- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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In a 30-team NHL, we're seeing more talented teens getting a chance at an early jump on their big league careers.
In Edmonton, for example, 18-year-old Sam Gagner, selected sixth overall in last June's draft, is putting in nearly 14 minutes of ice time per game for the rebuilding Oilers. Gagner, currently the youngest player in the league, has made an early mark as a shootout specialist, converting four of eight chances.
With an eye toward the future, here's a scouting report on some of the league's most talented teenagers.
Sam Gagner, C, Oilers
Age: 18; Turns 20: 8/10/2009
The son of former NHLer Dave Gagner, Sam has terrific hands, excellent hockey sense and he sees the ice well. He isn't the swiftest skater, but most scouts believe he will improve that facet of his game. He's a point producer who has the smarts to develop into a well-rounded player.
2017-18 projection: A No. 1 center who can eclipse the 100-point mark.
Erik Johnson, D, Blues
Age: 19; Turns 20: 3/21/2008
If he were a baseball player, noted one scout, we'd be calling him a "five-tool" player. Johnson is a big man who can skate, shoot and pass. He does everything well. The Minnesota native can play in any type of game and excel.
2017-18 projection: A No. 1 defenseman and Norris Trophy candidate.
Patrick Kane, LW, Blackhawks
Age: 19; Turns 20: 11/19/2008
The Buffalo, N.Y., native is a gifted offensive player. He has great puck skills. Kane has tremendous quickness, but he never rushes to make a play. Although he's a smaller player (5-foot-10, 170 pounds), Kane's very elusive and doesn't seem to get hit too often. He has super hands and vision and a true passion for the game.
2017-18 projection: A first-line winger who'll be among the league's top point producers.
Milan Lucic, LW, Bruins
Age 19; Turns 20: 6/7/2008
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Lucic is a rugged, tough winger who can finish around the net. The Vancouver native is the kind of player who helps a team win. One scout likened him to Stars captain Brendan Morrow. His game has improved dramatically in the past 12-18 months.
2017-18 projection: A second- or third-line type who could score 20-plus goals and run up 150 penalty minutes.
Peter Mueller, C, Coyotes
Age 19; Turns 20: 4/14/2008
Mueller is a creative player who possesses excellent puck skills. Several scouts have been impressed with his playmaking ability. They don't mind his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, either. At this point, he's an average skater. He can work to improve that.
2017-18 projection: Top-six forward who has the ability to be a point-producing No. 1 center.
David Perron, LW, Blues
Age 19; Turns 20: 5/28/2008
Blues coach Andy Murray says this rookie sniper just loves to be on the ice; he spends extra time working on his skills after practice. Perron is a very skilled player who is stronger on the puck than you think. One scout said the offensively gifted winger has "tricky" skill.
2017-18 projection: A top-six forward who'll produce very good offensive numbers.
James Sheppard, C, Wild
Age 19; Turns 20: 4/25/2008
The lanky pivot isn't viewed as a flashy player; scouts see him as smart with the puck. If he were in another organization, he might've spent another season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Wild, however, believe their top prospects benefit more from working with savvy coach Jacques Lemaire. It's hard to argue with that.
2017-18 projection: Sheppard will be a good second-line center.
Jordan Staal, C, Penguins
Age: 19; Turns 20: 9/10/2008
Statistically, Staal is struggling during his sophomore season in Pittsburgh (he has just six points in 30 games). Still, scouts see him as a top-notch, two-way player who can score and check and help you win. He's a big kid (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) with a long reach, and he's comfortable in any type of game.
2017-18 projection: Perfectly slotted as the No. 2 center behind Sidney Crosby.
Jiri Tlusty, C, Maple Leafs
Age: 19; Turns 20: 3/16/2008
The Czech-born forward was sent back to the AHL (Toronto Marlies) on Dec. 5 after producing three goals and five points in 13 NHL contests. He's a competitive kid who is willing to pay a price to make a play. He isn't flashy, but he's a pretty smart, solid forward.
2017-18 projection: A top-six forward who can work on either of your first two lines.
Jonathan Toews, C, Blackhawks
Age: 19; Turns 20: 4/29/2008
Mature beyond his years, Toews is the complete player. He's a smart, solid two-way forward who can play any type of game. He leads by example. Toews possesses excellent puck skills and sees the ice well.
2017-18 projection: A No. 1 center who'll wear a "C" on his Blackhawks jersey.
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance