Decision time nearing for teams with junior-eligible rookies

Like many teams, the Calgary Flames have a tough decision to make on junior-eligible Sean Monahan. (USATSI)
Like many teams, the Flames have a tough decision to make on junior-eligible Sean Monahan. (USATSI)

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The clock is ticking, and for a few rookies, it's about to strike midnight on their first taste of NHL action. It is getting dangerously close to the time for NHL teams to make a decision on whether their prized teenagers should stay in the NHL or be returned to their junior teams without burning a year off their cap-friendly entry-level contacts.

The decision on rookies is not always one of simple economics. Junior-eligible rookies can play up to nine games before activating the first year of their entry-level contract on the 10th. Those that were drafted out of one of the three leagues within the Canadian Hockey League and are 19 or younger must be sent back to their junior clubs. They are not eligible to be sent to the AHL due to an agreement between the CHL and the NHL that dates back to 1995, the same year three current NHL rookies were born.

Of the rookies playing in the NHL this season, there are seven who would have to be sent back to their junior clubs before 10 games in order to slide his entry-level term one more year.

This list only focuses on players who would have to be sent back to junior. Those that were drafted out of non-CHL North American leagues (USHL or college hockey, for example) or Europe are eligible to be sent to the American hockey league in most cases.

Tomas Hertl (Sharks), Aleksander Barkov (Panthers), Elias Lindholm (Hurricanes), Rasmus Ristolainen (Sabres), Zemgus Girgensons (Sabres), Hampus Lindholm (Duck), Filip Forsberg (Predators) and Jacob Trouba (Jets) are among those eligible to be sent to the AHL. Valeri Nichushkin of the Stars is a bit different. He would have to be loaned back to the KHL as opposed to being sent to the AHL due to a contract with Dynamo Moscow.

So here's who is on the clock…

Seth Jones, Nashville Predators
Games played:
  7
Stats: 1G, 2A, 3 points
Average time on ice: 23:46

What his team is saying: "He's one of the most mature kids I've ever dealt with. As I said to somebody yesterday, in my 32-year career, I’ve had one 18-year-old defenseman, Scott Stevens [in Washington], and [playing him right away] seemed the right thing to do at the time. This feels the exact same way." -- Predators GM David Poile (LA Times)

Should he stay or should he go?: Did you read the quote? He's staying. The Predators normally like to see their players come through their AHL club in Milwaukee. Even Shea Weber spent time there, but based on every quote from the team, Jones is a special player who is ready for the NHL now. The Preds may not make the playoffs, but Jones isn't going to get any better in a level of hockey he has outgrown.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Games played:
7
Stats: 1G, 6A, 7 points
Average time on ice: 13:48

What his team is saying: "It's the perfect fit for him. He doesn't have to come here and be the savior. He can come in here and be himself and play." --Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy (National Post)

Should he stay or should he go?: Colorado has been the surprise team in the NHL this season and even if it can't sustain this level of success, MacKinnon isn't going anywhere. His seven points rank third among all rookies and he's getting a regular shift. The best thing for MacKinnon at this point is to continue learning the NHL game. The Avs may be on the verge of something special this season, but even if it's not this year, the near future looks pretty bright for Colorado.

Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames
Games played:
6
Stats: 4G, 2A, 6 points
Average time on ice: 14:22

What his team is saying: "I just, sometimes, pinch myself wondering if I need to check his birth certificate. The poise that he's showing for a 19-year-old kid. ... He's having fun. He's bringing passion, he's bringing excitement and he's learning. He's a pretty special kid." -- Flames head coach Bob Hartley (NHL.com)

Should he stay or should he go?: Though the reviews from his head coach have been overwhelmingly glowing, Monahan's case is far from simple. The Flames have done better than expected early, but it's hard to see Calgary pushing for a playoff spot. So the Flames have to decide, is a season as a non-competitor worth burning a valuable year off of Monahan's contract? Economically, the decision seems simple. Send him back to junior and preserve this year. The developmental decision, and this is an important one, is less simple. Though six games is an awfully small sample, Monahan has shown he can play at the NHL level. He's tied for fourth in rookie scoring and had back-to-back 78-point seasons in the OHL the past two years. Would a fourth year in the OHL be best for his development? Probably not. With a pro-ready frame and pro-level hockey sense, Monahan may be best served developmentally in the NHL, learning the game and getting challenged on a nightly basis. It could pay big dividends in the near future, especially for a team that isn't under a cap crunch.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
Games played:
6
Stats: 0G, 4A, 4 points
Average time on ice: 17:32

What his team is saying: "[Head coach] Randy [Carlyle] has to be comfortable that [Rielly is[ going to play, maybe not every night, but a lot of the nights, and he's going to play 12, 15 minutes a night. That's something we feel is going to happen." -- Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis (Toronto Star)

