Junior-age players seeing decisions made on NHL fate

Monday, 01.28.2013 / 2:46 PM
Adam Kimelman  - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Is a one-week training camp and five regular-season games enough to judge a young player's ability to handle the rigors of the NHL?

For 10 GMs, that's the question they have been on the clock to answer, and time -- like everything else in the 2012-13 season -- is running out fast.

Four teams already have made their decisions. Sunday saw the Minnesota Wild send defenseman Mathew Dumba back to his junior team, and the Philadelphia Flyers do the same with center Scott Laughton.

On Monday, the Montreal Canadiens determined forward Alex Galchenyuk had done enough to stay with the team the whole season, and the Florida Panthers decided the same with Jonathan Huberdeau.

Junior-age players on entry-level contracts can play five NHL games without their contracts counting for the current season. Once they play their sixth game, they still can be returned to their junior club, but it would waste the first season of the player's three-year deal.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff recently was asked by the Buffalo News about one of his own players, 18-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko, and his answer likely provided some of the same questions that other NHL executives are asking themselves:

"We'll really evaluate everything," Ruff said. "What's the best for him? What's the best to push him to the next level? Can he help us win? Can he help us win in the role he's at? All those things will go into consideration. We want to do what's the best for us to win hockey games."

NHL.com takes a look at the current status of those 10 players, and what the next step is for some of them:

Mathew Dumba, Minnesota -- The seventh pick of the 2012 NHL Draft was the youngest player in the League to make an opening-night roster by more than two months. He earned that spot thanks to a solid training camp, as well as injuries to Tom Gilbert and AHL prospects Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin.

However, Gilbert recovered from a groin strain in time to start the season, relegating Dumba to the press box. And with Brodin and Scandella healthy, that left no room for Dumba, who was returned to the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.

"We really didn't even have any thoughts of keeping him here this long, but he earned it," Wild coach Mike Yeo said Sunday. "Every day he came to the rink and he proved himself a little bit more. We would have been very comfortable putting him in a game. He's an 18-year-old and that says an awful lot about him. You can see his skating ability, you can see his execution and I was very pleased with the way he was defending."

Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal -- The Canadiens needed just four games to determine the third pick of the 2012 draft was ready for a full NHL season.

After missing almost all of last season following reconstructive knee surgery, Galchenyuk spent the first half of this season showing he was healthy, dominating the Ontario Hockey League with the Sarnia Sting and playing well for the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Galchenyuk scored his first NHL goal in his second game, and had his first multi-point game with a pair of assists in Sunday's win against the New Jersey Devils. He's tied for the team lead with a plus-2 rating and is sixth with seven shots on goal in four games.

The Canadiens would have needed to decide Galchenyuk's fate prior to his sixth game, Jan. 30 at the Ottawa Senators.

"You're looking to see if the player has the skill, if the player has the speed, if he's capable of competing at this level, if he understands the game, if he's learning quickly," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said Saturday. "These are all things Alex is doing right now."

Mikhail Grigorenko, Buffalo -- The 12th pick of the 2012 draft has been held without a point through his first five games, but he has five shots and has won 47.0 percent of his faceoffs.

Grigorenko played a season-best 17:10 in Sunday's loss to the Washington Capitals, and didn't disappoint, with two shots and an excellent scoring chance in the third period.

"Overall, it was a good showing for him," coach Lindy Ruff told the Buffalo News on Sunday. "He's receptive. He understands there's some areas he has to get better. He knows that. Overall, I thought it was maybe his best effort."

The Sabres have to make a decision prior to Tuesday's home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I've done everything I could," Grigorenko told the Buffalo News. "I was trying to do everything the coaches wanted from me -- be good defensively, win faceoffs, compete and stuff. I was making sure this is the most important thing in my game, and I was trying to do it perfectly. I hope I've done this well."

Dougie Hamilton, Boston -- The ninth pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, Hamilton picked up his first NHL point on Brad Marchand's power-play goal last Wednesday against the New York Rangers, and added two more assists in last Friday's win against the New York Islanders. He's played an average of 18:03 per game (fifth among rookies) and has played the point on the team's second power-play unit. His 11 shots are tied for second on the team.

The Bruins play their fifth game Monday at Carolina, then return home to play the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 the next night. It would be a major surprise to see Hamilton anywhere else than on the ice with his teammates.

"Upper management will make that decision, but from our end of it, he's been really good," Bruins coach Claude Julien said Monday. "He's better and better every game as he gains confidence. I've really liked his composure and vision of the game. He's been extremely good for us."

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida -- The third pick of the 2011 draft, Huberdeau had a goal and two assists in his NHL debut, but has been held off the score sheet in his last four games. Regardless, the Panthers have seen enough to announce he was sticking with the team for the remainder of the season.

