Some of the teenagers playing in the NHL this season have made decisions about their futures easy with their fine play. It’s not so clear-cut with others, though.
The Year of the Teenager continues in the NHL, which means a lot of teams will be faced with some vexing decisions in the next week or so. Or not. With the 10-game threshold for burning a year on entry-level deals coming closing in, some of those decisions have already been made and the players aren’t going anywhere. Rather than list the players among to top 10 rookie scorers who are still teenagers, it would probably be more efficient for us to rhyme off the ones who are not – William Nylander, Devin Shore and Jimmy Vesey. Perhaps at no time in its history has the league boasted such a wealth of young talent.
And the line between staying and going, at least at this point in the season, is becoming clearer for a lot of young players. Obviously, the notion that Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs is going anywhere other than on the next road trip is laughable. Travis Konecny has proved he deserves a much longer look in Philadelphia and it would be a surprise if Anthony Beauvillier is sent back to junior anytime soon.
Part of the reason for that is because those outside of the NHL make a bigger deal of the 10-game threshold than those inside it. The collective bargaining agreement stipulates that any player 18 or 19 years old is considered to have played a full professional season if he plays 10 or more games in the NHL. (To be clear, he has to play in 10 games, not simply be on the roster for 10 games.) But the important distinction to make is that 10-game provision only counts for burning a year off his entry-level contract. It does not accrue a season for the purposes of unrestricted free agency. The player has to play 40 games before that happens, so the teams actually have quite a bit more time to make a decision. A player such as Jakob Chychrun would be one that would fall into that category. As long as he proves he belongs in Arizona’s top-six defensemen, he’ll be around. But if his play falls off, the Coyotes effectively have a half a season to determine what to do with him.
And in some cases it might actually be beneficial to burn that year on a player’s contract. Take Sean Monahan for example. In his first year with the Calgary Flames, he played 75 games, scoring 22 goals and 34 points. Then he followed that up with back-to-back 60-point seasons that led to a seven-year deal worth $44.6 million dollars. If the Flames had returned Monahan to junior hockey in the first year of that deal, he’d be entering his third year of the contract this season and who knows how much more the Flames would be paying for him after this season? On the other side of the coin, that year in the NHL likely prepared him much better and led to him being able to score 60 points each of the past two seasons. There’s no real right or wrong with it.
Which is why teams don’t get too worried about it when it comes to players who are playing regularly and producing. Where it becomes much more of a dilemma is with a player such as Dylan Strome of the Arizona Coyotes. Strome has scored 240 points in just 124 games of junior hockey last season, but found himself a healthy scratch for the fourth time in seven games when the Coyotes played the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night. Joining him in the press box was Lawson Crouse, a 19-year-old with a man’s body whom many thought would be NHL-ready this season.
The Coyotes have a real dilemma on their hands with Strome. They know they’ll get killed even more than they are if they keep throwing a rookie-heavy lineup out there every night. So with Strome, do they keep spotting him in every other game, which would buy them a little more time before sending him back to junior? And even if they do, is there anything to be gained by having Strome dominate at the junior level? But do you keep him around for this season and have him in spot duty, then risk the embarrassing proposition of perhaps sending him to the minors next season?
And what of players such as Pavel Zacha and Matthew Tkachuk? Mikhail Sergachev has played just three of eight games for a Montreal Canadiens team that finds itself in first place overall and has an abundance of veteren defensemen. Those are the ones where the next week or so are going to provide the most difficult decisions for NHL teams. The ones at the top of the rookie scoring race and those who are making regular contributions probably aren’t going anywhere for the time being.