Most professional sports players' lives have followed a similar pattern.
As youngsters, they were always the best athlete in their school or area in one or more sports, possibly because they were bigger, faster, taller, or quicker than everyone else their age. And while a significant portion of these kids "normalized" as they reached their teens, the rest continued to excel in athletics. Only the truly "great" continued their sports careers once they entered adulthood.
Then, as these high school standouts reached the next phase of athletics - be it on college teams or in the minor leagues - another thinning of the herd took place. The majority of these players peaked at this level or got injured, washed out, or simply lost interest. Only the select few made their mark at this higher level, thereby making the transition from "great" to "exceptional." These are the ones who earned the opportunity to advance to the "big leagues" in their chosen sport.
So out of the guys that are "exceptional" enough to start a full-time professional career in sports, how can you spot the ones who will one day become true "superstars?" The answer: 23.
While it's not a hard-and-fast rule, 23 years old seems to be the age where you can better pick out the standout pro athletes - the "best of the best" if you will. That's because if a 23-year old athlete is outclassing his peers and/or are battling league veterans for the top spot in statistical categories, then he is quite likely destined for a long, illustrious sporting career - perhaps one that ends with an induction into the Hall of Fame.
Therefore, if a 23-year old football player is racking up yards left and right, a 23-year old soccer player is the leading scorer on his squad, a 23-year old basketballer is putting up 15 to 20 points a game, or a 23-year old baseball player is batting .300 consistently, then it's a safe bet that they are all headed for stardom.
The same rule of thumb applies in professional hockey. There are plenty of people 23 and under competing in the minor leagues or playing against lesser-quality overseas competition. But if you have someone in this age group who is logging regular minutes in the NHL and meeting or exceeding the level of play seen among older skaters, then you may just have a superstar on your hands.
With that in mind, here are the top 20 NHL players who are 23 years of age or younger as of the start of the 2014-15 hockey season:
20 Olli Maatta, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Last year, the Finland native put together a solid rookie season for Pittsburgh, tallying nine goals and 29 points from the blue line; with three goals and three assists coming with the man advantage. But Maatta had to undergo shoulder surgery back in late May, and his timetable for recovery may extend well into training camp this year. So if the 22-year old Maatta begins the season on injured reserve, the Pens will have to plug in another youngster to take his place. Ironically, that's how Maatta got his start last year; when Kris Letang was on IR to begin the season.
19 John Gibson, G, Anaheim Ducks
Gibson didn't see any action in Anaheim until this past April, when he was called up from the Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk because Frederik Anderson sustained an upper-body injury. The Pittsburgh native then earned a shutout in his first NHL start, followed by two straight wins and an impressive 2-2 record in the playoffs against the Kings (one of which was a shutout as well). Now that starting netminder Jonas Hiller has departed Orange County for Calgary, the 21-year old Gibson and Anderson will battle it out for the top spot in goal.
18 Vladimir Tarasenko, W, St. Louis Blues
The Blues have an impressive stable of young forwards, and Tarasenko is right in the thick of it. His dominant performance over similar competition as a third-line skater last year helped him amass 21 goals (including five on the power play), 22 assists, and a +20 rating. Tasarenko also netted four goals in St. Louis's six playoff games. So it's highly likely that Blues' head coach Ken Hitchcock may mix the 22-year old Russian in with his top two lines this season.
17 Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers
This 6'3," 205-pound centerman has loads of potential for Florida, and he just turned 18 this summer. The number two overall pick in last years's draft was putting together a solid season with eight goals and 24 points before the Winter Olympic break. But while playing for Finland in Sochi, Barkov hurt his knee in a round-robin match against rival Norway and was unable to return to the ice for the Panthers in 2014. If he heals nicely, however, Barkov will continue to improve and perhaps blossom into an NHL superstar.
16 Alex Galchenyuk, C, Montreal Canadiens
The Habs are hoping that the 20-year old Galchenyuk will be a point-per-game player for them this season. A quick glance at his 31 points in 65 games last season may not substantiate that claim, but the Milwaukee native showed that he could reach and exceed that plateau in his two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. And almost a third of his production last season came on the power play. If Galchenyuk can stay healthy and play a full season for the Habs, he could be one of the league's present surprises.
15 Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Buffalo Sabres
Ristolainen appeared in 34 games in a Buffalo uniform last season, but was tearing up international ice rinks before that. The Finn, who is just 19 years old, led his nation to a gold medal in the World Junior Championships and was also named the tournament's top defenseman. Ristolainen is 6'3" and 207 pounds but has excellent puck-handling skills, and he looks to anchor the Sabres' D for years to come.
14 Ryan Murray, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
The biggest hurdle for this Saskatchewan native will be how he returns from arthroscopic knee surgery after getting injured in March. But Murray, who will turn 21 before this season, showed flashes of brilliance for Columbus last season by notching 21 points; with three of his four goals coming on the power play. Murray's two-way ability and exceptional awareness on both offense and defense were the reasons he was the second overall draft pick in 2012.
13 Tomas Hertl, C, San Jose Sharks
A knee injury threw a monkey wrench into Hertl's campaign last year when he collided with Kings' captain Dustin Brown in December, which kept him out for almost four months. Before the injury, Hertl was leading all NHL rookies with 25 points in only 37 games and was in the running for the Calder Trophy. The 20-year old centerman has superior skills on the ice along with a nose for the net, and he could be a dangerous skater for the Sharks if he comes back 100% this year.
