Hockey prodigies Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon have been virtually inseparable for the past two years. Now they have been forced apart by the decisions of NHL team executives and sent to opposite ends of the hockey spectrum.
Drouin and MacKinnon combined to lift Halifax to the top of the Canadian Hockey League during the past two seasons, and an assumption grew that they would be high first-round picks in the 2013 NHL Draft and begin a head-to-head battle at the NHL level that would last the better part of two decades.
But that duel must wait at least a year now after the unexpected decision by Tampa Bay Lightning management to send Drouin back to juniors before the 2013-14 regular season began.
That dichotomy is again shining a light on the inexact science of player development that executives at the NHL level grapple with on an annual basis.
MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, is living the dream of being a high-profile rookie in the world's best league. He is a point-per-game contributor for the Colorado Avalanche, perhaps the most surprising team in the NHL.
Drouin, selected two picks later, harbored the same dream MacKinnon is living. It was put on hiatus when Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman told Drouin on Sept. 29 that the Lightning don't believe he is fully ready for the rigors of the NHL. Instead, they determined another year in Halifax will serve the most benefit for the player.
"When you deliver the news and give them reasons why they're going back, the player is always quiet and respectful," Yzerman told NHL.com. "I'm not going to share with you anything I told Jonathan, but I can tell you we told him that we wanted him playing a lot. Another year of junior would be good for him, and he's going back to a good program and good team. At the end of the day, it'll all be the best for him."
Though it may be for the best, it is not what anyone expected.
Drouin was coming off a season when he was named CHL Player of the Year; he was the first to win the award in his first year of draft eligibility since 2005, when Sidney Crosby of the Rimouski Oceanic did.
Crosby, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, became the youngest player to score 100 points in an NHL season the next year, collecting No. 100 on April 17, 2006 at the age of 18 years, 253 days en route to a 102-point finish.
Not only that, but Drouin outscored MacKinnon by 30 points last regular season when the Mooseheads dominated the QMJHL en route to a Memorial Cup championship.
So how did it come to pass that these two incredibly talented blue-chip prospects on the same development path within different organizations come to be inexplicably separated?
It has to do with that player-development conundrum mentioned above.
NHL teams are allowed a very small window to make career- and franchise-defining decisions on teenagers who have not finished developing.
The NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for nine games at the start of the regular season during which a player on his entry-level contract can be evaluated. The player can be returned to his junior team without his contract kicking in at any point before the player dresses for his 10th game.
If the player skates in more than nine games, he still can be returned to his junior team, but the first year of his contract goes into effect and the player could reach free agency at an accelerated pace. Plus, once sent down after the nine-game mark, he can't be recalled during that season, except under emergency conditions.
So each fall, NHL front-office types must make decisions that will shape the futures of players and organizations and do it with very little empirical evidence.
How the decisions on whether supremely talented teenagers should stay or should go are arrived at is as varied as the results these decisions deliver.
There rarely seems to be a set formula, more a sense of current feel and an appreciation for the past.
"This story you're talking about, it's a very difficult one to put your finger on," Avalanche assistant general manager Craig Billington told NHL.com. "If you're looking for a black-and-white answer, you won't find it. But if you do, call me."
Billington and Colorado executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic were among the primary decision-makers when it came to keeping MacKinnon on the Avalanche roster, a position that was adopted almost immediately after MacKinnon was selected No. 1 in June.
The MacKinnon decision was a type neither had made previously but each had lived through in his career.
Sakic followed the path the Lightning have laid out for Drouin and navigated it all the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Selected by the Quebec Nordiques at No. 15 in the 1987 draft, Sakic was sent back by the Nordiques for another year of seasoning in the Western Hockey League with the Swift Current Broncos, the junior team for whom he had just scored 60 goals and 133 points in 72 games.
The career arc that followed suggests Quebec was right in its patience. Sakic turned pro with the Nordiques in 1988-89 and put together six 100-point-or-better seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships and earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2001.
Billington followed a far different developmental path than Sakic after being selected in the 1984 draft by the New Jersey Devils at No. 23.
Following training camp in the fall of 1984, Billington was returned to the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League. He would join the Devils full-time in 1985-86 as a 19-year-old.
