If you ever catch yourself questioning the quality of the players in a professional sports league, consider this: only a minority of players who play in the junior leagues ever make it as a pro. And only a few of the best kids at a given sport can make it to junior. So a player who’s great in junior is amazingly talented, full stop. However, many players struggle to transition to the big leagues. Sometimes they lack the size, sometimes they lack the discipline, and sometimes things just don’t go their way. But the opposite does exist as well. There are plenty of players who were nothing special in junior but who blossomed into all-star players when they reached the pros.
The NHL has had many players of both types. However, both are still comparatively rare. Generally, a player’s skill level and success in junior correlates with their skill and success in the NHL. Players who were amazing in their junior careers –Gretzky, Ovechkin, Toews– are often amazing in the NHL. But there have been some amazing junior players who never made it as big in the NHL. And some never made it at all. And then there are the great players who were not heralded at all in their junior days and were therefore picked late in the draft. And some greats were never drafted at all. So read on and discover eight players who were better in their pro careers and eight who peaked in junior.
16. Pro – Henrik Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist’s status as an all-star goalie is inarguable. Lundqvist backstopped a rather average New York Rangers team to a Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference supremacy. He was nominated for the Hart Trophy in 2012 and for the Vezina Trophy five times, winning in 2012. He’s possibly the greatest goaltender of this millennium. However, his CV wasn’t always as dazzling. Apparently, Henrik didn’t even play in goal until around the age of eight when his twin brother, Joel, volunteered Henrik to go in goal without Henrik’s approval. Lundqvist made his Swedish Elitserien debut in 2000 for Frölunda HC, but the season did not go well and he lost his roster spot.
He wasn’t drafted by the Rangers until the 205th pick in 2000. Henrik made a conscious effort to improve his game. Sweden was not strong in goal at this point, so Lundqvist got the call to represent his country at the 2001 World Junior Hockey Championship. Lundqvist played very well and helped the Swedes to a 4th place finish. From there, King Henrik only got better.
15. Junior – Eric Lindros
Okay, I know, at first blush, it seems insane to downplay Eric Lindros’s professional career. He dominated the league for years and even won a Hart Trophy and tied for the league lead in scoring in 1995. But remember that ‘The Big E’s’ career was riddled and eventually shortened by injuries; specifically concussions, of which he suffered three in the 1999-00 season. And then consider his junior career. His truly phenomenal junior career.
Lindros was so good for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League that they retired his number, 88. People were already calling him “The Next One” (a comparison to Gretzky). Not even the next Lemieux or Marcel Dionne, but Gretzky. Lindros was so big and dominant, but also skilled and fast, that he dazzled spectators and analysts. So good was Lindros that he represented Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup before ever even playing a game in the NHL. So yes, his pro career was great, but his he was better in junior.
14. Pro – Martin St. Louis
Martin St. Louis is perhaps the most famous NHL player to have never been drafted. The diminutive French-Canadian winger was pretty much an average player career for the first several years of his career. However, his offensive output exploded in the early 2000s, winning the Art Ross and Hart trophies in 2004. After that, St. Louis couldn’t even touch the ice without announcers informing us that, “Hey, did you know he was never even drafted?!?!”. Yes, we all know that by now. So naturally, St. Louis was better as a pro than he was in junior. But actually, he wasn’t terrible in junior. It was just his small stature that scared off NHL clubs. St. Louis couldn’t find a spot for himself in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), so he played in the NCAA system.
He was actually a great player for the Vermont Catamounts, but still no NHL contract came his way. It wasn’t until after a season in the International Hockey League that the Calgary Flames finally came calling in 1998.
13. Junior – Jordan Eberle
After a somewhat slow start, Jordan Eberle has proven himself to be a quality, solid forward for the Edmonton Oilers. But he’s not the same player he was in junior. Eberle played great for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, but where he really shone was at the World Junior Hockey Championship. For two years in a row, Eberle dazzled as he led Team Canada, winning gold in 2009 and silver in 2010. Eberle had a particular penchant for scoring late goals. In 2009 against in Russia in the semi final, he scored with a mere 5.4 seconds left to tie the game and then again in the shootout. On New Year’s Eve 2009, Eberle scored a third period goal and again in the shootout to beat U.S.A. in the final round robin game. Canada met the U.S. again in the final and Eberle scored twice in the third period to force overtime, the second goal with only 1:35 left.
Eberle finished the tournament as Canada’s all-time leading junior scorer, with 14 goals. These are numbers and performances we haven’t seen him replicate for the Oilers.
12. Pro – Brian Rafalski
Like Martin St, Louis, Brian Rafalski had a very successful tenure in the NCAA, playing for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And, like St, Louis, despite his success, NHL teams still were not interested in him, and this was also partly because of Rafalski’s less-than-average size for a hockey player. So Rafalski headed over to Europe in 1995 and played in Sweden with Brynäs IF. After two largely disappointing seasons in Sweden, Rafalski moved to Finland, where he had more success over the next three years, even becoming the first non-Finn to win the player of the year award there in 1998-99. That was enough for the NHL to finally take notice and the New Jersey Devils signed Rafalski, and he would go on to be one of the greatest undrafted defensemen of the modern era.