Should he stay or should he go?: This is another tough decision. Rielly has probably outgrown the WHL after a 54-point campaign last season, his third in the league. Is he going to be able to keep playing the type of minutes he is now? For the Maple Leafs to justify keeping him, he has to. That's the biggest question. Rielly's four-assist start is no fluke. He is as gifted an offensive defenseman as there has been in the past several drafts. His physical strength looks like it's up to par and he has some dynamic qualities to his game. Defensively, he's adequate, but needs work. The Leafs have a different element as a blue line with Rielly. If they did send him back, it probably works out fine for all parties as Rielly could round out his defensive game a bit more. There's nothing wrong with taking an extra breath on young defensemen before making a long-term decision. Keeping him must be extremely tempting though as he has looked pretty solid.

Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals
Games played:
7
Stats: 0G, 0A, 0 points
Average time on ice: 6:41

What his team is saying: "He's not really getting enough minutes to get into a groove. I really love his energy and his size out there, and his willingness to hit, finish, create some opportunities. He's still learning." -- Capitals head coach Adam Oates

Should he stay or should he go?: This doesn't seem all that complicated to me, but the Capitals have a need for what Wilson can bring to the table as he is a physical player who fights. However, he's averaging under seven minutes a game. Wilson is a former first-round draft pick. First-round picks aren't supposed to be fourth-line tough guys. Wilson has offensive skill to go along with his toughness. If the Capitals envision him as a top-six player down the line, he needs to start getting those reps. The most likely place he would get those reps is in Plymouth in the OHL, where he can be a top-line player who produces and still brings that physical game. Using a first-round pick on him is a large investment in itself. Compounding on that investment by burning a year in which he may only see seven minutes a night isn't worth it. He should go back to the OHL.

UPDATE: According to Mike Vogel, who writes for the Capitals' official website, Wilson was informed Friday he will be staying with the Capitals.

Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins
Games played:
7
Stats: 0G, 2A, 2 points
Average time on ice: 14:51

What his team is saying: Not much, really. The Penguins haven't seemed to want to tip their hand on the plan for Maatta.

Should he stay or should he go?: Through seven games, Maatta looks ready for the challenge. He's playing some meaningful minutes and helping fill the void left by the injured Kris Letang. The situation with Maatta seems easy. The Pens could keep the Finnish rearguard who has looked so poised so far. However, there are several good reasons to send Maatta back. One is to save some cap dough this year. The second is that once Letang returns, the Penguins would have a crowded blueline where minutes may be harder to come by. However, if Maatta goes back to the London Knights, he would be guaranteed to play in the Memorial Cup as London hosts it this year. He would be a top-pairing defenseman for the Knights, as well as Finland's World Junior Championship entry. He'll play in every high-pressure situation with high stakes and that doesn't hurt. It's tempting to keep him, but sending him back won't harm him developmentally and it saves a valuable year on his contract. He seems ready if he stays, but he's probably just as well off if he goes.

Mathew Dumba, Minnesota Wild
Games played:
5
Stats: 1G, 0A, 1 point
Average time on ice: 10:05

What his team is saying: [Wild GM Chuck] Fletcher remarked that at this point he's not sure Dumba would benefit from a fourth season in junior. The Wild GM also knows that his young blue liner is getting quite an education playing alongside and watching the likes of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin and mentored by one of the best defensive coaches in the business in Rick Wilson. (CBC.ca)

Should he stay or should he go: I like that the Wild are taking their time and picking their spots with Dumba. He's certainly on the cusp of being ready for the league, but it's really tough to know for sure. The Wild have also been slowly building him up to more ice time. He has averaged 14 minutes or more in his past three games. The general thought is for it to be worth it to keep a young defenseman, he doesn't necessarily have to play every game, but when he's in the lineup, he should average around 12 minutes or so a night. It sounds like Chuck Fletcher is thinking about what's best for his development first and not the economics, which is fair considering Dumba has already had three years in junior. That said, there's not much need to rush him. The Wild are in win-now mode, but they'll even be better positioned for such an approach next year and maybe even better in two years. If they can get Dumba the ice he needs to develop, it wouldn't hurt to stay, but one more year of top-pairing reps in junior probably wouldn't kill him either. That saves the Wild a little bit of money without giving up much developmentally.

Defenseman Nikita Zadorov of the Sabres is another junior-eligible player on an NHL roster, but has yet to play a game due to injury, so that's why he's not included with this group.

Most of these teams still have time and they can scratch these guys as much as they want to delay the decision for as long as they want. Most teams won't want to do that too much, however, as they don't want a player to lose valuable game reps and development time.

I can't remember a year where there were this many rookies that were this good. There aren't too many easy decisions with this group. Frankly, it's a great problem for these teams to have.

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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