Underage junior-level players awaiting NHL fate
They are the fresh faces, the young hopes of their teams. Their youth and promise trigger wild cheering by fans and especially close observation by club management. They may have the prominence of stars, even though they've played but a couple of games. And the time for deciding their immediate futures is now.
For a handful of NHLers who are still teenagers, their NHL season could be at an end -- or it could just begin with the first milepost of this blunted schedule upon us: the five-game mark.
Once an NHL player with junior eligibility remaining has played five NHL games, he can be returned to his junior clubs without burning the first year of his Entry Level contract. If he dresses for a sixth game, he is considered to have played his first season with respect to his contractual rights, and he moves one year closer to salary arbitration.
In a normal season, the cutoff is nine games; this season, it has been prorated.
Teams want to have more control over what they pay players, so they won't keep a teenager around past the limit if he's not going to play a major role this season. But equally if not more important is figuring out whether keeping these young players in the NHL will help or hurt their development.
You're probably already familiar with some of the teens who made NHL rosters out of training camps at the start of the season, an unusually large group that probably benefitted from playing at the junior level during the lockout while many veterans were idle: Edmonton's Nail Yakapov, Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau, Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk, Boston's Doug Hamilton, Buffalo's Mikhail Grigorenko, New Jersey's Stefan Matteau, Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele, Anaheim's Rickard Rakell, Philadelphia's Scott Laughton and Minnesota's Matt Dumba.
The Flyers and Wild have already made up their minds: Laughton and Dumba have been sent back to their junior clubs.
Huberdeau and Galchenyuk have already been told they're sticking around.
The others wait for decisions. A decision on Grigorenko is due Tuesday. Matteau has only played four games, Rakell and Scheifele have only played three.
Each player's case is different. For Huberdeau, there was nothing left for him to prove in junior, having played and excelled there. "There are certain instances when junior hockey or college hockey won't benefit them any more," says Panthers assistant GM Michael Santos, whose club sent the young center back to junior before last season. "Huberdeau actually led the team in scoring during camp as an 18-year- old. But at 19, you can be in a situation where you won't grow any more. Huberdeau comes off two really good years at St. John (QMJHL). But you can only sustain that level for so long and there's nothing more for him to prove and he won't grow any more. The judgment is, when will he stagnate?"
Santos maintains that teenaged players who make the NHL need a strong support system around them, which is part of the reason why the Panthers signed Alexei Kovalev this season and installed him on Huberdeau's line. They also brought in tough guy George Parros to act as a deterrent who makes opponents think twice about roughing up Huberdeau.
For Galchenyuk, who got a pair of assists in the Canadiens' 4-3 overtime win over the Devils on Sunday, including this impressive pass to set up fellow rookie Brendan Gallagher's first career goal ...
... the decision may have become even easier due to the appendectomy performed on first-line winger Max Pacioretty over the weekend that will keep him out for about a month. But, Galchenyuk, the young American-born winger of Russian heritage. hasn't looked out of place.
When junior eligibles pull on an NHL sweater, we tend to forget how young these players really are. Here's 20-year-old Gallagher --- whom the Canadiens sent back to junior last year even though, like Huberdeau, he had a good camp -- being interviewed after his first NHL goal. He's just a giggly kid, eh?
Seeing him reminds you that these are still boys playing in a league with grown men.
Boston's decision to keep 19-year-old Hamilton was easy. A standout for Team Canada during the preliminary round of the World Junior Championship, he's playing regular minutes for the Bruins and drawing praise from teammates for his poise. The Bruins played Carolina on Tuesday night and it would have been a surprise to not have seen him in the B's lineup for what would have been his sixth game.
"He looks like he's ready, he's ready to play," Bruins GM Chiarelli told The Boston Herald. "You could say he's arguably been one of our top two defensemen the last couple of games. Very good player."
