Debut seasons are never easy in any sport, but they are especially difficult in the NHL for a number of reasons. One reason is the fact that you are no longer playing against teenagers in the juniors, but against grown men who are the best players in the world at the highest level. Another reason is that the competition is so fierce to get a spot on a roster that a large majority of players have brief stints in the NHL, but never make a career out of it.
For those that stick around, they have an opportunity to work hard and become a superstar. The NHL and its history books are full of terrific superstar players who had sustained success throughout their entire career. However, there exist some superstar players who experience the same debut season jitters as the players who fizzle out of the league.
These players could either be a guy that was extremely hyped up and didn’t live up to the expectations at the start of their career, or they could be guys who came out of nowhere, but struggled early on, though then went on to become superstars in the league.
No matter how you slice it, the 15 men on this list definitely struggled mightily in their debuts in the NHL, but all went on to be valuable players later on in their career. Read on and enjoy.
15. Pierre Turgeon
First up on the list is Pierre Turgeon, who played for six NHL teams throughout his accomplished career. Turgeon was a talented scorer throughout the ’90s, including scoring 58 goals for the New York Islanders in 1992-93. Despite his long and illustrious career in the NHL, Turgeon had a surprisingly awful debut season. In his first season in the league after an impressive reign in the QMJHL, Turgeon only had 14 goals and 42 points in 76 games, along with a -8 rating.
14. Tyler Seguin
Seguin is among the best players in the NHL at the moment and finished seventh in scoring for the 2014-15 season, even though he missed 17 games. Coming in to the NHL as a rookie in 2010-11, Seguin had very high expectations as he was drafted second overall. Sadly, his first season failed miserably to live up to those hefty expectations. As a rookie, Seguin played in 74 games, but only finished with 22 points (with a -4 rating) which was not what the Bruins fans and staff were hoping for. They likely weren’t too angry, as that was the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, despite Seguin’s lackluster play.
13. Steven Stamkos
Steven Stamkos, who is currently the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, is widely regarded as one of the best players in the NHL today. Stamkos has been an absolute goal scoring machine for the Lightning for the last six years. Before he was in the NHL, Stamkos was the most highly touted prospect since Sidney Crosby. His 46 point rookie season isn’t horrible, but is a far cry from the type of performance that people were expecting from a player as highly touted as he was. A major issue in the beginning for Stamkos was his play in his own end, as he was -13 in his rookie year.
12. Owen Nolan
Owen Nolan was selected by the Quebec Nordiques with the first overall selection in the 1990 NHL Draft. Being selected at that position normally means that teams want you to come in and have an immediate impact on the ice. Unfortunately for the Nordiques, that was not the case at all for Nolan. In 59 games in his rookie year, Owen Nolan only scored 3 goals and added 10 assists for a whopping 13 points. He went on to have a great career, but it got off to a rocky start.
11. Vincent Lecavalier
Like Owen Nolan, Vinny Lecavalier was also selected first overall in the NHL Draft. In his junior career, Lecavalier was a scoring machine who also wasn’t afraid to play the body. In 1998-99, he did not get even close to playing at the level that his fans were accustomed to seeing. In fact, Lecavalier played in all 82 games for the Lightning, but only registered only 28 points, which is very disappointing for a first overall pick who had a reputation for being a talented scorer
10. Peter Bondra
Bondra was among the absolute best goal scorers of the 1990s with the Washington Capitals, including two 50 goal seasons. Bondra was noted as a talented goal scorer back home before he was drafted as a late round pick for the Captials in 1990-1991. Considering he scored 29 goals in the Europe the year before, they expected the scoring to continue. He played in 52 games as a rookie, only scoring 12 goals and had a rating -10, which was among the worst of his career.
9. Jean Beliveau
Beliveau has gone down as one of the most influential and greatest NHL players of all time. He is a national hero in Canada and also won 17 Stanley Cups as a player and an executive. His career, despite how brilliant it turned out to be, got off to a rocky start. He dominated in the QMJHL, but only registered 34 points in his rookie year. Yes, he didn’t play that many games that year, but he was scoring at a much higher than 1 PPG pace in the juniors, so scoring only 34 was a disappointment for him.
8. Henrik Sedin
Henrik Sedin is a former Hart Trophy winner and the current captain of the Vancouver Canucks. He is among the best passers in the NHL and is often near the top of the league in scoring. After being drafted in 2000-01 alongside his twin brother, Daniel, they were expected to have an immediate impact on the ice. That didn’t happen as both players struggled, but especially Henrik, as he only scored 29 points while playing in all 82 games. The twins eventually found their rhythm, but there is no doubting that Henrik had a pretty awful rookie year.
7. Mark Messier
Messier is not only a six time Stanley Cup winner and second on the all-time points list, he is also the only player in NHL history to captain two separate teams to a championship. He is absolutely within the upper echelon of all-time NHL players, but even he had his difficulties during the start of his career like everyone else on this list. His first season in the NHL was in 1979-80 with the Edmonton Oilers. He played in 75 games during his debut season, but only managed 33 points.
6. Paul Coffey
Coffey is the second highest scoring defenceman in NHL history and is a four-time Stanley Cup champion, as he was an extremely important piece of the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. He was drafted sixth overall in the 1980 NHL draft and was known for his scoring prowess as a defenceman. His first year in the NHL didn’t go as planned, as he had 32 points in 74 games played, which is an extremely low output compared to his future seasons (he had 89 points in his second year).
5. Pete Mahovlich
He was an important part of numerous Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup winning teams throughout the 1970s and was a favorite among fans. However, Mahovlich was originally selected with the second overall pick in the 1963 NHL Draft by the Detroit Red Wings, thus giving him high expectations. He didn’t enter the NHL until he was called up in 1965 for a few games. In 1966, his official rookie season, he played in 34 games and only registered 4 points, which caused him to be sent back down to the AHL.
4. Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe is widely regarded as one of the best players in history and is one of the longest tenured NHL players. He played for such a long time that he actually played professional in five separate decades (40s-80s). On top of that, he’s also the third highest scoring player in NHL history. With all of these accolades, most people are shocked to learn that he actually had a fairly weak debut season with the Red Wings in 1946-47. He played in 58 games that year and only managed to record 22 points, which is less than any other season in his career, even his age 51 seasons where he scored 41 points.
3. Phil Esposito
Phil Esposito is often considered one of the best players to ever play in the NHL and it would be hard to argue with his five Art Ross trophies. As a teenager, he was signed by the Chicago Blackhawks and was sent to play in the juniors, where he excelled and proved himself to be a great scorer. He was called up mid-way through the 1963-64 season and though he played 27 games that year, he only managed to score a measly 5 points. Of course, he eventually got his act together and became a great scorer, but that was a terrible first season.
2. Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton is widely considered one of the best players of the 2000s and is still one of the premier passers in the league. Thornton is also a former Hart Trophy winner and Art Ross Trophy winner. The former first overall pick was extremely hyped upon his arrival in the NHL because of his spectacular stats in the junior leagues. This led to the Bruins using the first overall pick on Big Joe. Though he ended up being a great player, he had a disappointing debut season, as he only managed to record 7 points in 55 games.
1. Martin St. Louis
Unlike the other entrants on our list, Martin St. Louis was not drafted and was an undrafted free agent signing by the Calgary Flames. His debut season and his second season with the Flames were awful, as he only managed 2 points in 13 games played in 1998-99 and only 15 points in 56 games in 1999-00. He then went on to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning and have a career revitalization, as he’s now one of the best players in the NHL.
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