Do 18-Year-Olds Belong in the NHL?

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

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“… does anyone think 18-year-olds belong in the bigs?”

That’s a question posed at the top of Kevin McGran’s latest in the Toronto Star , in response to the Marlies recalling super-teen William Nylander to the AHL from Swedish club Modo. It might not have been written into the headline by McGran himself, maybe by another staffer at the daily. But still, I’ll flip it back at him, and the paper – Does anyone think that’s a relevant question anymore?

You know, it’s always going to be tough for a teenager to hack it in the NHL. It’s going to be tough for them to even earn a chance to crack the roster, unless the club that drafted him is starting from the bottom.

But does Aaron Ekblad deserve to be in the league as an 18-year-old? You bet he does.

Did Nathan MacKinnon? Hell, 18-year-old MacKinnon put up 62 points for a second-place Colorado team. 19-year-old MacKinnon has limped through the opening half with the suddenly flaccid Avalanche. So 18-year-old MacKinnon belongs in the bigs more than his elder self does. And could you blame Colorado’s woes this season on an inexperienced core of players who are playing, for the first time, through a sophomore slump? Sure, I suppose. But MacKinnon certainly belongs in the NHL – so did his teammates Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene, who both made Colorado’s roster as 18-year-olds in 2011 and 2009, respectively.

“A team that has pledged to be patient with their draft picks now appears to be hustling this one along,” writes McGran, on the Leafs and their management led by Brendan Shanahan, Dave Nonis, and Kyle Dubas.

“How do teenagers fare in the NHL? The Edmonton Oilers are proving it’s not a recipe for success.”

Right. That’s pretty unique there, to use the Oilers and their ongoing (and hilarious) failure as your example here. It’s easy, certainly.

(It’s also a silly comparison though, since Nylander is being moved to the AHL, not the NHL. He’ll play alongside 20-year-old former Erie Otter Connor Brown, on the same farm team that has been a fishing pond for the Leafs in recent years.)

No, not every 18-year-old deserves the gig. But some do.

Some are ready, and they’re able to contribute. Last year, Aleksander Barkov (2nd overall), Seth Jones (4th overall), and Sean Monahan (6th overall) all made their clubs out of camp and played pivotal roles, albeit in lost seasons.

Look, it should be hard for a teenager to play a man’s game. And coaches need to make it hard on them – nobody, not even a MacKinnon or Jones, should be coronated early.

But those people who make this argument that no 18-year-old – not one ever – should ever be allowed into the NHL, just because, they’re making the argument because they don’t know how to analyze this new world – this post-2005 era where rookies are allowed to hunt with the pack, where sometimes the town elders (naysaying columnists included) can learn a thing or two from the pups.

And best of all, in franchises where staleness has taken over (what’s up, Toronto?) and mediocrity has rotted the core, a pair of fresh legs can shake the dust off everyone else’s.

Experience may be vital, but so is enthusiasm.