The trials and tribulations of training camp have passed, the Opening-Day roster announced and childhood dreams for the rookies fulfilled. There is no doubt that the first NHL game is a special time for both player and team.
But now, two weeks of games have been played and a harsh reality -- the business side of hockey -- has intruded on this feel-good story.
This is especially true for younger players who have junior eligibility remaining. Teams have to face the unenviable decision what to do when each of these teenage players nears his 10th game in the NHL.
What is the significance of the 10-game mark? It's when games are no longer mere talent audition for both player and team. Instead there is a new economic reality that must enter the equation.
The CBA is voluminous, but for purposes of this discussion the following must be considered:
- i. 18- and 19-year-old players must be returned to their junior teams if they can’t play in the NHL. For the majority of players, this occurs prior to the NHL season commencing, but there remains a select few who have demonstrated the ability to begin play in the NHL.
- ii. Upon an 18- or 19-year old player participating in his 10th NHL game, the player’s three-year Entry Level Contract will be deemed to have begun and the player will, regardless of how many more games he participates in, have completed one year of that contract. Article 9.1 (d) (i)
- iii. For purposes of qualifying for Free Agency, a player must be on an active roster for forty (40) games to accrue a season of service. 18- and 19-year-old players can qualify for unrestricted free agency prior to the age of 27 if they have accrued seven (7) seasons of NHL service. Article 10.1 (a) (i)
It's a process Colorado has already undergone in deciding that youngsters Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Duchene will remain with the team. Florida still faces the same decision with defenseman Dmitri Kulikov and Buffalo with Tyler Myers. Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers also faces the same deadline.
First and foremost, evaluating the player’s ability to grow and contribute to the team becomes a focal point. In some instances it is very clear that a player belongs in the NHL. For others it is not so clear. These young players are now playing versus very accomplished and mature men and their abilities are being tested under very vigorous and demanding situations.
You want to ensure a player’s confidence doesn’t become compromised, while also ensuring he doesn’t find himself in situations where he could potentially become injured due to a lack of physical maturity.
Second, for those players who have been very accomplished juniors, the benefits of having the player under the guidance of your coaching staff may tip the scales in favor of him remaining in the NHL.
Another consideration is the type of team the young player is joining. Are there players in place who can be good role models and help the player adapt in the NHL environment?
I always felt as a GM the path to take was the obvious one: If a player could contribute at the NHL level and your team could support him, then his place was in the NHL.
When the questions arose about whether to keep him, it was due to the player not demonstrating clearly he was capable at this point of his career to play in the NHL. That made the decision to return the player to junior just as obvious in my mind.
The business questions arise, but I think they become moot when the issue of development is at hand. The NHL is a demanding league and these young players have the skills to become important to your team but there is not a clear time line in terms of their maturation process.
The objective is to prepare the player for a successful career, not to get him to the NHL quickly. I believe the only consideration, despite economic ramifications, should therefore be about ensuring the player can have a long and prosperous career.
Do that and the rewards to both the player and the team will be numerous.
Craig Button, a former GM of the Calgary Flames, is an analyst for the NHL Network