When Shane Harper slipped into a Florida Panthers uniform on October 13, he had done something that hundreds of players had before him.
Not much fanfare surrounds the typical NHL debut — save for highly-touted rookies, most greenhorn skaters take the ice without drawing excessive attention from the media and fans.
According to QuantHockey.com, 7,456 hockey players have appeared in a NHL contest, with roughly 58% of debuts occurring between a skater’s age of 19 to 22. With each passing year, a prospect’s chance of cracking a big league roster substantially diminishes: After turning 25, your run-of-the-mill minor leaguer’s NHL wish holds a 17% probability of coming true.
Needless to say, those numbers aren’t promising.
But even then, that initial breakthrough rarely happens this late into a career.
At 27 years old, Harper had spent the bulk of his time in professional hockey as a minor leaguer, twice being demoted to the ECHL. Undrafted out of major junior, he plied his trade within the Philadelphia Flyers’ and Chicago Blackhawks’ organizations, never getting the call he worked so hard for.
Throughout the NHL’s 99-year existence, 197 people — less than 3% of all players — had ever debuted at that age.
Harper is one of them.
Five games and two goals later, the native of Valencia, California, has played his way to a roster spot on one of the league’s strongest teams. And thus far, he’s held his own.
“I always thought I just needed to get my shot,” Harper said in an article written by Harvey Fialkov. “Sometimes, there is doubt over the years, but you just have to have confidence in yourself.”
When the Florida Panthers underwent a front office overhaul this offseason, first-time General Manager Tom Rowe wanted to re-cast his hockey club, hoping to transform it into a puck-possessing unit.
The “new school” mentality ushered in a host of new faces. Within weeks, the Cats had consolidated their talent, taking on the look of a genuine Stanley Cup contender. However, injuries to two key players — first-line winger Jonathan Huberdeau and third-line center Nick Bjugstad — necessitated a shuffling of the deck.
Players were shifted into unfamiliar roles. New opportunities were meted out. Two unknown players were surprising additions to the opening night roster.
Harper was one of them.
It was my childhood dream to play in my first NHL game. Thank you to my family, and everyone who helped me on that journey @FlaPanthers pic.twitter.com/YpPNUSGcQY
— Shane Harper (@Cali_Sharp) October 18, 2016
Skating on captain Derek MacKenzie’s wing, the 5-foot-11 forward joined Toronto Maple Leafs’ castoff Greg McKegg on the Panthers’ fourth line, tasked with generating energy and pinning the opposing attack in its own zone.
Five games into the season, Harper is thriving in his newfound home, drawing the attention of players and coaches alike.
Owner of a powerful stride, speed is arguably his greatest asset. It was evident in his two-goal performance against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night, when he tore up the rink to generate a pair of odd-man rushes.
“The kid played hard, he works hard and going hard to the net and you get rewarded,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “You cheer for the guys that haven’t scored a goal in the NHL before and it makes your team feel real good about it.”
First career two-goal game.
First career any-goal game. Congrats on the pair, Shane Harper! #NHLFirsts pic.twitter.com/paaZg80op7
— NHL (@NHL) October 23, 2016
Combined with his quickness, that work ethic has translated well to his bottom-six duties. Throwing more shots on goal (6) than his other two linemates combined (5), Harper also leads his team in hits (10) and penalty minutes (11), getting into a scuffle with Avs rearguard Patrick Wiercioch — to whom he cedes six inches in height — for good measure.
Perhaps more impressive than his tenacity, though, is his usage to this point in the campaign. Drawing offensive zone starts 63.3% of the time, the fourth-liner has managed to produce positive possession numbers, churning out plus-measures in advanced metrics such as Corsi for percentage (55.1%) and Fenwick for percentage (55.4%).
While that might be a by-product of Gallant’s desire to shield him from unfavorable situations — Harper’s turnover differential currently stands at a -1 — it isn’t as though the newbie’s failed to chip in defensively. With an on-ice save percentage of 94.1, he’s combined with his fourth-line cohorts to produce a plus-six rating, second-best of any line combination on the squad.
Little more than an afterthought a year ago, Harper has made a case to remain in Sunrise long after Huberdeau and Bjugstad return from injury.
Until that time, he’ll continue to defy the odds.
“My dad looked at some Web site that said I was the 600th ECHLer to play in the NHL,” Harper said. “If you go to the ECHL, people think there’s no coming back from that.
“But you just got to believe in yourself.”