The year before joining the Devils, Billington was the most valuable player in the OHL All-Star Game and earned the Directorate Award as the best goalie at the 1985 IIHF World Junior Championship for gold medal-winning Canada.
The stat line for his first season with the Devils: 18 games played, 5.13 goals-against average,.840 save percentage.
"It took me a good five years to get my game back to where it was competent enough to play in the NHL," Billington said, adding those experiences have led him to being more conservative when making personnel decisions for the Avalanche. "So it was a roller-coaster ride for me. Fortunately, it worked out and I played a long time, but when I look back on it that was a tough time for me."
So much factors into each decision to keep a player or return him to junior hockey. Skill level clearly plays a part, but so does the maturity (physical and mental) of the player. The state of the organization's pool of prospects and office politics can have impacts. Economic realities also shape the thinking of decision-makers.
"It's really hard because you've got a lot of different fingers in the pie," NHL Network analyst Barry Melrose told NHL.com. Melrose was coach of the Lightning when they faced a similar stay-or-go dilemma with Steven Stamkos during the 2008-09 season. "The scouts want the young player to stay in the NHL because it makes the scouts look good, so you've got the scouts talking to the GM saying, 'This guy's ready.' The GM would love to see the young kids stay too, because one of the strengths of his job is drafting."
In the end, though, most agree the overriding factor has to be whether the player can make significant contributions during an 82-game stretch in the most demanding environment imaginable.
For a variety of reasons, the Lightning decided the answer to that question when it came to Drouin was "No." Not only did they decide, but they did so more quickly than anyone expected.
Though many other players on an entry-level contract are using the current nine-game window to vie for jobs -- Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames are prominent examples -- Drouin is back in Halifax, playing at a level that has already thrown its best at him.
"We debated on keeping [Drouin] for nine games … that was the harder decision," Yzerman said. "But we determined with the way we're structured right now and with the way our roster is set up, we feel we made the right decision over the long term for our team and especially for Jonathan.
"I'm not going to say it was an easy decision though."
Yzerman didn't want Drouin to be playing limited minutes as a rookie with the Lightning. He preferred to have him in a league where he would play a larger role with significant playing time for the defending Memorial Cup champion.
One other factor that cannot be ignored regarding the Drouin decision is that Tampa Bay's pipeline of prospects is overflowing with talent. Many young prospects who starred in the American Hockey League last season, including forwards Richard Panik (22 years old), Ondrej Palat (22) and Tyler Johnson (22), and defensemen Mark Barberio (23) and Andrej Sustr (22), are getting a chance to stick with the big club in 2013-14.
"We believe there is a process to making it to the NHL, and part of that with our organization is playing your way out of the AHL and proving you're an NHL-ready player," Yzerman said. "We have these five or six guys who we moved into the lineup now and we'll continue to do that each year. We don't have spots for everybody, and we'll be patient. When guys are ready to play, they'll move into the lineup."
NHL Network analyst Craig Button agreed with Yzerman's philosophy. Button served as the director of player personnel for the Dallas Stars for two seasons and was vice president and GM of the Calgary Flames for three.
"I believe that players can go too early [into the NHL], but can't go too late," Button told NHL.com. "Steven Stamkos was the first overall pick [in 2008] and was an outstanding talent, but it wasn't until about February of his rookie year that he started to feel that he could play in this League. Stamkos had those growing pains, so why wouldn't Jonathan Drouin? Let's not forget, Drouin has essentially only played a year-and-a-half of junior hockey, so I think going back for another year will not hurt his development.
"As good and as talented as he is, going back and being the go-to man in Halifax and being a major part of the world junior championship for Canada will help him. I think the Stamkos growing-pains experience contributed to [the Drouin decision]."
There is logic behind the Lightning decision, but there is no denying that, for Drouin, it was a decision that tore asunder his dream of competing immediately in the NHL and continuing his rivalry against MacKinnon, his good friend and former teammate.
"It was devastating in a way; you want to make the team as quick as possible, but there are a lot of years in front of me," Drouin said.
Now he wrestles with the altered challenges of the season ahead and his next chance to make the Lightning. Presently, he has more time than he would like; a groin injury has temporarily sidelined him.
