Every decade or so, hockey fans get excited over a “generational talent” coming into the N.H.L. Wayne Gretzky in 1978, Mario Lemieux in 1984, Eric Lindros in 1992 and Sidney Crosby in 2005 were all considered can’t-miss centers bound for immediate greatness and eventually the Hall of Fame.
This season there are two 18-year-old centers who are being heralded as the next great ones.
The Canadian Connor McDavid has dazzled in the junior ranks, most recently for the Erie Otters. Sherry Bassin, the Otters’ owner, quoted the Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk as saying of McDavid: “He skates like Bobby Orr. He has the vision of Wayne Gretzky. And he handles the puck like Mario Lemieux.”
The Edmonton Oilers made him the top pick in the 2015 N.H.L. draft. Taken just behind him by the Buffalo Sabres was the American Jack Eichel, who skated last season for Boston University, where he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s best college player.
“It’s not just his speed; it’s his skill, his hockey sense,” said Kevin Prendergast, a longtime scout. “It doesn’t even look like he’s trying, but the puck comes to him. He makes things happen.”
Their new teams are in dire need of help. The Oilers, who have had the No. 1 pick in four of the past six drafts, have missed the postseason for nine straight years, the longest drought in the league. Buffalo has missed the playoffs four straight years and was the worst team in the N.H.L. the past two seasons.
In a mouthwatering double feature on Thursday night, both players will debut, McDavid at St. Louis and Eichel at home against Ottawa.
The final assessments of the two young men’s careers are years away, but more immediately, what can be expected from Game 1 and their first season? A look at the arrival of the other so-called generational talents may provide a clue.
Gretzky’s amazing junior form showed he was ready for professional play by the time he was 17.
“His talent does not lie in strength, size or speed but in his handling of the puck and in an extraordinary sense of the game’s patterns and options,” The New York Times reported.
Because Gretzky did not meet the N.H.L.’s minimum age of 20, he signed with the Indianapolis Racers of the old World Hockey Association. His debut against the Winnipeg Jets drew a large crowd, but his play was inauspicious. He did score soon after, and had three goals and three assists in his first eight games with the Racers.
But the Racers were in desperate financial straits, and Gretzky was sold to the Oilers. Edmonton had put up four straight losing records, but with Gretzky scoring a team-leading 43 goals and 61 assists, the team improved to 48-30-2 and made it to the last W.H.A. finals before the league merged with the N.H.L.
It was a bit tougher for Edmonton in the N.H.L. The Oilers made the playoffs in his first year with them and the finals in his fourth season. It was in Gretzky’s fifth N.H.L. season that the team won the first of what would be four Stanley Cups in five years.
In 1984, Lemieux was taken No. 1 in the N.H.L. draft by the Penguins. Pittsburgh had been abysmal the previous season, 16-58-6, and had never won more than one playoff series in its history.
Lemieux started fast; he scored on his first shot as a professional at age 19, and he led the team in goals and assists his first year. The Penguins improved more slowly. They did not make the playoffs until Lemieux’s fifth year, and his first title came in his seventh season, when 18-year-old Jaromir Jagr joined the team. The Penguins won the Cup again the following year.
Eric Lindros was every bit as hyped as Gretzky or Lemieux as a junior, but N.H.L. superstardom eluded him, largely because of concussions. Lindros was drafted No. 1 by the Quebec Nordiques, but he declined to play for them, saying he preferred a bigger city that was not Francophone. He sat out what would have been his first N.H.L. season, 1991-92.
Finally the Nordiques worked out not one trade, but two, agreeing to deal Lindros both to the Rangers and the Flyers. An arbitrator eventually ruled in Philadelphia’s favor.
Lindros scored a goal in his debut at 19, and was second on the team in goals despite missing more than 20 games. The Flyers were on a downward slide when Lindros joined them, missing the playoffs three straight years. After two more years in the wilderness, they went on a run of seven straight playoff years with Lindros, though they did not win a title.
Lindros is largely considered a disappointment, but in the end he stuck around long enough to make the Flyers’ top 10 in goals and assists and was the league points leader and most valuable player in the lockout-shortened ’94-95 season.
Sidney Crosby was the consensus No. 1 pick in 2005 and was snapped up by Pittsburgh. In his debut at 18, he had an assist, though Devils fans chanted “Parise’s better,” about their own rookie, Zach Parise. Crosby went on to lead the Penguins in goals and assists.
The Penguins had missed three straight playoffs, and they missed again in Crosby’s rookie year. But by his third season they were playing in the Stanley Cup finals, and the next year, 2008-9, they won it.
If McDavid and Eichel have the talent of the superstars who came before them, they are good bets to lead their teams in the major offensive categories. But with history as a guide, playoff appearances, much less championships, could be a few years away.
It begins Thursday night. Few hockey fans will be looking anywhere else.