It's pays to be a kid these days
Buffalo's Tyler Myers, 19, is in a wave of junior-eligibles sticking in the NHL
The salary cap makes young talent more valuable, but there are financial risks
Buffalo may later face a cap squeeze with Myers like the Blackhawks have now
Sometime today or maybe on the plane ride home from New Jersey, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier had a chat with rookie defenseman Tyler Myers.
Regier, conservative by nature and often handcuffed by the tough financial decisions that accompany a fiscally challenged franchise, has done this before. He takes a nine-game look at a promising draft pick who has junior eligibility remaining. He assesses the plusses and minuses of the pick's play against NHL competition and then sends the kid back to juniors with a laundry list of things to work on and an encouraging word regarding where he stands in the organization and what his possibilities are for future employment.
This time it was different.
In nine games, culminating with Wednesday night's win at New Jersey, Myers has played to glowing reviews while the Sabres compiled a 7-1-1 record without a loss on the road (4-0-0). More importantly, the 19-year-old Myers, at 6-8 and well over 200 hundred pounds -- and growing -- did not look out of place. He scored two goals, including the game-winner in a shootout at Tampa Bay, and was credited with three assists. He is among the team leaders in plus-minus (+8). He got smoked on one occasion, but that's to be expected of a kid. Aside from having former Sabre Max Afinogenov (now with Atlanta) slide the puck through his feet and skate on in for a goal, Myers has been solid in his own zone.
Myers ranks third on the rookie scoring list for defensemen behind New York's Michael Del Zotto (12 points) and San Jose's Jason Demers (8) and leads in plus-minus. His shooting percentage is a ridiculously high 20.00 and he can hit every bit as well as he can use his absurdly long reach to pin opposing forwards along the board or tie them up and take the puck away. After nine games and despite Buffalo's conservative tendencies, it was virtually certain that he would join the ranks of other players with junior eligibility who are being kept with the big club. One could even argue that Regier, like his counterparts in New York (the Islanders), Tampa Bay, Colorado and elsewhere had no real choice.
The kids are just that good.
Myers, picked 12th overall in 2008, is just one of a growing number of teenagers who are finding regular spots and serious playing time with their NHL teams. In recent days, the Islanders made a similar (and not surprising) commitment to 2009 No. 1 overall selection John Tavares, a forward with a natural scoring touch. Tampa Bay committed to No. 2 Victor Hedman (a defenseman) while Colorado green-lighted Matt Duchene and Atlanta did the same for Evander Kane. Florida did likewise with Dmitry Kulikov (14th overall in 2009). It's expected that Colorado will make a similar decision on Ryan O'Reilly (33rd) and there may be others as well
Myers, meanwhile, joins a reasonably long list of 2008 draftees who had time left in terms of junior competition, but went to the NHL to stay despite their tender years. Steven Stamkos (first overall) with Tampa Bay last season made the cut in his first try as did Drew Doughty with Los Angeles (2nd), Zach Bogosian in Atlanta (3rd), Luke Schenn in Toronto (5th), Mikkel Boedker (8th) and Viktor Tikhonov (20th) in Phoenix, Josh Bailey on Long Island (9th) and Luca Sbisa in Philadelphia (19th). Each played nearly 40 or more games in the NHL last season.
Like Myers, Del Zotto has been asked to stay around in no small part because he, too, is a leader in a variety of categories for the Rangers. Despite the obvious upside, however, the decision is not without risk and -- as is always the case in pro sports -- not without financial repercussions. The biggest issue is whether a player who shows early promise continues to develop.
Toronto kept the 18-year-old Schenn last season and he was one of their best defenseman, but he's struggling now. Having the Leafs start 0-7-1 may be retarding both his development and his confidence. GM Brian Burke, who joined the franchise after the decision to keep Schenn was made, said he likely would, on principle, have sent him back though the initial results were good for the kid and the team. It's a decision that a number of GMs would have agreed with in the past, but keeping kids, sometimes at the expense of veterans, isn't just a talent decision. It's a financial question as well.
Before the 2004-05 lockout, it was a rarity to keep a teenager, even a first-overall selection, if he had junior eligibility remaining. But since the advent of the salary cap and floor, things have started to change. In 2005, the only players to remain with their respective teams were Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh) and Alex Ovechkin (Washington). Ovechkin was an exception in that he would have come into the NHL as the first pick overall in 2004, but remained in Russia because of the lockout.