"Playing in the NHL is his dream, and it's what he worked toward for so long, so it was terribly disappointing [for him]," Halifax GM Cam Russell told NHL.com. "He's put up some good numbers since he's been back, but it's still difficult that first week. We've all been through that, but it's tougher for a guy who was picked third overall."
Stamkos didn't return to junior hockey after his draft, but he understands there are benefits to that path if that's the way the organization best suits a player's development.
"If you're not going to be able to really flourish as a player and you're not going to get better, then for sure, if you're able to get sent back and be the player you know you can be by getting an opportunity to play a lot of minutes, mature physically, than I think in certain situations it's definitely good," Stamkos told NHL.com.
Current Case Study No. 1
Stamkos said he feels Drouin will return to training camp next year more determined and more prepared to make a significant impact.
"Jonathan is back in Halifax, but he got a chance to see what it was like in preseason games," Stamkos said. "He's got a great work ethic and he's going to come back next year hungry to stick."
It will be a long time before anyone knows whether the decision to promote MacKinnon or return Drouin was the smarter play, if that can even be determined. In the end, the history of the two players, and the two franchises, will settle this debate.
But by then, new dilemmas involving stars not yet known will present themselves, and the old pro and con arguments will resurface.
"I'd like to say there's an exact science to this, but there's not," Billington said. "I've learned from some of the best in the business, who have shared experiences with me that anytime you think you've got it figured out, chances are something else comes along to remind you that you don't."
All Billington knows is that the Avalanche have taken the MacKinnon decision under due consideration and used the limited data and experience at their disposal to arrive at a decision with which they are comfortable.
MacKinnon's strong finishing kick last year may have been the tipping point for Colorado, not only in which player it took, but how quickly the Avalanche committed to MacKinnon staying in the NHL.
After a good, but not great, regular season, MacKinnon won the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as most valuable player in the Memorial Cup after connecting for seven goals and 13 points in four games.
"Nathan is a grounded individual and extremely humble, very hard-working," Billington said. "I can't say enough about him. I think he's in a place where the coaches have a lot of confidence where he is developmentally, but they also understand he's right out of junior hockey.
"There's very few that come out of the amateur world and just pop in as a superstar in the National [Hockey] League, but certainly you can see with some young guys that enter early, they have the skill sets that make them special."
But other entry-level decisions remain, and they will be hashed out in the coming days.
The narrative surrounding Drouin and MacKinnon will be a part of those conversations, as will the history of other recent high-profile cases that have helped shape many of the commonly held beliefs on this topic.
As part of the look at the nine-game threshold that still faces several franchises, NHL.com looks at four recent cases and their outcomes to spell out the possibilities that lie ahead for the current group of decisions.
Stamkos stayed, as expected, in Tampa Bay and struggled initially before finding his way to becoming one of the game's elite goal-scorers. Consider him Exhibit A.
Exhibit B, Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, is the player who beat the odds and stuck far earlier than many expected. Jonathan Huberdeau went back to juniors, despite his lofty status with the Florida Panthers, got bigger and stronger and returned to win the Calder Trophy in 2013 as the League's best rookie. He is Exhibit C and the case study Tampa Bay most hopes applies to Drouin.
Finally, Exhibit D is New Jersey defenseman Adam Larsson, who made the Devils in the season after he was drafted but has yet to reach the heights for which he was projected.
There were times during his rookie season that Steven Stamkos questioned his ability to play in the NHL.
"Those are the thoughts that creep into your head when things aren't going well," Stamkos told NHL.com.
Self-doubt is part of the development process for first-year players trying to make the most of limited minutes in the toughest league in world.
Stamkos didn't immediately live up to the billing of being the No. 1 draft pick in his rookie season. He scored four points in his first 17 NHL games while struggling for ice time under a new coach, Melrose, who is now an analyst for NHL Network.
In the season leading up to the 2008 NHL Draft, Stamkos ranked second in the Ontario Hockey League with 58 goals (105 points) in 61 games for the Sarnia Sting.
"It was a tough situation, and there were times where I wish I had gotten sent back [to Sarnia]," he said. "I tried to find a way to get those out, come to the rink every day, have a smile on my face and work hard.
"Sometimes you have to take a step back and realize you are an 18-year-old in the NHL, so that's a pretty cool feat in itself. I think once I got past that, and you realize how hard you have to work, and I was given an opportunity by a different coach (Rick Tocchet replaced Melrose after 16 games), I was able to take off from there."
