It’s decision time for NHL clubs as to whether they’ll keep teenagers in their lineups, which could impact Canada’s fortunes at the world junior hockey championship in Ottawa.
Canadian junior team coach Pat Quinn says it appears players who helped Canada win a fourth straight gold medal at the 2008 world junior men’s championship will probably not be available to try for a fifth straight starting Dec. 26.
There are six players from the victorious Canadian squad eligible to play again at the world juniors who are currently in the NHL: Kyle Turris (Phoenix Coyotes); Colton Gillies (Minnesota Wild); Steve Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning); Brandon Sutter (Carolina Hurricanes); Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings) and Luke Schenn (Toronto Maple Leafs).
Once they play their 10th NHL game, the first year of their rookie contracts kicks in, which is an annual salary of US$875,000 plus performance bonuses.
So general managers must decide if their teenagers are ready for the rigours of the NHL.
“It looks like a number of the boys are going to be able to stay in the National Hockey League to continue their development there,” Quinn said Tuesday from La Quinta, Calif.
“The boys who are going to go by this ninth game are possibly excluded from the Canadian team, but they’re not playing just to play for Canada’s team although that’s a great thrill at the junior level or any level. What they want to do is play in the National Hockey League and they’re living their dream right now.”
NHL players can still join the Canadian junior team if their respective clubs decide their teenager isn’t getting enough ice time and would get more development from a return to his junior team.
Hockey Canada’s policy is they need the NHL player no later than Dec. 11, which is the first day of selection camp in Ottawa. About 35 players will be invited and the roster of 22 will be named by Dec. 15.
Four veterans of the 2008 team are currently playing for their junior clubs and will be available to Quinn for the 2009 squad: Zach Boychuk (Lethbridge Hurricanes); John Tavares (Oshawa Generals); Thomas Hickey (Seattle Thunderbirds) and P.K. Subban (Belleville Bulls).
The 10-game mark for young NHL players is also financially significant for the teams because it brings the youngsters one year closer to unrestricted free agency, which would kick in at 25 for these six Canadians.
Schenn will play his 10th game Wednesday and the Leafs declared this week the burly blue-liner will remain with the club. Head coach Ron Wilson ranked Schenn among his top four defenceman, so the 19-year-old’s play would have to drop considerably before he’s returned to his junior team in Kelowna, B.C.
Sutter suffered a concussion in his seventh game Saturday when he was checked by the Islanders’ Doug Weight. Sutter is Canada’s best defensive forward and penalty killer of his age group, but his health and status with the Hurricanes is now uncertain.
Doughty is on pace to play his 10th on Saturday, while Gillies, Stamkos and Turris could reach it Tuesday.
Defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who was invited to the junior team’s summer camp, is still with the St. Louis Blues.
Quinn coached 15 seasons in the NHL and navigated Canada to gold at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and also to victory in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. He was fired by the Maple Leafs after they missed the playoffs in 2006.
The 65-year-old lives in West Vancouver, B.C., and is part owner of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants.
He’s kept his hand in coaching by stepping behind the bench of Canada’s under-18 men’s team that won a world championship in April.
Given the number of teens still in the NHL, Quinn wouldn’t be surprised to see some familiar faces on the junior team as positions could be filled by players from that under-18 squad.
“When the NHL draws as heavily as they are as they seem to be doing it certainly changes the potential look of the Canadian roster,” Quinn said. “Generally it means younger kids are going to be asked to play.”
The world junior championship is considered a showcase of the best 19-year-old hockey players in the world, but Canada won its most recent gold medal in the Czech Republic with one of the country’s youngest squads in tournament history.
“I know (former coaches) Brent Sutter and Craig Hartsburg both said ‘look, it’s a 19-year-old tournament.’ It’s not if you don’t have the 19 year olds to play,” Quinn said.