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Jacob Josefson & The Somewhat Rare Under-20 NHL Forward

Jacob Josefson high-fives his teammates after a game winning goal.  But did you know how young he was in doing so? Quite young. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jacob Josefson high-fives his teammates after a game winning goal. But did you know how young he was in doing so? Quite young. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Earlier this week, I pointed out how rare it is for a defenseman under the age of 20 to make their debut in the NHL, much less play more than 10 games.  Only 209 have done it in the history of the NHL; and only 5 of those 209 did it with the New Jersey Devils franchise. Throw in the fact that only 7 defensemen have appeared in the NHL right after being drafted since 2005 and played in 10 or more games (thus starting their contracts).  Therefore, it really would be a big feat if Adam Larsson makes his league debut in the 2011-12 season - much less play for an eighth of the season.

In order to find this out, I used Hockey-Reference, which is an excellent resource for NHL players past and present, but they define a player's age based on what it was on February 1 of that season - not the September 15 cutoff the NHL CBA uses for contractual purposes.  Despite this quirk, it's able to sort throughout history by age as to when a player made their NHL debut.    After the post about Larsson and defensemen, I became curious about forwards.  I went through H-R again and have presented my findings after the jump.

As an aside, though, let me draw your attention to the very bottom of the page first. There's a new name under "Authors." That would be Matt Evans (a.k.a. Matt Evans SNC, BashBroMatt).  He applied for one of the writing positions several weeks ago and his attempt was so impressive that I decided to give him an opportunity to write regularly on the site.  If you get the chance, welcome him; you'll see his work appear soon enough.

The New Jersey Devils franchise has a larger history of under-20 forwards getting into the NHL.  As found through Hockey-Reference, there have been 15 players who have played at least one game and 7 played more than 10 games. Some of them made noise right away as players on the start of a very good career like Kirk Muller, Petr Sykora, and Wilf Paiment.  Others didn't impress or appear in a lot of games, but they would go on to have a great careers such as Brendan Shanahan, John MacLean, Pat Verbeek, and Patrik Elias.  The rest of the 15 didn't do much in the NHL at all for one reason or another; they include Jason Miller, Jarrod Sklade, Joe Ward, and Rocky Trottier.  Within the Devils' franchise history, an early debut didn't mean a great career would always follow - but it did turn out that way for about half of them.

One of the 15 is currently an unknown on that front. That would be 2009 first round draft pick, Jacob Josefson.  By appearing in on just one game (and 27 afterwards), Jacob Josefson became the first under-20 forward to make his NHL debut since 1995-96.   Yep, it really has been that long since someone cracked the league before they turned 20 during the season.  Josefson made the team out of training camp, played in 6 games, and then was sent back to Albany.  In February, he was recalled and by March, he remained in the NHL to play out the rest of the season.  He didn't contribute a whole lot of points, and he's still developing as a player.

Now, Josefson's appearance was certainly out of the ordinary within the Devils organization.  What about with respect to the league?  Since 2005, 46 forwards made their NHL debut before turning 20 and 30 of them (including Josefson) played in over 10 games - meaning their entry level contracts began while they could still slide. Some of the names won't surprise you as they were high draft picks.  They include Sidney Crosby (who's third in scoring all time among the U-20 forwards in their debut season), Patrick Kane, John Tavares, and Steven Stamkos.  Some worked out well and others are still work-in-progress players.   

In the entirety of NHL history according to Hockey-Reference, there have been 481 forwards who made their NHL debuts before turning 20 during the season. 246 of that group played 10 or more games in their respective seasons.  That's a larger pool than under-20 defensemen, but it's still a small fraction of the thousands of forwards who have played in the history of the NHL.  The under 20-year-old forward may not seem as rare, but they are historically not so common.  Sure, you may see a highly drafted forward get thrown into the league right away for one reason or another (exceptional talent); but they are the exception and not the rule.   To clarify this point, let's go back to just the post-2005 time period. While 46 forwards made their debut before turning 20 that season; 501 forwards aged 20 or more made their NHL debut at the same time.  Again, it's somewhat rare for a forward to break into the league before hitting the age of 20 before or during the season.  (And it probably should be common post-2005 since contracts stop sliding at age 20.)

Still, this is a larger pool than defenseman debuting under the same criteria.  Why do we see more young forwards come into the league than young defenseman?  I believe the explanation is simply the position itself. Rosters usually carry 12 forwards, divided up into 4 lines; and 6 defensemen, divided up into 3 pairings. Fewer defensemen on the roster mean that each one has to do more work than a forward in comparison.  Even the third pairing on defense has to handle about at least a sixth to about a quarter of the game's time.  Forwards can have nights of only 10-14 minutes on the bottom two lines. A developing player can be eased into the NHL on a third or fourth line, where they aren't going up against an opposition's best players regularly and they aren't required to handle big minutes for their team's offense.   Since there are more forwards in a line up, the work can be distributed more easily to protect young players and ease them into the league than a defenseman.

That's precisely what the Devils did with Jacob Josefson.  He averaged only 13:14 of ice time last season; and according to this breakdown at Behind the Net, he played some of the weakest competition among all forwards last season.   Per the game logs at Hockey-Reference, Josefson did have some games where he played more than 13 minutes; which is evidence that he was progressing or at least having some good nights.  His 3 goals and 7 assists may not wow you at first; but it may lead to some interesting comparables. (Now, there's an idea - for a future post.) Where Josefson will go from here, who knows.  How he does in the upcoming training camp and preseason will provide the first clue.

Still, not every player is "NHL-ready" at age 18 or 19.  Josefson was the first Devil in a long time to have played even just one NHL game in a season; nevermind playing in a little more than a quarter of a regular season.  I don't anticipate (nor do I want) the Devils to play under-20 forwards more often in the future even if they are easier to protect on the roster.  With respect to the league's history, both post-2005 and all-time, the under-20 forward is more common than the under-20 defenseman but they are still somewhat rare.  In a way, that speaks to how highly the Devils think of Josefson's talent.  Why would they play him at all - especially after players got healthy in the second half of the season - if he didn't have the skills?   In another, that those forwards aren't common at all speaks to how a prospect doesn't need to make it into the league right away to become a successful player; and if they do, they still need to work hard to stay in the league and have a successful career.

Based on what you know now, how do you think Josefson's career will go?  How do you think he'll develop?  Will these 28 games be looked upon as a mistake in retrospect, the start of something big, or something in between? How do you feel about under-20 forwards being somewhat rare with respect to league history both recent and in entirety? Please leave your answers and other relevant thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.