Teenagers have changed the face of the NHL since the lockout, and the trend could continue this year. According to TSN, eight "underage" players began the season on NHL rosters. They are players still young enough to return to junior (under-20) teams in Canada.
Then there's Patrick Kane, the top dog from last June's Entry Draft. After playing 16-plus minutes in Chicago's opening night loss, he recorded an assist and a shootout goal as the Blackhawks beat Detroit on Saturday. Coach Denis Savard assures everyone that Kane will be handled with care:
''This was his first game, and he should be in,'' Savard said (after the opener), ''but we'll evaluate him day by day. We don't want him to lose confidence at any time this year. But he thrives on stuff like this. He's always been good in tough games. He's been doing that all his life.''Does Patrick Kane belong in the NHL? He'll be 19 in November, and is listed at a miniscule 5'-10" and 163 pounds. He has played one season of junior hockey. How well might he hold up over 82 big-league games with a less than stellar team?
These days, top-drawer prospects arrive more NHL-ready than ever before. In the last two years, Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Kopitar, Vlasic and Jordan Staal have all stepped into the league and flourished as teenagers. On the other hand, Gilbert Brule was a bust in his rookie season, and Nikolai Zherdev has achieved little since arriving from Russia as a 19-year-old in 2003.
Of course, both Brule and Zherdev play in Columbus, which is likely part of the problem. When a big-name prospect disappoints, we usually assume it's his fault. But he could be a victim of poor coaching and development. Or maybe he's been rushed into the lineup by a team desperate for a fresh face to boost ticket sales. Was Joe Thornton's career advanced by playing 55 unproductive games in Boston at the age of 18? Did it do Marc-Andre Fleury any good to get shelled as a very young goalie on a very bad Pittsburgh team? Thornton turned out fine, obviously. But Fleury still looks jittery on some nights.
Can Patrick Kane be hockey's next whiz kid? The Blackhawks badly want the answer to be yes. But beyond the chosen few, most players benefit from an extra year or two of maturity before taking on major NHL roles - a little patience paid off nicely with Tomas Vanek and Paul Stastny, among others. Patrick Kane, already marked as the new savior at United Center, might not have that luxury. He's playing for a team with a poor history when it comes to homegrown talent. For his sake, let's hope the Blackhawks don't find a way to screw up this time.
Postscript: Other 19-year-olds to watch this season: Erik Johnson of the Blues and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks, both arrived from the NCAA.
See Also: The rules governing junior hockey players in the NHL.
Photo: Patrick Kane wears number 88 in Chicago (Jonathan Daniels/Getty Images)