Should he stay or should he go?
New York Islanders 2010 5th overall pick Nino Niederreiter hasn't played a game yet in 2011-12, but this time it's an injury rather than developmental decision. (In his piece on Josh Bailey, Arthur Staple reports Nino has been skating on Long Island during the Florida road trip.)
Niederreiter's 2011 counterpart Ryan Strome likewise made the season-opening roster, but he was kept around merely for an extended orientation before being returned to Niagara without appearing in an NHL game.
When discussing 18- and 19-year-old juniors who by rule cannot be assigned to the AHL, several sometimes competing trains of thought surface: 1) Don't rush them, you'll hurt their development. 2) Rushed or not, most 18- and 19-year-olds aren't good NHLers. 3) Ready or not, keeping them around burns a year of their contract and moves them closer to high-dollar free agency. 4) Play 'em! They dangle in shootouts!
Rare is the kid who is a top 10 NHL draft pick. Rarer still is the kid who belongs on an NHL squad just four or 16 months after his draft day. Here are where some of the NHL's recent high-profile ones stand right now:
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st) - RNH is living up to his billing as the 1st overall pick, putting up 2-5-7 in 7 games so far. However, Coach Tom Renney is using him carefully -- protecting a late lead means Nugent-Hopkins and the kids sit -- and that's about the best you can expect from an NHLer drafted four months ago. But is it enough to keep him around?
Gabriel Landeskog (2nd) - Seen as the most "NHL ready" of last summer's draft class, Landeskog already has 4 goals and 1 assist in 8 games, with 29 shots on goal for the Avalanche. Like Nugent-Hopkins, it's tough to imagine his team sending him back.
Adam Larsson (4th) - Having "already played with men" in the SEL, Larsson is neither a junior concern nor a risk to be loaned back to his old league. He's one of the Devils' best defensemen already, so he's going nowhere.
Mika Zibanejad (6th) - Like Larsson Zibanejad would have an SEL club rather than a junior team to return to, but Zibanejad's fate is much more up in the air. The Sens are bad and Zibanejad has been tried at both center and wing while putting up an assist in his first 8 games.
Mark Scheifele (7th) - Winnipeg's first draft pick under their new name/location was seen as a reach at 7th overall, but he turned small-sample-lovers' heads with a very productive preseason. Then came the regular season with its four lines of NHL-caliber competition and Scheifele lasted 7 games with 1 goal before being returned to Barrie.
Sean Couturier (8th) - Part of the bounty for giving Columbus Jeff Carter, Couturier has 2-2-4 in his first 7 games, Billed as a two-way player at the draft, he's getting praise for precisely that attribute, playing heavily on the PK and looking like a kid who's staying with Philadelphia. Of course, Brayden Schenn's arrival (more on him below) pushes Couturier further down the depth chart, so there are compelling arguments for sending him back. The clock is ticking.
Brandon Saad (43rd) - That's right, 43rd. This was a curious one. The Blackhawks signed Saad on the even of camp and gave him two games with their top lines, then sent him down. I can't imagine you make or break a decision on a kid based on two games, so it appears the Hawks sacrificed a slot for two games to give a 43rd overall pick a taste of NHL-level top-line offense.
Erik Gudbranson (3rd) - Were it not for contract negotiations lasting through the CBA deadline, Gudbranson might have made last season's Panthers squad. Signed over the summer, he made the Panthers out of camp and is expected to stay.
Ryan Johansen (4th) - Nino's Portland teammate made the Blue Jackets out of camp, but Columbus has started in such a deep hole -- Johansen playing five of the first eight games (1 assist, 7 shots) -- that you almost wonder if returning him to Portland again would spare him from the disaster, and save a year on his ELC.
Brett Connolly (6th) - Connoly has two assists, 4 PIM, 17 shots in eight games in his rookie year. The Lightning management said at the outset that he's no guarantee to stick around, but they've just one game left before that decision. Connolly has impressed so far, but the big scoring winger with a history of injuries creates a few tough decisions for them, not the least of which is whom to waive after Mattias Ohlund comes off IR.
Other Notables from 2010: In a banner year, Taylor Hall (1st), Tyler Seguin (2nd), Jeff Skinner (7th), Alexander Burmistrov (8th) and Cam Fowlers (12th) all made their squads in their draft year and played essentially full seasons.
These players are all eligible to be assigned to the AHL now, but an update on their progress is still worthwhile:
Brayden Schenn (5th) - Los Angeles' fifth overall pick in 2009 is actually eligible to play in the AHL this season, and that's exactly where he started -- for the Flyers' affiliate, of course. Problem is, Philadelphia put him there more for salary cap reasons than anything else, and they've since recalled him to the Flyers after they made room and he tore up the AHL.
Nazem Kadri (7th) - Kadri has been up and down on the NHL/junior-go-round in the two years since his draft, entering this season with 30 NHL games under his belt. He started this season in the AHL, but an injury to Colby Armstrong has him back with the Leafs.
Jared Cowen (9th) - Cowen got a single-game look last season, but this year the 9th overall pick looks like he's with Ottawa to stay. The big defenseman did get a taste of the AHL during last year's playoffs.
Ryan Ellis (11th) - Ellis, drafted just one slot ahead of fellow mobile blueliner Calvin De Haan, was thought to be Nashville-bound this season but was assigned to AHL Milwaukee at the end of camp. Ex-Isle Jack Hillen is one reason why.
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So that's a glance at the mostly top-of-the-draft prospects who have yet to become full-time NHLers. Of course the approach varies from prospect to prospect depending on the mix of maturity, raw skills and hockey intelligence of each player. Forwards versus defensemen can also be a big variable.
And even organizations don't behave in uniform ways: The Islanders kept Josh Bailey his rookie year -- but a preseason injury pushed that decision all the way back into November. The next year they kept John Tavares as expected but sent de Haan back twice after long training camp looks (and this year, he's in the AHL). And they Niederreiter for the 9-game trial yet sent Strome back this year without seeing a game.
One clear thing from this: The CHL-NHL agreement really prevents NHL clubs from doing the ideal thing. We can parse over the issue of starting a player's free agency clock sooner or later (alternatively: If their first three seasons are younger, they likely command less on their second contract). One year back in juniors is usually prudent, but in year two the choice of NHL or CHL without the AHL in between is far from ideal.
In Niederreiter's case, many assume he's staying, but as with Bailey in his rookie year an early season injury forces the final decision back several weeks. What will the conditions be when Niederreiter reaches game #9 this season? And what are the chances that, if only they could, the Isles might prefer he get even an Okposo-length boot camp in the AHL at that time?