Whenever the 2020-21 season comes around, the Detroit Red Wings will have a handful of players pushing to crack the roster and begin their rookie season in the NHL. That’s when potential meets reality. You can often tell whether a player is special or not based on how they perform in that first year. When Dylan Larkin put up 45 points as a 19-year-old, fans of the Red Wings and beyond took note of the budding star.
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However, rookie seasons aren’t always a harbinger of good things. Sometimes they’re a letdown. For an Original Six team like the Red Wings, their history is littered with players that fit into this category.
For one reason or another, these players met the excitement of their NHL debut with an apathetic or otherwise disappointing performance. It didn’t always mean the player was a bust – some went on to enjoy long, fruitful careers. It just goes to show that rookie expectations should always be kept in check – no matter the fanfare that surrounds them.
Gordie Howe (1946-47)
Howe is the most obvious example of a rookie season not defining a career. “Mr. Hockey” is one of the most storied players in the history of the sport. His number nine hangs from the ceiling of Little Caesar’s Arena (LCA). He’s a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Red Wing fans regularly take pictures by the statue of him that sits in the concourse of LCA. His rookie season left much to be desired.
In an era when goaltending was optional, Howe managed just 22 points in 58 games. He was an 18-year-old playing against men. Even though the tools were there, he simply couldn’t assert himself on the opposition as he did later in his career. In fact, his rookie season yielded the lowest points-per-game (ppg) rate of his career, a dismal .38.
Of course, Howe’s debut in the 1940s is disappointing knowing what we know now. This was the era of black and white television broadcasts. While he didn’t make a name for himself during his early days, he went on to become one of the most recognizable faces in hockey – proof that sometimes greatness takes its time.
Jim Rutherford (1970-71)
During the “Dead Wings” era, the Red Wings selected goalie Jim Rutherford with the 10th pick of the 1969 Draft – yes, that Jim Rutherford.
Being a goalie in “Hockeytown” can be a blessing and a curse. When you’re on top, all of Michigan is on your side. When you’re not, well, just ask Jimmy Howard. In Rutherford’s case, he struggled from the get-go. He registered a pedestrian .876 save percentage and put together just seven victories through 29 games. To make matters worse, the next two years of his playing career were arguably his best. The only problem: he spent those seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The “Dead Wings” era lasted many more years. Despite taking a gamble on a goalie early in the draft, Rutherford couldn’t become what the organization needed him to be. By 1984, he began a long and successful career as a general manager, beginning with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL.
Joe Murphy (1987-88)
Here’s your daily dose of trivia: Murphy was the last player selected by the Red Wings with the first-overall pick. He is also the first player to be selected first overall out of the NCAA, and the only Michigan State Spartan to go first overall in an NHL draft. Despite the (seemingly) perfect fit between team and player, Murphy’s stay in Detroit was brief and unremarkable.
After a five-game audition in the 1986-87 season, Murphy made his full-time debut the following season, playing in 50 games. A natural center, he was converted into a right-winger to play alongside Steve Yzerman and Adam Oates. He scored 10 goals and 19 points and finished the season in the AHL. Despite winning a Calder Cup with the Adirondack Red Wings, it wasn’t enough to erase the bad taste left by his stint in the NHL.
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Murphy was shipped off to the Edmonton Oilers in 1989 where he experienced the most productive years of his career (169 points in 222 games). He spent nine more seasons in the league, mostly playing in a middle-six role. After a solid NHL career, he fell on hard times, making headlines in true top-pick fashion. Here’s hoping that he finds steady ground if he hasn’t already, (From “Joe Murphy, Red Wings’ No. 1 pick, Is Homeless Again — And Refusing Help” Detroit Free Press – 8/8/19).
Keith Primeau (1990-91)
In the last 30 years, the highest the Red Wings have drafted is third overall in 1990 when they selected 6-foot-5 center, Keith Primeau. With Yzerman already established as the team’s top center, the team was set to inject both Primeau and Sergei Fedorov down the middle of their lineup.
