It's almost time for Rutherford, as well as five other GMs, to make more concrete decisions on their 2010 Entry Draft picks currently playing in the NHL.
This season, the special six who remain with their teams are the Oilers' Taylor Hall (No. 1 pick), the Bruins' Tyler Seguin (No. 2), the Islanders' Nino Niederreiter (No. 5), Skinner (No. 7), the Thrashers' Alexander Burmistrov (No. 8) and the Ducks' Cam Fowler (No. 12).
Teams can return their teenage prospects to their junior team at any time, but doing so before they play in their 10th game delays the start of their entry-level contract. The last player to skate in more than nine games and still be returned to his junior club was defenseman Luca Sbisa, the No. 19 pick of the 2008 Draft who played 39 games with the Flyers before being sent back to WHL.
The decision to keep an 18-year-old in the NHL is a big one, and one team executives don't take lightly.
"I think anytime you're in the evaluation process, especially with an 18-year-old, you're looking at can they keep pace with established NHL players," Colorado Avalanche General Manager Greg Sherman told NHL.com. "These are difficult decisions and you want to do what's right for the franchise and you also want to do what's right for the player. You don't want to put a player, especially an 18-year-old player, in a position where he's not able to perform at that level."
Sherman had maybe the toughest decisions to make last season, when he had a pair of 18-year-olds -- Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly -- who made the Avalanche's opening-night roster. Sherman opted to keep both, and each played a big role in the Avs making the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.
An injury to Fowler has delayed the decision for Ducks GM Bob Murray. Fowler suffered a broken nose Oct. 17 against the Coyotes and has missed the last four games, including Tuesday's win in Dallas. Prior to his injury, however, the 12th pick of the Draft had played a key role for the club, "probably in the three/four slot for our hockey club, right from the beginning," said coach Randy Carlyle.
Fowler has 3 points and a minus-1 rating in six games, but he's played at least 21 minutes in every game except one -- the game he got hurt. He scored his first goal that night, and also made a dazzling end-to-end move, dancing through Phoenix skaters and creating a scoring chance before losing an edge behind the Coyotes and goal, colliding with the Coyotes' Shane Doan and going face-first into the boards.
While Murray has the final say on whether Fowler stays or goes back to his junior team, the Windsor Spitfires, Carlyle will have input in the decision. And while the coach wouldn't reveal which way he was leaning, listening to him assess Fowler's play this season, combined with the solid ice time he's given Fowler, allows for a pretty decent guess.
"For a young player he's made a huge impression," said Carlyle. "You're correct in the statement that when coaches like players, it's based upon they trust players, and when you trust people they get more ice time. In the situation he's been presented, we've had a defenseman go down with an injury in (Andy) Sutton and we didn't expect to have to use a young player that many minutes in the early going of the season, but that's what happened. Injuries do occur and he seems to be able to handle the 20 minutes-plus. Did we plan on using Cam Fowler for 20 minutes each game of the year? Probably not, that's not the master plan, but if the kid can handle it, why not?"
That's the same debate going on in a few different GM offices.
Some seemingly have easier calls than others.
In Edmonton, GM Steve Tambellini and coach Tom Renney have been unequivocal in saying that despite Hall's perceived struggles -- the rookie left wing has just 1 assist and a minus-4 rating in seven games and has been shifted to the third line -- he will be with the team all season. He was a minus-1 with two shots in 18:56 Tuesday against the Flames, and he's average 16:59 of ice time per game, fifth among the team's forwards.
The Oilers don't have to formally make the decision until after their ninth game, Friday at the Blackhawks, but it doesn't sound like that day is circled on anyone's calendar.
"He's going to be here all year unless somebody tells me otherwise," Oilers coach Tom Renney told the Calgary Herald. "I think he'll just get better (and) that's an assimilation we're prepared to work with."
