Whether it’s a sports fan, a GM or a card collector, everybody loves the guy who busts out of the gate in a hurry – the can’t miss prospect who doesn’t. Clearly, they’re awesome. In a cap-constrained league, those kids who can outperform their contracts are keys to team success. In cards, nothing drives the hobby like the latest and greatest rookie.
The thing is that sometimes it takes a skill guy a few years to really find his game. You need to have some patience with young players because even if there are bumps and bruises and setbacks along the way, when they do flourish, it’s worth the wait. Sometimes it takes a guy until he’s 23 to put it all together at the highest levels (or if you’re Tim Thomas, a lot longer than that.)
So today I don’t want to celebrate a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or a Tyler Seguin or anyone like that. I want to talk about a guy who was a top-ranked junior, a guy picked to maybe go first overall (though it was a pretty deep year and there were a number of high-end picks). He wasn’t an intimidating physical force – the two attributes that really stood out about him as a junior were blinding speed – he was a fantastic skater and an electrifying puck rusher – and a wicked shot that he could get off in full flight. These were the markings of a high-end sniper.
It doesn’t come easy, though. His first seasons were OK at best, maybe even good, but for a guy rated like this, for a guy with this level of expectation, it’s not enough. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s playing under the microscope of a hockey-mad market – a place with multiple daily newspapers, radio stations and TV outlets that will happily abandon the local major-league baseball team or CFL team in order to report on the most meaningless hockey tidbit.
On top of that, he’s stuck in the untenable position of being asked to replace a legend – the recently-departed team captain, a guy who holds the all-time team scoring mark; a guy who was the face of the franchise, a big, skilled centre with soft hands and the ability to handle everything the media threw at him with grace and class; a guy who put up 500-plus goals over a 18-year career (well, seventeen full seasons and one half-season, anyway); a guy who had been captain for a decade. It’s an untenable position and the pressures that puts on a young player are all but unbearable.
So he goes out and he plays. Drafted as a centre, he finds that in the NHL he’s going to be a right winger. There are moments when he looks like the player everyone thinks he was supposed to be, but there are also periods when the goals don’t come, the passes don’t find the mark. He’s not even a first-liner, really. The other lines tend to carry the team (though this might not be that bad of a thing for the time being).
He gets a label – it’s not a nice one. He’s not a star – a good player, maybe, but that’s it. Some might even call him a bust, given the expectations put on him. The GM of the team had to engineer multiple trades to get him in the first place. Was it even the right move? Should they maybe have targeted another player? Others from his draft year have settled in much better.
Then out of nowhere, it clicks. I don’t know whether it was linemates, confidence, maturity or just happenstance, but he just takes off. Suddenly the underachiever is one of the league’s top point-getters and most feared goal scorers. His shooting percentage, which normally hovered in the low teens, suddenly spikes up near 20%. This leads some, of course, to question whether he’s just getting lucky, but confidence leads to better decision making and this was evident as well. Even when he didn’t score a goal, he looked dangerous and made things happen for his linemates with his speed and creativity.
From that moment on, nobody ever questioned Guy Lafleur again, and today everyone forgets how tough his start was.
Wait – did anyone think I meant Kessel? Oh please. Kessel is twenty-four, people. That should have been obvious.
Although, now that you mention it, this hot streak started last year.
I woner if there are any other parallels between them other than age. I need to look it up. ;)