Many consider today’s NHL to be a young man’s game. Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews scored four goals in his first career game, a feat no player has ever done, while Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid is currently among the scoring leaders in the NHL. Both are teenagers.
The game today is played at a faster speed with players dedicating entire summers to improving their fitness and at times older players can lose a step. In days gone by, it seemed as though mid-tier NHLers could hang around until they were 35-years-old, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today; instead, 25-28 seems to be when a player is at his peak and down years are soon to follow. A 32-year-old with more than 500 games played in his career is entering training camp on a professional tryout contract, rather than fresh off of a four-year extension in several cases.
These players listed, however, didn’t quite take the next step until a little later in their careers. Defensemen and goaltenders typically take longer to develop and learn the position, but a lot of the players on this list came into their own later in their career as forwards.
15. Anson Carter
Anson Carter was eight years old when he started playing hockey, which is a bit of a late start for an eventual professional hockey player. Yet, by the time he was 18 he had secured a scholarship to Michigan State University, where he recorded 178 points through four seasons despite being a high 10th round draft pick in 1992.
Carter was traded to the Washington Capitals before his pro career began and played just half a season with the team before being shipped to Boston. He found success in Boston, posting a 43 point season as a 23-year-old in 1997-98, but had his best seasons in 2001-02 and 2005-06 when he was 26 and 29. Ironically, he was out of the league less than two years after his best goal-scoring season (33) in 2005-06. His career arch was a steady rise, but it went south quickly.
14. Daniel Cleary
Watching Dan Cleary slide in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft became an intriguing subplot. The Newfoundland native was expected to be a can’t-miss top five pick heading into the draft, but faded to 13th when he was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks. The talented junior was a final cut from three consecutive Canadian World Junior teams and dealt with conditioning issues throughout the early stages of his career. Cleary played just 41 games with the Blackhawks before he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. He had a respectable 35-point season in 2000-01, but failed to find comfort in Edmonton.
Cleary played in Sweden during the 2004 lockout and signed with the Detroit Red Wings the following season, where he revitalized his career. Over the next ten seasons, Cleary won a Stanley Cup and recorded 275 points with Detroit. The 37-year-old last played for Detroit in 2014-15, but is currently playing for the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids as his career seems to be winding down.
13. Ray Whitney
Ray Whitney’s playing career took off with a change of scenery when he joined the Florida Panthers for the 1997-98 season. The 25-year-old posted three consecutive 60-point seasons, topping out at a career-high 71 in 1999-2000. Yet, despite those totals, the undersized winger was traded the next season to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Kevyn Adams, a defensively-responsible center, and a draft pick. Whitney had yet to reach the height of his abilities.
He posted a new career high of 76 points with the Blue Jackets in 2002-03 and two seasons later won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes. Remarkably, Whitney established a new career high in points with 83 the following season. He was 34-years-old. Better yet, Whitney played seven more seasons, finishing with 1,064 points in 1,300 career games. He retired in 2013-14 and served as a caddy for Canadian Olympic golfer Graham DeLaet in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
12. Mark Streit
The Montreal Canadiens made an incredibly shrewd pick in 2004 when they selected Swiss defenseman Mark Streit in the ninth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Streit was 27-years-old at the time – much older than the average draft prospect – but was captain of his national team and a top-scoring blueliner in the Swiss-A league. He played one more season in Switzerland before coming to play for the Canadiens in 2005-06.
Streit had a pedestrian 11 points in his rookie season, but quickly established himself as one of the league’s premier puck-moving defenders. In his third season with the Canadiens, he scored a career-high 62 points, earning himself a five-year, $20.5 million contract with the Islanders. The 38-year-old, currently with the Philadelphia Flyers, has amassed 417 points in 732 career games – better than most who start their career in their early 20s.
11. Kimmo Timonen
Finnish offensive defenseman Kimmo Timonen was drafted in the 10th round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, but didn’t come to North America until the 1998-99 season, when he played for the Nashville Predators in the team’s first season. Timonen was traded by Los Angeles to Nashville for future considerations, a trade that looks idiotic in retrospect. He showed signs of promise in his first four seasons with the Predators and by 2003-04 was a 40-plus point, first-pairing blueliner.
Timonen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007 along with Scott Hartnell. The Predators had young stalwart defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and felt Timonen, 32, was on the decline. Instead, he went on to play seven seasons with the Flyers, before finally winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014-15.
