Adam Larsson & The Rarity of the Under-20 NHL Defenseman

Will this man join a very, very, very select group of Devils defensemen who have made their NHL debuts before they're even 20? (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Adam Larsson is already the answer to several potential trivia questions for the New Jersey Devils.  Here are a few created just by being drafted fourth overall back in June.  He's the highest Devils selection since Scott Niedermayer went third overall in 1991; he's the selection after the Devils won the draft lottery for the first time; he's the first Devil drafted from Skelleftea AIK; and he's the highest Swede ever drafted by the franchise.   Without ever playing a single NHL game, Larsson is a part of this team's history.  Or at least part of a trivia game that may or may not exist.

If Adam Larsson does play a NHL game - just one game - he will join a very select group of Devils defenseman. According to Hockey-Reference, only five defenseman at age 18 or 19 have played at least one game for the Devils: Ken Daneyko (19), Joe Cirella (18), Craig Wolanin (18), Corey Foster (18), and Scott Niedermayer (18).  Four out of these five went on to have solid-to-legendary careers. Daneyko has had his #3 retired, and Niedermayer will have his #27 retired.  Cirella and Wolanin have played for quite awhile in the NHL, so I'd call their time a success. Foster didn't last, having only played 45 NHL games across 5 seasons.

You'll notice that only three of those five Devils played more than just a handful of games too.  Part of that is because Hockey-Reference (not incorrectly) considers a player's first NHL season to be the first one they appear in - regardless of games played or not.  Therefore, Niedermayer's 4 games after his junior season ended in 1991-92 was his first; even though his first full season was in 1992-93 and was considered to be "rookie" by the NHL.   Also: Hockey-Reference has a separate deadline for ages: they use February 1 of the season and not September 15. So, Larsson would be considered a 19-year old defenseman given his November 12 birthday.

However, the main reason why they didn't get so many games along with why there have been so few young defensemen appear for the New Jersey franchise is because they want their players to develop.  The defenseman position requires skill at positioning, decision making, and awareness for success. That comes with experience and it's quite rare that a player who's not even 20 has enough of that to stick around and be successful.   This is not only true for the Devils, but for the league as a whole as I'll explain after the jump.

 

Let's go back to Hockey-Reference.  Using their age definition, there have been only 56 defensemen who have played at least one NHL game at age 18 in NHL history.  That's right. In the 90+ year history of the NHL, only 56 who were 18 on February 1st got at least a taste of the NHL.   If we organize those 56 by games played, then we learn that only 27 of them have played 10 games or more.  Most of these defensemen just got a taste, which either turned out to be an early look at someone great (e.g. Niedermayer, Al MacInnis) or someone who didn't turn out so great (e.g. Dave Amadio, Steve Smith).

 

The group who have played more than just a handful of games is similar in structure.  Some of these defensemen turned out to be great: Bobby Orr, Scott Stevens, and Phil Housley.  A good fraction of this list went on to have long and solid careers like Cirella, Petr Svoboda, and Roman Hamrlik.  There were a few who were thrown into the league and didn't stick around for too long, such as Vlastimil Kroupa or Mickey Volcan.  Even though these 27 were thought to be good enough to get more than just a cup of coffee in the NHL at age 18, most didn't make huge impacts on their team.  Several did go on to have successful careers - usually well after they were 18.

It's not really fair to judge defenders by their point totals, especially across varying eras.  What should be consistent are games played; coaches in any era aren't going to play someone they think is terrible - at least not for long.  Therefore, it's telling that the list of these defenders get smaller when you increase the games played requirements.   It tells me that just making it in the NHL at such a young age is a feat in of itself.   By the way, there are only three active defenseman who've done it: Hamrlik, Rostislav Klesla, and - the only one after 2005 - Zach Bogosian.

As noted prior to the jump, Larsson wouldn't be in this group - he would be 19 according to Hockey-Reference's guideline.  The list of first-year 19-year old defenseman is considerbly larger.  In NHL history, 153 defenseman played at least their first NHL game at age 19.   I can't parse out how many jumped right into the NHL right after their draft year compared to those who served a season outside of the league. Still, 153 in the league's 90+ year history is still relatively exclusive. By contrast, 1,771 NHL defensemen played their first league game at age 20 or older.  The under-20 defenseman is rare in NHL history.  Getting back to the 153, there are some legends (e.g. Ray Bourque, Larry Murphy); some very solid players (e.g. Glen Wesley, Dave Babych, Eric Desjardens); and some who didn't quite make it (e.g. Larry Trader, Jason Doig).   Still, like the 18-year old group, several went on to be NHL players for quite some time.  Also like that group, a significant percentage only got a handful of games; only 88 out of the 153 played at least 10 games in their 19-year old rookie season.