It was an easy decision for the Wild on Dumba, but it went the other way. The seventh overall pick last June hadn't been able to crack the lineup and wasn't expected to. He stayed around in part for insurance due to injuries on Minnesota's blueline, plus to reward him for a good training camp and because the club wanted to expose him to their team and the NHL. With the injured players returning, Dumba needs to get back to competing in games.
The Flyers did use Laughton for five games, but he sat in the press box Sunday night in Tampa and the 18-year-old center was dispatched to Oshawa afterward. Happy with his ability to keep up with the play, Laughton believes he needs to strengthen his upper body to compete in the NHL.
"He needs to play in all situations," GM Paul Holmgren said. "He's going back to a good team and he will play a lot in all situations. He's a good young prospect and the little bit of time he had with us was good for us. He got to know some of our guys, learn a little bit about being a pro. That's all good stuff."
A hockey team with no young players has no future, but managing that future can be a delicate task. Guess wrong on how ready a player is for the NHL and you can ruin his career.
NBC's and SI's Pierre McGuire knows. He was working for the Hartford Whalers in 1992 when they decided to keep 18-year-old Czechoslovakian center Robert Petrovicky on their squad just months after he was selected ninth overall in the NHL Entry Draft. That decision has disturbed McGuire ever since.
"I was assistant coach and part of the management team," he recalls. "As a group, we felt he would be better served in the NHL developing with us rather than going back to the AHL. That was a huge mistake. We guessed wrong on him, the whole management team, and it sticks in your mind because that kid had serious talent.
"You destroy their athletic confidence because you're trying to build them back up, but the game is going a million miles an hour. It's virtually impossible. There's very few players under the age of 20 who can play in the NHL. "
McGuire, who in his various radio and TV commentaries often rails against players being rushed into the NHL, is a big proponent of the Red Wings' philosophy on player development: "They would rather have players who are overripe than underdeveloped," he says, noting that whatever dip Detroit might take in the standings over the next year or so will soon be remedied by the young players the Wings have drafted who are currently in junior, Europe or their minor league system.
"Eighteen- or 19-year-olds have to be physically mature. Most of them are not," says Santos. "They have to be emotionally mature. Most of them are not. And almost all of them are not both."
That indicates just how unique players like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews were as teenagers.
Santos knows too well how rushing players into the NHL can be detrimental to everyone concerned. He spent time as the Islanders' assistant GM starting in 1997 during the time the club was owned by Howard Millstein and Steven Gluckstern. He watched a succession of high draft choices make the roster so ownership could keep player costs down.
"Eighteen-year-old after 18-year-old was forced into the lineup more for financial reasons than anything else," he says. "Most, if not all of those players are in the twilight of their careers now and, personally -- knowing them when they were drafted and seeing what they've done over 10, 12 and 14 years of their careers, if they lasted that long -- I'd say that none of them reached the full potential they could have."
He rattled off the names of a succession of high Islanders draft picks: Eric Brewer, Tim Connolly, Rick DiPietro, Branislav Mezei, Raffi Torres, Taylor Pyatt and even Roberto Luongo. "All kids who played in the NHL before they were 20," Santos says. "It's not their fault and it wasn't management's fault for doing that."
The virtue of keeping players in junior is borne out, McGuire says, by the 2003 draft, which most acknowledge as the best in recent years. Because of the 2004-05 lockout and that lost season, many of those players stayed an extra year in junior.
"The players were allowed to develop properly because when most of them should have been in the NHL, they weren't," he says. They were playing with their junior teams and with their World Junior Teams in '05, which is considered the most high-octane World Junior tournament ever. A player like Shea Weber was a second round pick in the '03 draft. Dion Phaneuf, Zach Parise, Mike Richards, Cory Perry, Ryan Getzlaff --- these are all guys who were picked in late teens into the 20s. They all became stars and that extra year, allowing them to dominate in their age group, really helped them."
So while we might celebrate the teens who stick with their clubs this week, shed no tears for those who go back to junior. Chances are, they'll be back and better for it.