10. Niklas Bäckström
At one time considered one of the league’s best, Niklas Bäckström didn’t come to the NHL until he was 28. After establishing himself as one of the top goalies in the SM-Liiga, Finland’s top league, Niklas signed with the Minnesota Wild in 2006 and along with Manny Fernandez formed one of the best goaltending duos in the league. The pair shared the William M. Jennings award that season for having the league’s best combined save percentage.
For the following six seasons, Backstrom was the go-to guy in Minnesota, but was often plagued by injuries. He was most dominant in his first two seasons, but managed a winning record every year. He played four games with the Calgary Flames in 2015-16 and this season signed to play for HIFK Helsinki in Finland.
9. Matt Cullen
Matt Cullen recently turned 40, but he’s still a valued contributor for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the league’s defending Stanley Cup champions. The defensively-responsible center chipped in six playoff points last season for the Penguins after a 32-point regular season campaign.
The 1996 Anaheim Mighty Ducks second round pick reached 48 points in the 2001-02 season but stumbled out of the gate the following year, recording just 21 points in 50 games before a trade to Florida. Though he hadn’t yet turned 30, Cullen turned in successive poor seasons with the Panthers and played in Italy during the 2004 NHL lockout. Despite career uncertainty, Cullen posted a career-high 49 points and 25 goals with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06. He also had 18 playoff points en route to the team’s first Stanley Cup win. The Minnesota native has played 1,309 career games and recorded 667 points, the second most of his draft class behind only Daniel Brière.
8. Jaromír Jágr
Okay, let’s be clear. Jaromír Jágr will go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game. The Czech winger is poised to pass Mark Messier for second all-time in NHL points this season and won back-to-back Stanley Cups his first two seasons in the league. In 1995-96, Jagr posted a career-high 149 points, but would go on to post four more 100-plus point seasons.
Jagr, did, however, discover an incredible desire and commitment to the game in his later years. After looking disinterested at times during his stint with the New York Rangers in the mid-2000s, he returned to the NHL in 2011-12 after three years in Russia and continued to be a productive player, despite being 38. Amazingly, at 44-years-old, Jagr led the Florida Panthers in scoring last season with 66 points. He wants to play until he’s 50 and, given his tireless work ethic, it’s possible he does. And we sure hope he does – the legend is on record stating he doesn’t want to live much longer following the completion of his playing career.
7. Shawn Thornton
Unlike most position players on this list, Shawn Thornton didn’t discover some hidden scoring talent until later in his career; instead, the physical winger figured out how to be effective in his role. A seventh round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1997, Thornton didn’t establish himself as a full-time NHLer until many years later with the Anaheim Ducks/Boston Bruins. Until then, he spent eight full seasons as an enforcer in the AHL and appeared in 31 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks.
But Thornton was given an extended look of 48 games in the NHL by the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07 and played well enough (nine points, 88 penalty minutes, Stanley Cup winner) to earn a contract from the Bruins. In an era where fighters might not last much longer than past 30, Thornton spent seven seasons with the Bruins, won a Stanley Cup in 2011, and is still playing today with the Florida Panthers. Through 656 career games, the 39-year-old has 98 points and 1,036 penalty minutes.
6. Brian Rafalski
A somewhat undersized defenseman, Brian Rafalski wasn’t drafted going into college and he had no suitors following an impressive 45-point campaign for the University of Wisconsin in 1994-95. So Rafalski did what most players on the cusp of the NHL do at that point – he went overseas. The Michigan native spent four seasons playing in Sweden and Finland. He received an offer from the New Jersey Devils after a breakout 53-point season with HIFK Helsinki and the next year was the second highest scoring defenseman with the Stanley Cup champions.
Rafalski’s impressive career was just beginning at 27, however. He led Devils defensemen in scoring with 52 points the following season and posted three more 50-point seasons before calling it a career at the end of the 2010-11 season. Rafalski never posted a lower points total than his rookie season and finished his 11-year career with 515 points in 833 games.
5. Cory Stillman
A sixth overall pick in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, it took Cory Stillman about a decade to reach his peak. Though he was a known goal-scorer with a career high of 27 goals scored when he was 24, he became a complete player following a trade from Calgary to St. Louis. Stillman finished the 2002-03 season with a career-high in points (67), assists (43) and finished third on the Blues in scoring. Yet, Stillman was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer of 2003 for a second round pick. That draft pick ended up being David Backes, so it’s unlikely the Blues regret the trade, but you can bet the Lightning haven’t thought twice about it.