Primeau’s rookie season was overshadowed by Fedorov. The high-flying Russian finished second in Calder Trophy voting. Primeau didn’t receive a vote. Fedorov had 259 shots that season; Primeau had 33. Despite playing in 58 games, Primeau managed just 15 points; Fedorov had more than five times that amount.
Primeau’s initial struggles were so pronounced that he spent most of his second year in the pros with the Adirondack Red Wings. He eventually found his stride, putting up 73 points during the 1993-94 season, but his biggest contribution to the Red Wings came in 1996 when he was included in the trade that landed Brendan Shanahan from the Hartford Whalers.
He spent the next three seasons with Hartford/Carolina before spending the last six years of his career with the Philadelphia Flyers. With 619 career points, Primeau was far from a bust, but he wasn’t what the Red Wings were hoping for at third overall.
Martin Lapointe (1993-94)
Another former 10th overall selection, Lapointe joined the Red Wings organization in the 1991 Entry Draft. He was drafted so high because he was a highly potent scorer during his time in the QMJHL, and was projected to provide a scoring touch alongside Yzerman and Fedorov.
He played seven games with the Red Wings from 1991 to the middle of 1993 before making his full-time debut during the 1993-94 season when he featured in 50 games and recorded 16 points. His 45 shots-on-goal didn’t provide a ton of opportunity to inflate his offensive numbers. It became quickly evident that Lapointe’s scoring touch in the “Q” wasn’t going to transfer to the NHL; he recorded just 36 points through his first 154 games.
Though it wasn’t what he was drafted to be, Lapointe established a steady career for himself as a bottom-six winger with some scoring ability. Though he provided essential depth for the Red Wings’ run of success in the mid to late 90s, fans likely anticipated something much more from him.
Ville Leino (2009-10)
Signed as a free agent out of Finland in 2008, Leino spent his first year with the organization in the AHL where his play provoked a lot of excitement. He even played in seven games during the Red Wings’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2009. Leino’s upside was a talking point for the Red Wings heading into the 2009-10 season.
Unfortunately, he struggled hard, posting just seven points through 42 games. He was basically an extra forward floating around the ice over those 42 games, which led to the 26-year-old being dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2011. It was an anticlimactic end to an anticlimactic year with the Red Wings.
After signing with the Buffalo Sabres as a free agent in 2011, Leino was bought out and returned to Finland by the fall of 2014. His name is now a footnote, but that doesn’t quite capture how excited the Red Wings were to have him once upon a time.
Jakub Kindl (2010-11)
The thing about the 2005 NHL Draft is that, outside of a handful of players, it was a pretty weak class. When players selected in the first round include Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar and TJ Oshie, there’s a level of expectation placed upon you. In the case of Jakub Kindl, the Red Wings were supposed to be adding an anchor to the blue line for years to come.
Kindl spent three seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL from 2007 to 2010. During that time, the Red Wings’ defense was still stacked with Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall. But as the sands of time withered the Red Wings’ blue line, it became Kindl’s time to shine.
He never really earned the trust of then-head coach Mike Babcock. The 22-year-old averaged just 13:37 of ice time through 48 games during the 2010-11 season. He played like an offensive-defenseman, often giving the puck up in hazardous locations and managed just four points. By the end of the season, the 19th pick had already begun to draw the ire of the fanbase. When he was eventually traded during the 2015-16 season, hardly anyone was upset to see him go.
The players on this list provide perfect examples of how expectations don’t always meet reality. Even with the top pick in the draft, success is far from guaranteed.
It is also a prime example of how a rookie season isn’t always the best predictor of a player’s success. You’re not as skilled and physically dominant at 18 as you are at 24 years old? Go figure.
Whether it’s fair or not, all eyes are on you as a rookie. Fans and pundits will pass judgment, and it’s up to you to prove them right or wrong. Sometimes, you are what you are, and it becomes about finding a role that best suits your talents. Other times, you triumph over the turbulence and become a legend.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether or not your first impression will define you.