Commentary

Starting in NHL as a teenager doesn't mean instant success

Updated: December 14, 2007, 3:02 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It's a classic example of how enamored NHL clubs can be of teenage players one moment, and how anxious they can be to dump the same players soon after.

And how there's absolutely no guarantee that young players pressed into NHL service before their 20th birthdays are so talented that they'll turn into stars like Sidney Crosby, or so hastily promoted that they'll end up enormous busts like Alexandre Daigle.

The truth is, it usually takes years for either scenario to play out.

[+] EnlargeVincent Lecavalier
Scott Levy/Getty ImagesVincent Lecavalier's road to the 2006-07 Rocket Richard Trophy wasn't a smooth one.

Both Vincent Lecavalier and Nik Antropov, you may recall, were drafted into the NHL the same year (1998), one a Quebec-born Canadian and the other a prodigy from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Six months before that draft, the two had crossed paths at the World Junior Championship in Finland, where, in the remote town of Hameenlinna, Antropov and his fellow Kazakhs pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the event's history over Lecavalier and Team Canada.

Lecavalier went first overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the 6-foot-6 Antropov, seen very much as a project, was selected 10th by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Within two seasons, both were in the NHL as 19-year-old regulars, although Lecavalier actually played at 18 shortly after being proclaimed the "Michael Jordan of hockey" by Art Williams, then-owner of the Lightning.

In theory, their futures with those teams were set, having made it to the big time so quickly. They were part of a strong group of teenage players that hit the league in the 1999-2000 season, a crew that might have been as good, or better, than the outstanding list of 18- and 19-year-olds that are putting up impressive numbers this season.

The 1999-2000 group of 22 youngsters, which included David Legwand (Nashville) and Simon Gagne (Philadelphia), had amassed 172 points, including 57 goals, by Dec. 13 of that season.

This season, led by Chicago's dynamic duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Edmonton's Sam Gagner, 16 teenagers have registered 132 points by Dec. 13, the most for any group of teenage NHLers since that 1999-2000 campaign.

The stories of Antropov and Lecavalier, however, offer a cautionary tale for those who think kids who quickly make it big never have to worry about their place in the game again.

Less than two seasons after that 1999-2000 campaign, both the Lightning and Leafs had grown sour with their young stars, sour enough that both were involved in a proposed blockbuster swap between the two teams the day before the Christmas trading spree in December 2001.

The Leafs would get Lecavalier, while the Bolts would receive Antropov, defenseman Tomas Kaberle, veteran winger Jonas Hoglund and either Brad Boyes (Toronto's top pick in the 2000 draft) or the Leafs' No. 1 selection in 2002.

"As far as I'm concerned, we had a deal," said Bill Watters, then an assistant GM with the Maple Leafs under GM/coach Pat Quinn. "The amazing thing is that if you take the four players we offered, including Boyes, and add up their points, [then-Tampa GM Rick Dudley] wins the deal by a country mile.

"It was a hell of a deal. We would have got the best player in the deal, so we felt comfortable."

Lecavalier's progress as a player seemed to have stalled, and he was feuding with coach John Tortorella to the extent that Dudley believed he had to be moved. Kaberle looked like a future All-Star, but Antropov had quickly earned a reputation as brittle. So, the Leafs were hoping to swing the deal and give the club a natural successor to Mats Sundin as the team's captain and top center.

Dudley, however, couldn't get Tampa's ownership to approve the deal, at least partially because team president Ron Campbell and Jay Feaster, then the club's assistant GM, were against the trade. Lecavalier, of course, went on to be a big part of Tampa's Stanley Cup victory in 2004, and he won last season's "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal scorer; this season, many say, he has asserted himself as the best player in the game.

And Antropov?

"Before Anders Hedberg, who had been our chief scout when we drafted Antropov, left the team [in 1999], he came into my office and said, 'Promise me you won't let them trade Antropov,'" recalled Watters. "Of course, I can't take any credit, because I did try to trade him three or four times after that. But Anders knew what he was."

This season, Antropov has finally matured into the player Hedberg believed he could be. With 31 points in 31 games, the forward, now 27, is tied for 23rd in NHL scoring while delivering a dominant style of offensive play.

