At last, the time has come. The National Hockey League season is upon us. The first week is always a bit wild, since traded players are settling in with their teams, line combinations are being tested, the games actually count and many rookies are making their NHL debuts. Especially for those rookies who were drafted highly last year, analysts and fans alike will be making bold predictions about their career trajectories.
Jack Hughes, the first overall pick last year, played his first game for the New Jersey Devils last Friday, in which the team struggled and gave up a four-goal lead to lose 4-5 in the shootout to the Winnipeg Jets. Hughes personally struggled in that game and was benched several times. The Devils lost their second game outright, and Hughes has looked outmatched thus far against the best competition in the world.
The second overall pick, Kaapo Kakko, has also scored zero goals in the New York Rangers’ first couple of games, but the reviews have been much more positive for Kakko than Hughes. Although more shots were taken against his team than for his team while he was on the ice in the Rangers’ 6-4 victory over the Winnipeg Jets, Kakko was complimented for his composure, and his team was optimistic that he will make a scoring impact in the near future.
Even though neither player scored, it is difficult to separate the quality of the teams from the reviews of the players’ debuts. The Rangers are undefeated, and their roster is refreshed and poised for a resurgence. The Devils have also made some flashy offseason moves with the acquisitions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds, but have struggled nonetheless.
Coaches play new and young players in protected ways, fearful of leaving them fully exposed either by placing them in strong line combinations or by matching them up against weaker competition to ease their transition into the league and grease the gears for scoring. These moves, so the story goes, help the players gain confidence and solidify their place in the league.
But does a player’s opening game actually matter? On opening night in 2016, Auston Matthews made history by scoring four goals, though, in a 4-5 OT loss to the Ottawa Senators, showing us that effort doesn’t always pay off. Matthews was the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, and he has been one of the centerpieces of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ renaissance ever since. He might have even been captain if he did not commit and conceal a disorderly conduct charge over the summer, which all but guaranteed the captaincy to John Tavares. However, that is beside the point. Ever since that first game, Matthews has been highly productive and may pass through the 50-goal barrier this year after crossing one point per game for the second consecutive season last year.
Also, some of the greatest players of all time scored on their very first shot in the NHL, with some of these goals occurring during their first game. The NHL released a list of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time to celebrate its centennial season, and some of those individuals scored on their first shot, too, including Mario Lemieux, Luc Robitaille and Jonathan Toews.
But, despite a smattering of anecdotes, we should not get too excited about the significance of early success. Some unknown players have scored hat tricks in their debuts, including Alex Smart, Real Cloutier and Fabian Brunnstrom. Yeah, I don’t know who they are either. Cloutier and Brunnstom in particular apparently entered the league with some hype, but neither was incredible. Brunnstrom played only 104 NHL games, and Smart only played eight. So, historically, impressive debuts seem like flukes.
The history books do not exactly record the names of those who didn’t score in their first game, but, if we expand our scope, there are plenty of players who overcame slow starts to their career before they became legends of the sport. This list includes Pavel Datsyuk, who was not even drafted in his first two years of eligibility and took a couple of seasons to start showing his elite ability. Martin St. Louis was also traded by his first two teams before settling in with the Tampa Bay Lightning, on which he emerged as a superstar.
I suppose I have dedicated all of this space to saying some good players will have good first games, but so will not-so-good players. Also, good players might have not-so-good first games. Until the statistics have a chance to be significant, it is not important, nor possible, to try to predict the futures of these young players. And it’s especially unhelpful when their teams are struggling, too.