Rutherford is just as concise in his decision to keep Skinner in Carolina all season. He has 4 points in seven games, and scored a dazzling game-deciding shootout goal to beat the Wild in the Hurricanes' second game of the season. Skinner will play his ninth game Thursday at the Rangers, but Rutherford said there's no chance he returns to junior hockey.
"I've never even considered the nine-game rule when we're looking at Jeff," Rutherford told NHL.com. "We watched him through rookie camp and the main camp. If there was something we saw that he need more work on (he'd be sent back), but we've never considered it."
What impressed Rutherford so much about Skinner was that while the center is just 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds, he committed himself during the summer to get as strong as possible to deal with the rigors of an 82-game NHL schedule.
"I think anytime you're in the evaluation process, especially with an 18-year-old, you're looking at can they keep pace with established NHL players. These are difficult decisions and you want to do what's right for the franchise and you also want to do what's right for the player. You don't want to put a player, especially an 18-year-old player, in a position where he's not able to perform at that level." -- Avs GM Greg Sherman
The Thrashers don't have to make a decision on Burmistrov's future until after Wednesday's game at the Rangers, but it sounds like the 6-foot-1, 180-pound center can start looking for a permanent residence. Even though he has no points in eight games, he's helped fourth-line grinders Chris Thorburn and Ben Eager combine for 4 goals already. He's also become a defensive presence and key penalty killer.
"We know he's going to get points, we're not the least bit worried about that," Thrashers GM Rick Dudley told NHL.com. "What we hoped to see was his capacity to think the game at this level and he's shown an ability far above his years. Last year we thought he was the smartest player in the draft and we still think that. His defensive play is to the point where we're counting on him. In Anaheim (Oct. 15) we were tied late in the game and there was about a minute left, defensive-zone faceoff, against (Ryan) Getzlaf and who's out there? Burmistrov. On the surface that looks like a mismatch, but the puck goes into our corner, Burmistrov gets there first and Getzlaf gets there and hits him, but he (Burmistrov) has got such good position, all the hit did was propel him where he wanted to go. I remember thinking, that's pretty good composure for a kid that age. He's all the things we've hoped for."
Dudley wouldn't come right out and say Burmistrov will stick with the team all season, but it sounds like the only way he'll ever play another game with the OHL's Barrie Colts will be if the Thrashers go there in the preseason.
"That would be the way it looks," said Dudley. "I've had talks with (coach) Craig Ramsay and he really likes him. I don't anticipate someone saying, 'I don't know if this guy can play.' It doesn't seem to be where we're headed."
The decision the Islanders face with Niederreiter could be a bit tougher. Niederreiter, the youngest player in the League, has 1 goal in eight games. He's impressed coach Scott Gordon, and the Islanders have kept their previous two top picks -- Josh Bailey and John Tavares -- as 18-year-olds. However, the club doesn't have to make its decision until after the Isles' ninth game, Wednesday at Montreal.
"He's got a good head on his shoulders," Gordon told the New York Post. "I think he's a focused individual. He doesn't just take anything for granted. He works at things. He's a good listener. Those are the things that, as a coach, you can't take for granted because not every 18-year-old is like that."
The Bruins won't have to make their call on Seguin until after their ninth game, Nov. 3 at the Sabres. The center has 3 points in six games and is averaging just 13:25 of ice time per game, eighth among the team's forwards. However, that slow development is just what the Bruins' plan has called for.
"We're certainly in a different position than most second-overall picks would be in," Bruins president Cam Neely told Boston's WEEI radio. "They generally are on a team that maybe isn't as deep as what we currently have. We're able to have him ease into this League and get comfortable, learn a little bit more on the defensive side. We expect him to get better and better as time goes on."
The one thing the rookies have in common is their insistence that they're not letting that impending threshold enter into their thoughts.
"Already as an 18-year-old I think I've had a great experience up here and obviously I want to keep that going," said Fowler. "But that's out of my hands. The most I can do is keep playing my game and keep playing well."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org