It must be intimidating for an 18 year old to come into the NHL and try to have an immediate impact. These gangly youths who stood out amongst their peers on their respective junior teams are suddenly boys playing among men. The game is faster, the players are bigger, stronger and meaner, the defense stingier, and the goalies are quicker. Not many young men can overcome all these obstacles to become a dominant player in their first season in the NHL, but those who do generally go on to great careers, and their achievements are remembered throughout the history of the game. Here is my list of those who bucked the trend, the top 10 NHL rookies of all time:
10 – Mario Lemieux
One of the greatest players in hockey history, Mario wasted no time making his mark in the NHL. Already bigger than most of the older men he was playing against, Mario’s size and incredible skill, allowed him to make a smooth transition into the league. Despite having next to no help on the talentless Penguins, Mario shouldered the offensive load and finished his first campaign with an even 100 points.
9 – Dale Hawerchuk
Following their move from the WHA to the NHL the Jets went through 2 abysmal seasons as the league’s doormats. However, teams that finish low in the standings are rewarded with high draft picks, a rule that attempts to help keep the league balanced. After an embarrassing 9 win season, the Jets hit the jackpot in 1981, using the first overall selection to take Dale Hawerchuk. Hawerchuk had an immediate impact, scoring 45 goals and 103 points in his inaugural campaign to lead the Jets to an incredible 48 point improvement that season, and the team’s first playoff appearance.
8 – Joe Nieuwendyk
Nieuwendyk earns his spot on the list of the top 10 NHL rookies of all time as one of only 3 players in NHL history to record more than 50 goals in his first season. With a background in lacrosse, this skilled center had incredible hand-eye coordination, allowing him to tip pucks out of the air with ease. He feasted on opposing goalies, particularly on the powerplay, recording 31 goals with the man advantage that year. He added 41 assists to go along with his 51 goals that year, and became part of the nucleus that would win Calgary a Stanley Cup 2 seasons later.
7 – Peter Stastny
Peter Stastny made an immediate impact in the NHL after defecting from Czechoslovakia to join the Quebec Nordiques, along with his brothers Anton and Marian. One of the best European rookies in the history of the NHL, this slick passing center racked up an NHL rookie record-tying 70 assists, and 109 points in his first year with the club, including a game where he racked up 8 points.
6 – Ken Dryden
Ken Dryden won a Stanley Cup before his rookie season when he led the Habs to hockey’s holy grail in 1971. Not considered a rookie that year because he had not played enough regular season games, Dryden had no problem following up his immediate success in his first full regular season. He lost only 8 of the 64 games he played in, posting 8 shutouts along the way. He is the first, but won’t be the last, goalie to make this list of the best NHL rookies ever.
5 – Raymond Bourque
This legendary Bruin’s defender is the all time leader in points by a defenseman, and he started pouring in those points in his very first season, setting an NHL record for points by a rookie rearguard with 65 in the 1979-1980 season. His offensive game was just part of the story though. Most young defensemen struggle to find their game, and it usually takes years of experience before a d-man can be relied upon as a regular roster player. Bourque played with poise and proficiency in that first campaign, looking like a 10 year veteran on his way to an incredible +52 plus/minus rating that year.
4 – Terry Sawchuk
Another goalie takes the number 4 spot on this list of the top 10 NHL rookies of all time. Until Patrick Roy, Sawchuk was widely considered the best goalie to ever play the game, and his rookie year was a good indication of what this keeper would accomplish in his career. He pitched an amazing 11 shutouts that season, on his way to 44 wins and his arrival began the dynastic run of the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s.
3 – Mike Bossy
Arguably the purest sniper to ever fire a puck, this great goal scorer lit the lamp 53 times for the New York Islanders in his rookie season in 1977-78. The total marked the first time a rookie had ever reached the 50 goal mark, and would start a streak of 9 straight seasons (an NHL record) where Bossy would reach at least that total. Though he was a shoot first player, he managed to add 38 assists, and was an impressive +31 in his rookie campaign.
2 – Tony Esposito
Phil’s shy little brother was larger than life when he made his debut for the Blackhawks in the 1969-70 season. Perhaps growing up practicing against his legendary goal-scoring brother he was more prepared than most tenders to face the best shooters in the NHL. He posted 15 shutouts that season, a modern day record for goalies, let alone rookies. He led the Hawks to 38 wins, capturing the Vezina trophy with a stingy 2.17 GAA in the process. Definitely one of the best rookies in NHL history.
1 – Teemu Selanne
My reason for picking the Finnish Flash at the number 1 spot on this list of the top 10 NHL rookies of all time is quite simple: numbers. Teemu Selanne absolutely crushed rookie scoring records when he tallied a jaw-dropping 76 goals and 132 points in his rookie season with the Jets in 1992-93. His combination of blazing speed, deft stickhandling, and deadly accurate shooting made him a nightmare for opposing defenders and goalies alike. Strangely, his rookie campaign would also be his best. He has gone on to be a dominant player throughout his 15 year career, but has never come close to attaining the staggering numbers he put up that first year.