Don Maloney has plenty of on-the-job experience when it comes to evaluating whether a teenager belongs in the NHL.
Over the past two seasons, Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris, Viktor Tikhonov and Mikkel Boedker have all spent significant time with his Phoenix Coyotes prior to celebrating their 20th birthday.
There’s been a slight change in philosophy this year for the Coyotes, who are off to a solid 5-2-0 start. Mueller, now 21, is currently the team’s youngest player because Turris, Tikhonov and Boedker are all skating in the American Hockey League with San Antonio.
Maloney acknowledges now that he probably shouldn’t have relied on so many teenagers in the past.
“If a 19-year-old player is on your NHL roster and not producing 30 goals or playing 25 minutes, you really should have him somewhere else,” Maloney told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. “And yet, that’s the fantasy world. The real world we live in now is we’re all scrambling to put the best players we can find into our roster to help us win.”
It’s an interesting point to consider with six players selected in the June draft still playing for NHL teams: John Tavares in Long Island, Viktor Hedman in Tampa, Evander Kane in Atlanta, Dmitry Kulikov in Florida and Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly in Colorado.
Each of those guys is likely to play his 10th game of the season in the coming week or two, automatically burning the first year of his entry-level contract. While a player could still be sent back to junior after that point, it’s less likely to happen.
NHL teams grapple with the decision about whether to hold onto their highly skilled teenagers each year. In some cases, keeping an 18-year-old is a smashing success (Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane both made big impacts at that age); more often than not, young players fail to make a meaningful contribution.
Just ask Maloney.
“For every Patrick Kane, there’s probably a dozen other players that are high picks that everybody expects to be impactful players at 18 or 19 or 20, but it’s rarely the case,” he said.
While each of the six recent draft picks have all made early contributions to their teams, there’s no guarantee it will continue throughout the season. Each team is taking some degree of risk by holding onto its player.
The situation in Colorado is particularly unique because the Avs kept two 18-year-olds – and have been one of the NHL’s best teams so far.
Duchene and O’Reilly will both remain in Denver for the foreseeable future. The organization plans to give each of them meaningful minutes and is prepared to allow them to make mistakes.
“We’re not putting a lot of pressure on these guys,” said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco. “They don’t have to feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. We also have them surrounded by some good players where they can just come in and do their thing.”
Many have labelled O’Reilly as the most surprising 18-year-old in the NHL this season because he wasn’t selected until the second round – 33rd overall by Colorado.
However, Erie Otters GM and managing partner Sherry Bassin isn’t the least bit surprised by his progress. He watched O’Reilly closely during the two years he spent with the OHL’s Otters.
“He’s a special kid,” said Bassin. “His dedication to the game is extraordinary. The fact is this – they tested him and he passed the test. … My suggestion is that well before his career is over, he’s going to be one of the captains of that team.”
But would it be better for O’Reillly – or any of the others – to be given more time to develop outside the NHL?
Maloney suggests that each case has to be viewed independently. Tavares, for example, has already played four full seasons of junior hockey and has virtually nothing left to experience at that level.
Even still, making the jump to an 82-game NHL regular season is difficult for any player.
“Junior seasons are long, but they’re not like this,” said Maloney. “Every game you’re playing against big, strong, intelligent men that will take your head off if you blink twice.”
Added Bassin: “It’s a big step, boy.”
One thing most teenagers in the NHL end up missing out on is the chance to play at the world junior championship.
The last time an NHL team released a player to the Canadian team was 2004, when the Minnesota Wild sent Brent Burns. Typically, there are five or more Canadians who aren’t available for that event each year because they’re in the NHL.
As of now, there are nine teenagers who fall into that category: Tavares, Duchene, O’Reilly, Kane, Steven Stamkos (Tampa), Tyler Myers (Buffalo), Michael Del Zotto (N.Y. Rangers), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis) and James Wright (Tampa).
Interestingly, there were three NHL players who missed out on the chance to play for Canada last year and are now in the AHL – Colton Gillies, Brandon Sutter and Turris.
The primary reason Maloney didn’t release Turris is that he was still playing a big role for the Coyotes in December. Like many young players, he started to fade down the stretch.
That’s a league-wide trend Maloney has noted in recent years.
“You see what’s happening in Colorado – they’ve got terrific-looking young rookie forwards, yet it’s very, very early in the season,” said Maloney. “We’ve lived it here for a couple years. I know the games in October are a lot different than February, March and April.”
He fully understands the temptation to hold on to young guys.
The pressure to win is something a general manager feels constantly – often making it difficult to take a long-term view.
“It’s such a demanding league,” said Maloney. “There’s a tendency to rush into something and then wake up in November or December and say ‘Oh boy, what do we do?”‘