They might not be able to legally drink alcohol in the United States yet, but they’re already earning their keep in the best hockey league in the world. Although the NHL is known for being a league that features numerous players in their late 30s and early 40s as well, there is still definitely a place for young guns, and the 10 men on this list have proven that. On that note, we’ll be counting down the top 10 NHL players under the age of 21.
Since all of these players are still bound to entry-level contracts, we won’t be arranging this list based on how much money they make; rather, this will be based on how much impact they’ve already had on their respective teams’ fortunes as well as their personal performances, in addition to how much more of an impact we can expect them to make in the 2014-15 season.
If nothing else, this list goes to show that there’s plenty of young talent coming up through this league, even if none of them are quite of the same ilk as a Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos-type player. That said, some – if not all – of these 10 young men could go on to be key players for their respective teams, and potentially even superstars.
One common trend here is that all of these players were not only drafted in recent years, but most were taken at a very early point in their respective drafts. Not only does it show that they’ve been talented for a while already, it shows that their teams were justified in picking them as early as they did. Without further ado, here are the 10 young men at 20 years of age or younger with huge careers in this league ahead of them.
10. Sean Monahan — Calgary Flames
Thanks to Calgary’s clear dearth of young talent, Sean Monahan started his NHL career right after he was drafted. Picked sixth overall by the Flames in 2013, Monahan put up a solid 34 points in 75 games in his rookie season. With Sam Bennett being just recently drafted by the team, Monahan is likely to be a part of a potential youth movement in Calgary, and he’ll be one of the Flames’ best offensive performers barring a sophomore slump. Although the Flames are likely to contend for Connor McDavid next season rather than a playoff spot, Monahan still has quite a career ahead of him.
9. Ryan Murray — Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus are a team that has struggled to produce results despite gaining star players in drafts in years past – Rick Nash, anyone? – but Ryan Murray looks to be quite the promising young talent on defense. The 20-year-old Blue Jacket put up 21 points in 66 games last season with an average of 19:52 in ice time, and in 2012, he played for the Canadian national team at the World Championships before he was even drafted. In short, he’s expected to be one of the best defensemen in the league a few years down the road – if not sooner – and it will be interesting to see what kind of results his young Blue Jackets team will produce this season.
8. Aleksander Barkov — Florida Panthers
Despite his season being brought to a halt thanks to a knee injury he suffered during the Sochi Olympics, Aleksander Barkov will still be expected to be an even bigger part of the Panthers’ offense next season than he was as a rookie. Often considered one of their best players prior to his injury, Barkov is easily one of their biggest offensive weapons alongside fellow youngster Jonathan Huberdeau, and will be a big part of the Panthers’ future in an attempt to reward fans in South Florida for many years spent in the NHL’s cellar. For their sake, let’s hope Barkov’s upcoming season won’t be a disappointing one.
7. Seth Jones — Nashville Predators
Eyebrows were raised when Seth Jones fell to fourth overall in the 2013 draft – many expected him to potentially be taken first – but he hasn’t disappointed so far at the start of his NHL career. The Predators defenseman put up 25 points in 77 games in Nashville, and is expected to be one of their best defensemen for years to come, despite having been dissed via Twitter by Carrie Underwood – the country singing wife of his teammate Mike Fisher. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, the 19-year-old has stayed around Nashville for the summer to train for his sophomore season, which is sure to be a big one for him.
6. Hampus Lindholm — Anaheim Ducks
He spent his first pro season in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals, which probably helped him the following year: with 30 points in 78 games last season, Hampus Lindholm is already establishing himself as a significant part of Anaheim’s defense at just 20 years old. The Swede is already looking like a potential star defenseman on a team that also boasts Cam Fowler as one of their best young defensive players. Whether he gets to play on the top pairing more consistently than the second is still unknown, but if he doesn’t, he’s certain to get there sooner rather than later.
5. Olli Maatta — Pittsburgh Penguins
He’s quite young at 19 years of age, but Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta has wasted little time fitting into the Penguins’ defense corps. Having already gained international experience by being named to Finland’s national squad at the Olympics in Sochi (in a bronze medal-winning effort for the Finns), Maatta also put up a solid 29 points in 78 games in Pittsburgh last season. The former London Knight will also be expected to play a significantly bigger part on the Penguins’ defense, either alongside Kris Letang or Matt Niskanen. For a player that went 22nd overall in his draft, he’s turned out amazingly well so far.
4. Alex Galchenyuk — Montreal Canadiens
He spent the majority of his draft year out injured, but it sure hasn’t hampered Alex Galchenyuk’s development during his first two NHL seasons. The 19-year-old Habs centre has a promising future ahead of him despite a slightly disappointing (albeit somewhat injury-riddled) second season in Montreal, and you can expect him to eventually be a key figure on their top line. Since the Canadiens finished 21st in offensive production last season, the pressure may fall on Galchenyuk’s shoulders to ramp up his point totals both for himself and the good of the team, but that depends on whether or not he tops Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais on the depth chart.
3. Nail Yakupov — Edmonton Oilers
One could argue that this past season was one to forget for Nail Yakupov. There have been plenty of accusations about head coach Dallas Eakins misusing him and worries about him being rushed into the NHL, not to mention trade rumours that have already come up involving him. That said, this former number one overall pick still has a very high ceiling offensively, and with a talented group of youngsters alongside him in Edmonton, he’s still got plenty of time to prove that he’s worth keeping around for the Oilers. Whether or not he gets linemates who give him an opportunity to truly shine remains to be seen.
2. Valeri Nichushkin — Dallas Stars
Although he’s still young enough to be playing in junior, this Russian forward is clearly too good for that, or even for the KHL back home. With 34 points in 79 games last season for the Dallas Stars, Valeri Nichushkin has made quite an impression already, and can be counted on to have a more steady role in the Stars’ top six for this upcoming season. His skill level for his age has provided plenty of excitement for fans in Dallas, and although it’s unknown how often he’ll be on the same line as players like Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, expect Nichushkin to have a solid second season if he avoids the sophomore slump.
1. Nathan MacKinnon — Colorado Avalanche
As if the fact that he was educated at the Shattuck-Saint Mary’s school in Minnesota – famous for producing excellent hockey players – wasn’t proof enough that he could be a solid NHL player, Nathan McKinnon has delivered the goods for the Avalanche so far despite still being a teenager. The 18-year-old centre played all 82 games of his rookie season and put up 63 points in the process – good enough to win him the 2014 Calder Memorial Trophy. At such a ripe young age to be that good, and with a competitive young team in Colorado accompanying him, there’s nowhere for MacKinnon to go but up.