and eight points in his first 10 games. Teenage players in similar positions include Daniel Sprong of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann with the Vancouver Canucks.

A model of consistency, the St. Louis Blues won their season opener on a third-period goal by 19-year-old Robby Fabbri, the club's first-round pick (21st overall) in 2014. A concussion forced Fabbri to miss six games and allowed the Blues more time to decide how long they'll keep the rookie forward.

"I think the game has changed. You're not going to use younger players if they can't play and can't compete," Smith said. "You're getting speed and skill with these young guys that can't be offset by intimidation or clutching and grabbing."

Larkin is 190 pounds, and Ehlers tips the scales at 172. That's a stark contrast from the members of the 1993 draft class who went straight to the NHL. That class included Chris Pronger and Chris Gratton, who weighed 210 and 220 pounds, respectively.

Smith most remembers that draft class for another player who went straight to the Edmonton Oilers and enjoyed a long and fruitful career.

"Jason Arnott was drafted by the Oilers, and it was obvious from when he came in to meet with us that he was a man but at the age of a boy. He was only 18, but he was a man physically," Smith said. "Jason Arnott went right to Edmonton and played right away and never played in the minors. That's because of that size and strength that he had. That was then."

Bringing young players into the NHL typically used to mean little more than a per diem and an itinerary. That changed when Crosby spent his first NHL season living at the home of Penguins co-owner and chairman Mario Lemieux. It's a plan that almost every NHL team has since emulated.

"When I was 18, you just went, and no one told you anything," former player Bobby Carpenter said. "There is so much more information now. Today, 18-year-olds are much more prepared."

Carpenter should know better than most. Drafted third overall in 1981, he was a teen sensation when he joined the Washington Capitals as an 18-year-old. He played 18 NHL seasons and passed on what he learned to other prospects when he worked in player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"That was part of my job with Toronto with player development," Carpenter said. "I would go talk to young kids and help them and explain to them what is expected of them, what's going to happen."

The trend toward young players barely out of high school is necessitated by the reality of the cap. It's the reason the Chicago Blackhawks have been once again forced to restructure their roster after winning the Stanley Cup. With six players (Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford) earning a large proportion of their cap, Chicago has succeeded using European free-agent signings Viktor Svedberg and Artemi Panarin, who are both 24.

But if this season is any indication, teams are mostly looking to their youngest prospects in order to retool. And if that prospect happens to be a local kid such as Larkin, who also matriculated at the University of Michigan, then even better, especially if he can help the Red Wings get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.