Let's focus on the recent players in that group.  Only one 18-year old defender broke into the league after 2005 per Hockey-Reference's classification.  As for the 19-year olds, only 23 defenders on that list did so in 2005-06 or later.    Since 2005-06, 13 defensemen had at least a year burned off of their entry level contract by appearing in 10 or more games.  I want to focus on those 13 defenseman for a little bit.  They include the likes of Victor Hedman, Luke Schenn, Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, and Cam Fowler.   Players who have stepped in right away for their teams, made some sort of significant impact, and are looked to as anchors for their team's blueline for years to come.  I think Devils fans look at players like them and hope Larsson can do the same.  There's plenty of reason to be excited that the Devils have a prospect like Larsson and to hope he'll be an exceptional player.

The key root word really is exception when it comes to jumping straight out of the draft and into the .  Among those 13 post-2005 19-year-old defenders, only 6 made it into the league right after their draft year: Doughty, Fowler, Hedman, Schenn, Dmitry Kulikov, and Luca Sbisa. That's an exclusive group.  Since 2005, there have been a grand total of 7 defenseman who've broke into the league right after their draft year and played more than 10 games for their team.  In the league's history, there have been at least 31 and no more than 81 defenders (I'm not going through all 88 19-year old defensmen) out of over 1,700 defensemen to have made the jump immediately into the NHL and play more than just 10 games. 31 to potentially 81 out of 1,700.  Nevermind how well they've done in those games, just to get in games makes them historical exceptions.  Basically, those players are quite rare.  And that's without even going into how well or how poorly those players played.

Making it into the league requires a player to have talent and the team to either have a spot open or be willing to create one on their roster for said player.  That's true if you're an 18-19 year old defenseman or a 22-year old winger who came out of college or a 34-year old player coming in on a try-out basis to get back into the NHL.  It's not at all easy, and it won't be for Larsson.  I'm convinced he won't be going back to Skellefteå AIK like I wanted in this post, since he signed a bonus-less rookie contract and he's not in Skellefteå, who have already begun their preseason.  Still, the main obstacle for Larsson are still there: it's going to be quite difficult for Larsson to get a spot in New Jersey among the many other defenseman in the system.  Plus, it's going to be bad long-term business for the Devils to do so.  Throw in the fact that the position benefits those with experience, even with Larsson having two SEL seasons under his belt, he would have to be exceptionally good for the Devils to burn his ELC right away.

That's the main point I want to hammer home with respect to Adam Larsson.  If he even just gets in one game - which is likely should he remain in North America - then he would be among a very select group of Devils defensemen and NHL defensemen who have done so at such a young age.   If the Devils figure they don't mind paying him lots of money two years sooner than they have to, then he joins an even more exclusive group of players.   The vast majority of defensemen have not broken into the NHL at such a young age, even for just a handful of games.  The majority of great defenseman in NHL history haven't done so. A few have, but even for Stevens, Niedermayer, Orr, and the rest, they still needed time to become the great players we know and love (or hate).

Therefore, it would not be the end of the world or a sign that Larsson is a bust if he doesn't play many or any games in New Jersey in 2011-12.  Team and league history suggest he won't; and other factors will come into play.  With training camp beginning later this month, fans shouldn't be hoping or demanding that Larsson make the team.  Instead, hope and demand he listens to the coaching staff, understands what he needs to improve, and get the experience he needs at some lower level (Albany) so that when he does suit up for a NHL game, he can be effective  

And if some how he's ready to play in the toughest league in the world, then start appreciating him. Under-20 year old NHL defenseman are really quite rare.

Do you think Larsson will join such that group? If he doesn't, how will you feel?  Please leave your answers and other Larsson-related thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Postscript:  Derek Zona let me know about this post George Ays did at Blueshirt Banter about how young (18-22 year old) defenseman have performed in the league in recent seasons back in August.  The performances all over the place, some thrived and some drowned.  The basic conclusion is that a young defender can help a team if the defenseman isn't in over his head.  So when Larsson does make it to the NHL, he shouldn't have to do more than he has to at first.

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