Going into August, the New Jersey Devils are surrounded by question marks, namely regarding the development of their young players. Center Pavel Zacha is one of the team’s most peculiar cases in this regard. The 2015 sixth-overall pick just completed his second NHL season, where he tallied eight goals and 25 points. Since being drafted, there has been mounting pressure for Zacha to establish himself as a full-time NHL player. In 140 games, Zacha only has totals of 16 goals and 51 points. His numbers are already raising concern, with some even already labeling him a bust.
Especially when it comes to younger players, many need more than a season or two before hitting their stride. For a player like Zacha—who entered the league at 19—it’s outright ludicrous to make any final judgments at this point in his young career. The league contains countless examples of star-caliber or established forwards who needed a few seasons to finally unlock their true potential. This isn’t to say Zacha is on a guaranteed path to stardom, but the five centers below should emphasize why patience is important when developing young players.
Mikael Backlund…Drafted 24th overall in 2007, Backlund just completed his third consecutive 80-game season, and has become a mainstay on the Calgary Flames’ offense. Backlund played 97 games in his first two NHL seasons, collecting just 11 goals and 35 points. While injuries and the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season factored, he only played 73 contests in his third and fourth years, during which he tallied just 12 goals and 27 points.
It wasn’t until his fifth season (2013-2014) when Backlund showed signs of life, setting his first seasonal career-highs of 18 goals and 39 points. He went on to score at least 21 goals in two of his last four campaigns, and registered at least 39 points in four of his last five seasons.
Sean Couturier…A former eighth-overall pick, Couturier entered the league at 18, and missed just five games in his first four seasons. The 25-year old center only had 17 goals and 42 points in his first 123 games. During his third through sixth seasons, Couturier scored between 11-15 goals and totaled between 34-39 points each year.
Couturier was somewhat of a slow boil for the Flyers, prior to his 2017-2018 breakout campaign where he notched 31 goals and 76 points. Granted his defensive game helped cement him in the lineup, Couturier also fared quite well in 24 postseason matches. He tallied three goals and four points in 11 playoff contests during his rookie season (2012), along with five goals and nine points in five postseason games last spring.
Alex Galchenyuk…Granted the former third-overall pick was just traded after spending the first six seasons of his career with the Montreal Canadiens, he developed into a commendable top-six center. Like Couturier, Galchenyuk was an 18-year old rookie. He played in 113 games over his first two years, where he collected just 22 goals and 58 points.
Galchenyuk scored 20 goals for the first time in his third season (2014-2015), netting 30 goals and registering a career-high 56 points the following year (2015-2016). Galchenyuk has had at least 44 points in his last four seasons, and played at least 80 contests in three of those last four campaigns as well.
William Karlsson…The only player on this list that’s not a first-round pick, Karlsson has become one of the team faces of the Vegas Golden Knights. Playing in his third consecutive season with at least 81 games, the 2018 Lady Byng winner tallied 43 goals and 78 points. Before last season, Karlsson skated in 183 NHL games over three seasons, and never scored more than nine goals in any single one.
Prior to 2017-2018, Karlsson was coming off a previous career-high of just 25 points. It remains to be seen whether or not Karlsson’s performance last season was just a fluke or if his talent is truly genuine. Nonetheless, he is a strong example of why having a keen eye for talent is so important.
Kyle Turris…The former third overall pick played his first 137 NHL games with the Phoenix Coyotes, entering the league as a 19-year old. In parts of his first four NHL seasons, Turris only played in two full campaigns, tallying 20 and 25 points respectively. He seemed to benefit from a change of scenery, collecting 24 goals and 58 points in his first 97 games with the Ottawa Senators.
Over the last five seasons, Turris hit the 50-point plateau four times, even tallying 30 in 57 games played during his injury-shortened 2015-2016 campaign. Similar to the aforementioned players on this list who entered the league in their teens, Turris didn’t break out until he was in his 20s. Despite changing teams (now twice), spending his early years in one place was very beneficial to his development.