12 Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets
The 20-year old must be doing something right if he's being referred to as a "young Chris Pronger." Trouba was a fixture on both the penalty kill and the power play teams for Winnipeg this past season, and he was lauded not only for his physicality and puck movement but also his gap control and shot-blocking ability. The Rochester, Michigan native recorded 10 goals and 29 points for the Jets in his rookie season, and he may just become Winnipeg's next franchise blueliner.
11 Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, Washington Capitals
A former first-round pick of the Caps back in 2010, Kuznetsov struggled with injuries a bit while playing in his native Russia before making his NHL debut this past season. The Chelyabinsk native tallied just nine points in 17 games, but he has already shown signs of greatness with his exceptional puck handling and skating skills to go with a heavy dose of on-ice creativity. If the 175-pound, 22-year old can bulk up a bit, he could become a top-six forward for Washington.
10 Dougie Hamilton, D, Boston Bruins
The Calgary native benefited from some extra ice time last season not only because Boston played a dozen extra postseason games, but also because fellow blueliner Dennis Seidenberg battled knee injuries throughout the year. And Hamilton made the most of his opportunity by scoring seven goals and 25 points in his first full NHL season, while adding a couple of goals and five assists in the playoffs. After turning 21 this summer, the 6'5" Hamilton will be tough to move out of the Boston lineup this year.
9 Jonas Brodin, D, Minnesota Wild
There were more than a few people that thought Brodin should have been tapped as last season's rookie of the year. He was paired with Ryan Suter most of the season and played in all but three Wild games. Brodin more than held his own, scoring eight goals and 19 points - with three goals and four assists on the power play. The former first-round draft pick in 2011 turned 21 over the summer, and his skating ability and three-zone acumen could solidify his place in Minnesota for the foreseeable future.
8 Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Arizona Coyotes
He's already being called one of the best draft picks in Coyotes' franchise history, which is why Arizona (nee Phoenix) signed Ekman-Larsson to a six-year, $33 million contract extension in March of last year. That's because there's nothing that this 23-year old Swede can't do. Ekman-Larsson hits hard and defends well, but also lit the lamp 15 times last year (eight of which came on the power play) and assisted on 29 other goals. Along with Keith Yandle, Arizona now has one of the most fearsome defensive duos in the NHL.
7 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Edmonton Oilers
He's only 21 years old, and Nugent-Hopkins already has a hammer lock as the pivot on Edmonton's top line. That's the kind of respect you give to an 80-game player a year ago who notched 56 points, 20 of which came with the man advantage. Of course, the ultimate reverence for the Burnaby, Canada native came in the form of a seven-year, $42 million contract extension that he signed prior to last season. That said, Nugent-Hopkins is undoubtedly happy about playing on a line alongside another player on this list (more on him later).
6 Ryan Johansen, C, Columbus Blue Jackets
Through his first two years with the Jackets, it was far from certain that Johansen would make his way onto this list. Then last season, the Vancouver, Canada native burst onto the scene with 33 goals and 63 points, which was much more than the totals in his first two campaigns combined. In fact, one more goal would have put Johansen into the top ten in the league in that category. However, Columbus fans are nervous because the club and the 22-year old centerman are reportedly still a few million dollars apart on reaching a new deal.
5 Seth Jones, D, Nashville Predators
Jones is already a rarity in that he hails from Texas, which is more suited to nurturing football talent than hockey players. But the 6'4" blueliner was talented enough to be taken as the number four overall pick in the 2013 draft. Last season, the 19-year old recorded 25 points for Nashville, nine of which came on the power play. Then he joined the U.S. team in Belarus at the IIHF World Championship and was named the tournament's top defenseman. Playing with Shea Weber and Roman Josi should help Jones' development this year.
4 Matt Duchene, C, Colorado Avalanche
Oh, it's great to be an Avs fan these days. The 23-year old native of Halliburton, Ontario led the Avs with 70 points this past season and has already racked up 105 goals and 263 points in five NHL seasons. Duchene has blinding speed and natural scoring ability, which gives him the power to take over any shift. He helped lead Team Canada to Olympic gold in February, and Duchene may very well put up 30 goals this year. Of course, it helps immensely that he happens to be on the same club with two other entries on this list...
3 Gabriel Landeskog, LW Colorado Avalanche
Numbers don't lie. This past season, Landeskog was the only player in the NHL to exceed 25 goals, 220 shots on goal, a plus-20 rating, and 175 hits. This is a guy you want on your team, and he's just 21 years old. The Stockholm native was named the youngest captain in league history when we was just 19, and he earned himself a Calder Trophy back in 2012. Colorado is hoping that there's even a higher ceiling for Landeskog, whose father was a defenseman in the Swedish Hockey League.
2 Taylor Hall, LW, Edmonton Oilers
He's only 22 and Hall has already amassed more than ten times that number of points in the NHL. The left winger tied for sixth-place in scoring last season by recording a whopping 80 points in 75 games. He was also eighth in the league in assists with 53. But the top overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft is nowhere near his ability ceiling yet - which means he could one day retire as one of the greatest Oilers of all time. Look for him to be among the scoring leaders again this year.
1 Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche
The top overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft was a key reason why the Avalanche were relevant again this past year. The Halifax native put up 63 points (including 24 goals, which was one more than Duchene), marking the best rookie output in the last six seasons. Plus, MacKinnon added ten points in seven playoff games - and he did all this while just 18 years old! Naturally, Colorado fans are salivating at what MacKinnon can do if he improves during his sophomore NHL season.