In 2006, the Penguins kept Jordan Staal (second overall that summer) and the Boston Bruins held on to Phil Kessel (fifth). A season later, there were more as the Chicago Blackhawks kept No.1 overall Patrick Kane and both Edmonton and St. Louis kept Sam Gagner and David Perron, their first picks at seven and 26 respectively. Some, notably Crosby, Kane, and to a lesser degree Staahl and Kessel, seem to have benefited from the decision and have helped their team considerably. For others, the results were a bit less certain as the long season and the struggle of some teams to stay competitive had an impact.
Exhibit A in that regard would be the Coyotes, whose struggles on and off the ice have prompted management to send even their most promising picks back to junior. Part of the reason is to not have their development slowed by playing for a team that loses far more than it wins. Another primary reason is to delay the start of their NHL careers so the team can keep the clock from starting on the time when they will come off their entry-level contracts and to push back the date when they will become eligible for free agency. That's a decision Regier had with Myers. The Sabres were, arguably, deep enough on defense to send him back to junior had he not performed as well as he did in the first nine games.
Regier acknowledges that decisions on young players depend in part on how well they project. "The real questions that revolve around young players, by the very nature of their youth, you have to accept a level of inconsistency in their play," he told reporters in Buffalo just days before making the final decision. "Part of the process here is we have to evaluate what that range is, and whether or not we can support the range and have him grow and have the team grow, have the team win.
"You also evaluate whether you think the player can continue to grow at the junior level or if that is less than an ideal situation."
Since Myers appears to have outgrown the constraints of junior hockey in both his size and learning curve, it was a relatively easy decision, but there was also the business side of the equation. In keeping him the Sabres set the clock in motion for the time when he will become restricted free agent, and that's when he'll be just 22. If the Sabres survive that, Myers will be eligible for unrestricted free agency shortly thereafter. Depending on how they manage their payroll, they may have enough room under the cap to accommodate him should he blossom into an elite player. It's a problem that's bearing down quickly on the Blackhawks, who have a number of their very young talents nearing raises that the team currently won't be able to fund.
The Ducks made that decision this week on the promising Sbisa, who was obtained from the Flyers as part of the deal for veteran defenseman Chris Pronger and recently returned to his junior team, the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League. Part of the reasoning was simple: Sbisa went scoreless in eight games and was minus-one, the Ducks were off to a slow start, and rushing a prospect through a development process with a team that wasn't winning didn't make sense, even if the clock is already ticking on his future earnings. (Sbisa played 39 games with the Flyers last season.) A player with junior eligibility can be sent back even after he passes the 10-game mark, but once he plays more than 10, he's past the evaluation stage and the meter is running.
That didn't matter to the Ducks, who felt it was more important to get Sbisa into an environment where he plays and, hopefully, wins. Being with a junior team that provides an environment far more conducive to success and improvement is better than staying with a struggling team where the pressure to contribute is immense.
"Every situation is a little different," said one team official who asked for anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to this subject. "Sometimes a team will do it because the player isn't ready or even because the junior team has a chance at some real success and the player would benefit from playing in a certain environment like competing for the Memorial Cup (symbolic of hockey supremacy at the junior level), but most times it's a decision involving either need (the player is good enough and the team has a need), money (young players cost less) or timing (delaying the start of the pro clock countdown).
"Usually if the kid can play and is thought to be mentally tough enough to survive the setbacks that will undoubtedly occur, a team will keep him simply because he helps keep the team's costs down."
That wasn't an issue before the salary cap, but today it looms larger than the 6-8 Myers on skates.
New interest in Coyotes
There may be a more than one group interested in purchasing the Coyotes once the NHL pries it out of the clutches of a bankruptcy court. The Toronto Globe and Mail is reporting that two businessmen from that city, David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski, currently co-owners of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, are interested in making a bid. We told you several weeks ago that Cynamon and Sokolowski were rumored to be a part of Ice Edge Holdings, but sources maintain that the two have separated from that group and are investigating whether to separately bid on the franchise. Ice Edge had been a bidder in the bankruptcy proceedings, but dropped out when the NHL opted to submit its own bid. Sources say they have since reinstituted discussions with the NHL.
Ice Edge Holdings investor Darryl Jones had no comment, but the two Argos owners confirmed they are no longer a part of Ice Edge and will go ahead with their own bid pending discussions with the city of Glendale. Cynamon and Sokolowski are thought to have strong financial backing from investors in and around Toronto, some of whom are rumored to be interested in backing a bid for a second team in that market place.
No interest in Lightning
It's a tad different in Tampa Bay where Jeff Greene, a Miami area real estate investor, is said to have ended his interest in purchasing a part interest in the Lightning. Sources tell SI.com that Greene has had a look at the team's financial picture. The St. Petersburg Times is reporting that Greene had been recruited by co-owner Oren Koules in his bid to buy out partner Len Barrie, but another Florida real estate investor may still have an interest.
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