For the 1979-80 NHL season the minimum draft age lowered from 20 to 18 allowing teens to enter the NHL. For the majority of NHL players this rule change did not have a big impact, as most players do not enter the NHL until they are in their twenties. However, a select few players jump from their first eligible draft season straight into the NHL. Of those, only a few make a significant impact but there are those players that standout from the crowd.
The standouts I want to look at are the forwards who have had the best rookie season after jumping straight into the NHL at 18 years of age. A very basic way to do this would be to look at points per game but that ignores the fact that scoring levels in the NHL has varied over the years and that a point in 1980 is not worth the same as a point in 2016. Another way is to use era adjusted statistics developed by Hockey Reference.
However, I wanted to come at it from a different angle and look at how the best of these rookies did in comparison to the elite forwards in the league during their rookie season. To do this for each player, I looked at their rookie PPG relative to that of the average PPG for the top 10 forwards, the top 30 forwards and the top 50 forwards in the league for that season*. Through this, one can get an idea of how these players did in relation to their peers and discover which ones did the best.
* When doing the research, I found Wayne Gretzky was skewing the data. In seasons where Gretzky was not the PPG leader, the league leader would have a PPG that is 11-38% better than that of the average PPG of the next ten best forwards. For seasons where Wayne Gretzky was the PPG leader, his PPG was 71-83% better than that of the average PPG of the next ten best forwards. Therefore, Wayne Gretzky was removed when calculating average PPG of the best forwards for the rookie seasons of Mario Lemieux, Dale Hawerchuk, Ron Francis, Steve Yzerman and Jimmy Carson.
The Top Dozen Rookie Seasons
- The chart on the left is the ratio for the PPG of each forward’s rookie season compared to that of the average PPG for the top 10, top 30 and top 50 forwards in the league.
- The chart on the right is the projected points, over an 82 game season, if we apply those ratios to the 2016 NHL season.
- The list is composed of eight first overall selections, a second overall selection, two fourth overall selections and one Wayne Gretzky. In addition, five of the twelve forwards have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
- Gretzky leads the way for best rookie season and it is not even close. He is the greatest forward to ever strap on a pair of blades and it will be a long time before anyone comes close to living up to that.
- Due to injury, McDavid only played half a season of hockey, but it was one hell of a half a season of hockey. One question will never know is whether McDavid’s scoring rate would have dropped due to the fatigue of a full 82 game season or if his game was just ramping up.
- Gretzky, McDavid, Lemieux and Crosby are all considered generational talents and all four delivered immediate results in their rookie season. While most rookies are expected to ease their way into the NHL, that is not the case with a generational player.