That both Lecavalier and Antropov have made it as significant NHLers with the same team that drafted them makes them exceptions to the rule.

Consider the rest of the 1999-2000 teenage crop:

The Stars
Lecavalier leads the group, with the best of the rest being Gagne, Ottawa Senators center Mike Fisher, New York Rangers center Scott Gomez and Calgary forward Alex Tanguay.

The Reliables
Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr has matured into a strong stay-at-home blueliner. Legwand and Mike Ribeiro, drafted by Montreal and now with Dallas, are effective point producers, and Antropov may finally be fitting into this group.

The Disappointments
Manny Malhotra, drafted in the first round (seventh overall) of the 1998 draft, was in the NHL as an 18-year-old with the Rangers, but he has never matured into a front-line forward and is now with his third team (Columbus). Brad Stuart, a defenseman taken third in that draft, was in the NHL by age 19 but hasn't become the All-Star blueliner many projected him to be. Defenseman Martin Skoula, forward Rico Fata, defenseman Mathieu Biron, center Artem Chubarov, rear guard Steve McCarthy, winger Oleg Saprykin and defenseman David Tanabe have all bounced around despite making it to the NHL as teenagers.

Damaged Goods
The most dramatic health setback was suffered by Detroit's Jiri Fischer, who played 52 NHL games as a 19-year-old, was part of the Red Wings' 2002 championship team and looked poised for a long career as a tough, stay-at-home blueliner. But he suffered a heart attack during a game in the 2005-06 season and was forced into early retirement after only 305 NHL games.

Tim Connolly has passed the 400-game mark, but his production as an offensive pivot has been limited by concussions and other injuries. Patrik Stefan was the No. 1 pick of the 1999 draft and was in the NHL the following September. He's in the Swiss league now, and his NHL career would be seen as disappointing if he had not struggled with concussions from the outset.

Boston's Jonathan Girard actually played on the Bruins' defense at 18 and 19 after being drafted 48th overall in 1998. In the summer of 2003, he was involved in a serious car accident and suffered a broken pelvis, hip and neck. After two years of comeback attempts, he was forced to retire in November 2005.

So is there a lesson to be learned from the super teens of the 1999-2000 season?

Not really. There's no discernible trend, other than to say, based on that group of players, being in the NHL by 18 or 19 is no guarantee of future success.

That said, it's noteworthy that many of the best players from the 1998 draft -- Jonathan Cheechoo, Brad Richards, Erik Cole, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Shawn Horcoff, Trent Hunter, Andrei Markov, Pavel Datsyuk and Michael Ryder -- didn't make it to the NHL until they were 20 or older.

Getting there by 18 or 19 means getting your hands on an NHL paycheck sooner. Malhotra, for example, has never scored more than 12 goals or 31 points in an NHL season, but he started earning NHL pay in 1998 and is closing in on $8 million in career earnings.

Horcoff, on the other hand, wasn't in the NHL until the 2000-01 season. But after signing a lucrative, multiyear deal in the summer of 2006, he's over $10 million in career earnings and has far greater earning potential now than Malhotra.

So, taking it slow doesn't necessarily mean never being able to catch up.

There's no right or wrong, but also potentially little advantage to the teenage player or the team that has him. It's open to debate. Were the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jordan Staal well-served having the young forward make the NHL as an 18-year-old last season after only two seasons of major junior hockey? He potted 29 goals last season, but this year his development seems stalled and he's managed only two goals in 30 games.

By contrast, his older brother, Marc, was drafted a year earlier, but made it to the NHL a year later after four major junior seasons with the Sudbury Wolves, two World Junior Championships and 12 AHL playoff games. This season with the New York Rangers, Marc has made an impact, often playing more than 20 minutes per game while looking like a future star.

So for all the sparkling teenagers of this season -- from Toews and Kane in Chicago to Gagner in Edmonton, from Erik Johnson in St. Louis to Nick Foligno in Ottawa, from Peter Mueller in Phoenix to James Sheppard in Minnesota -- the lesson is probably clear.

Getting to the big time early doesn't necessarily mean you've made it big. Or to stay.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.