In his first season with the team, Stillman finished second on the Lightning in scoring with new career highs in points (80) and assists (55). Tampa Bay went on an unlikely run to eventually win the Stanley Cup that season. Better yet, Stillman suited up for the Carolina Hurricanes the following season (after a lockout wiped the 2004-05 season) and again recorded 55 assists. He also had 26 points in 25 playoff games and won his second consecutive Stanley Cup. Stillman finished his career with 727 points in 1,025 games.
4. Martin St. Louis
The Calgary Flames might be led by a diminutive Superstar in Johnny Gaudreau, but there was a time when the Flames had no trouble passing on a talented, yet undersized winger. After Martin St. Louis completed an absurd four-year collegiate career at the University of Vermont with 267 points, he was signed by the Flames and given a chance to make an impact. In three seasons with the organization, St. Louis played in 69 games with Calgary, collecting 20 points, while proving himself a capable scorer in the AHL. Yet, the Flames felt they gave St. Louis enough of an opportunity to showcase himself and he was unsigned prior to the 2000-01 season.
The Quebec native opted to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning and, recognizing his skill, the organization gave him every opportunity to succeed. In his first season with the team, St. Louis finished fourth in scoring with 40 points. Three seasons later when the team won the Stanley Cup, St. Louis finished the regular season with 94 points and collected an additional 24 points in the playoffs. He finished his career with 1,033 points in 1,134 games and is a likely future Hall of Famer.
3. Zdeno Chara
When drafted in 1996, Slovakian defenseman Zdeno Chara was no more than a project – a 6’9″, 250 pound physical specimen who could barely skate backwards. He played in 25 games for the New York Islanders just one year after being drafted, but had just one assist and 50 penalty minutes. He played the next two seasons with the Islanders, but finished each year with a -27 rating, highlighting his defensive deficiencies. He was traded to the Ottawa Senators before the 2001 seasons and found his footing with the upstart Senators.
Chara became a frightening force on the Senators blue line with his sheer size and physical play, but also found a home on the team’s power-play, leading to a career high 16 goals in the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons. The cap-crunched Senators opted to re-sign Wade Redden in the 2006 off-season, however, leaving Chara a free agent in the process. Remarkably, the big Slovakian was only beginning to reach his prime when he signed with the Boston Bruins at 29. Chara posted six consecutive 40-point seasons with the Bruins and is still playing for the team today. He has 579 points in 1,291 career games.
2. Tim Thomas
Goalies typically hit their prime later than position players, but Tim Thomas came out of nowhere to become one of the league’s most dominant netminders. The Flint, Michigan native was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, but didn’t make his NHL debut until 2002 with the Boston Bruins and didn’t become a star until the 2006-07 season, when he was 32-years-old. Prior to that, Thomas had played in Sweden, Finland, the IHL, AHL, and ECHL. After playing two seasons in the Bruins organization from 2002-04, Thomas returned to Finland for the 2004-05 season, but a lights-out season (1.58 goals against average, .946 save percentage) caught the eye of the Bruins once again.
Thomas played 38 games in the NHL the following season and was steady at best. He was a reliable starter for three years, but became the league’s best for a five-season period from 2007-12, posting a combined record of 151-78-31. Thomas retired following the 2013-14 season with a resume that includes a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe Trophy and two Vezina Trophy awards as the league’s top goaltender.
1. Dominik Hašek
Arguably one of the most dominant goaltenders of all-time, Dominik Hašek didn’t come to North America until he was 25 and better yet didn’t become a star until he was 29. Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 10th round of the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, Dom didn’t suit up for the Blackhawks until the 1990-91 season, playing just five games. He played 20 the following year, but there was little playing time to go around given the team was invested in Ed Belfour. Thus, Hašek was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in the summer of 1992. He split time with Grant Fuhr and Daren Puppa in his first year with the Sabres but the following season began an eight-year run with the team that will likely never be matched.
Dom’s worst save percentage in those eight seasons with the Sabres was a .919 as he won the Vezina Trophy six times and was also named league MVP twice. He famously denied the Canadian Olympic team in the semi-finals of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and almost single-handedly won the Czech Republic a gold medal. Not surprisingly, Hašek was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014.
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