Huberdeau is third on the team with 13 shots on goal and is averaging 15:49 of ice time per game skating a lot with veteran Alex Kovalev. Huberdeau's sixth game would have been Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Panthers ended any suspense with Monday's announcement.

Huberdeau had an outstanding preseason with the Panthers in September 2011, but the team sent him back to Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for another season of development. With another half-season of junior hockey plus a solid turn at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, the Panthers now are reaping the rewards.

"With Jonathan, the difference between an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old is huge," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen told the Miami Herald. "You see a difference in maturity, and he had that extra year to develop as a person and a player. He wasn't part of that important first step of us making the playoffs, but he's going to be with us for a long, long time."

Scott Laughton, Philadelphia -- Laughton was the youngest player to skate in an NHL game this season, but after five games without a point, the Flyers made the determination that the 20th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft would be better served by finishing the season with his junior team, the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League.

"It's a difficult one," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren told the team's website of the decision. "He played very well, but at the end of the day it was something that we talked about and it was in the best interest of the Flyers and also Scott. … He needs to play [and] he needs to play in all situations. He's going back to a good team and he will play a lot in all situations. He's a good young prospect, and the little bit of time he had here with us was good for him and good for us."

Stefan Matteau, New Jersey -- The 29th pick of the 2012 draft, Matteau has averaged just 8:21 of ice time in his first four NHL games, but is a plus-1 and managed to put six shots on net.

The Devils aren't in a great rush to make a decision on keeping Matteau or returning him to his junior team, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL. New Jersey doesn't play its fifth game until Tuesday night at Boston, then returns home for its sixth game Thursday against the New York Islanders. Matteau brings a solid element of skill and toughness, and at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds he certainly has NHL size.

The question, however, is if he'll be able to develop his full skill set playing limited minutes in a short season for a team with hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup Final, or if he should go back to playing a top-line role for his junior team and return next season for a regular training camp.

"He's going to be a good NHL player for a long time," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "Whether that's this year or down the road, those are decisions that are above me. But he's willing to learn and has good hockey sense, good size and plays the game the right way. He's eager and has done a good job."

Rickard Rakell, Anaheim -- The Swedish-born forward rode the momentum of a strong season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL into an opening-night spot with the Ducks. Rakell, the 30th pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, centered the fourth line in three of the Ducks' first four games. He's averaged 8:54 of ice time and is a minus-2 with three shots on goal.

Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau compared Rakell's situation to the one he faced during Nicklas Backstrom's rookie season when he coached him with the Washington Capitals.

"When I had Nick Backstrom I had him on the fourth line for the first 10 games just so he could get adjusted to the League and then he sort of warmed up to that," Boudreau recently told the Orange County Register.

With Rakell sitting out Friday's game against Vancouver, the Ducks won't have to make a decision on him until the end of the month. If he sits out just the one game, his sixth game will be Feb. 2 at home against the Los Angeles Kings, giving them lots of evaluation time.

Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg -- The first draft pick of the new Jets got a taste of the NHL last season, and is back again hoping for a full-time spot. Through his first three games, the seventh pick of the 2011 draft has five shots but no points. After playing more than 11 minutes in the season opener, he's been below nine minutes of ice time the next two games, and has been a healthy scratch the last two games.

Scheifele dominated in junior hockey this season, with 49 points in 30 games with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, and he shifted to right wing to star for Canada at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, finishing with five goals and eight points in six games.

He's played some center and mostly right wing with the Jets, but his opportunity to continue in the NHL is questionable. If he returns to the lineup for the Jets' next game, Tuesday at the Montreal Canadiens, the Jets will have to decide on keeping Scheifele or sending him back to junior before their game Feb. 1 at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"He's been reasonably good," Jets coach Claude Noel told the Winnipeg Sun. "This isn't a race to five games for us. It's a time we've got to help him grow, help him feel comfortable. Our situation doesn't lend itself too great for him."

Nail Yakupov, Edmonton -- The first pick of the 2012 draft certainly has shown a flair for the dramatic, scoring a pair of goals in four games, including a dramatic game-tying goal with 4.7 seconds left in regulation last Thursday against the San Jose Sharks that saw him celebrate by sliding on his knees the length of the ice.

There was little doubt entering the season that Yakupov would become the latest addition to the Oilers' burgeoning youthful brigade of talent. So barring injury, it's likely the Oilers' sixth game, Jan. 30 at the Phoenix Coyotes, will feature Yakupov in the lineup.

Teammates certainly would like him to stay.

"It's unbelievable the passion he plays with," Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "He gets his teammates going and his fans going."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

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