Current Case Study No. 2
Melrose vividly recalls the early struggles endured by Stamkos.
"At the start of the season it was tough, we weren't very good, and Steven just had to learn the NHL," Melrose told NHL.com. "He had to get ready mentally and a little bit stronger physically, but there was no doubt Steven was ready for the NHL when he was 18. It just took a few months into the season for him to feel comfortable with the League and feel comfortable with a lot of other things."
Melrose said he never felt a return to junior would be an option for Stamkos. He was too good not to be given on-the-job training, especially after an intense promotional blitz was executed by the club.
A "Seen Stamkos?" catchphrase was virtually omnipresent, appearing on billboards, T-shirts and websites.
"He was staying, no doubt about it," Melrose said. "He was the first pick overall, they needed to sell tickets in Tampa Bay and that was one way to do it, and Steven was great. Steven was a great talent and you knew he was going to be a great talent."
When Tocchet became coach, it started to click for Stamkos. He scored 32 points in his final 39 games and, by the end of the season, ranked fifth among first-year players with 46 points. He led the rookie field with 181 shots on goal, and his 23 goals set a franchise rookie record previously established by Brad Richards (21 goals) in 2000-01.
Stamkos said the hype leading to his debut did not contribute to his slow start. In fact, Stamkos said he actually enjoyed the attention.
"I thought it was pretty cool," he said. "It was obviously a marketing ploy by Tampa, and I don't think a lot of people here in Florida knew what it was about. It was a fun campaign to be part of and I was honored that they thought that highly of me."
Stamkos' career has certainly flourished from the moments of self-doubt, but the sting has not fully disappeared. He remembers wanting to return to Sarnia and now understands that the path to the NHL for top prospects must be tailored to the individual player.
"It depends what situation you're in," Stamkos said. "There are certain teams that are in complete rebuilds and they want to get some young guys in. That's when it might be a little easier to crack the lineup because they want you to get that experience. But the game has changed a lot; it's quicker, it's faster, the guys are bigger and stronger. It's tough.
"When you're 18 years old, you're still a teenager. That's something that I went through and was able to learn from a guy like Gary Roberts on what it takes. As long as you can learn from the veteran guys, you're going to be OK."
-- Dave Kalan, NHL.com staff writer, and Lonnie Herman, NHL.com correspondent, contributed to this report
Sometimes a player takes the decision right out of the hands of his general manager and player personnel director.
Jeff Skinner, the first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2011 NHL Draft, is one such player. Skinner, chosen at No. 7, may not have been in Carolina's immediate plans at the start of training camp, but the left wing was firmly entrenched by the end of the preseason.
"I think that we pretty much knew that he was ready to go from day one," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford told NHL.com. "One of the biggest things you have to watch for is their strength and conditioning. Are they going to be able to handle 82 games of real tough games? Jeff Skinner got the jump on guys coming into their first year and ended up winning the Calder Trophy because he was so prepared and so strong."
After his June selection, Skinner prepared with the NHL in mind.
"In the summer after I was drafted, I was training with [former NHL forward] Gary Roberts and was with Lorne Goldenberg before that," Skinner told NHL.com. "Roberts was my strength coach, and the focus was to just get more explosive, get stronger. The summer is the time to get stronger because the season is long and it's a bit of a grind. You need to get stronger so your body can handle that grind."
Current Case Study No. 3
Before camp, the option of returning Skinner to his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontraio Hockey League, was viable. After the commitment-free nine-game audition provided by the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Skinner's NHL future was assured.
If that weren't impressive enough, Skinner became the youngest All-Star in NHL history when he skated for Team Staal at the 2011 All-Star Game at the age of 18 years, 259 days, breaking the mark set in 1984 by Steve Yzerman (18 years, 267 days).
Skinner had backers in the Carolina front office even before he was drafted. Director of amateur scouting Tony MacDonald remembers the first time he saw Skinner in the fall of 2009.
"He had fun playing the game and there's not enough of that in today's players," MacDonald told NHL.com. "Along with that, he has a tremendous competitive drive and great hockey sense that matches his skill, creativity and vision; that makes him such a great player."
It wasn't until MacDonald witnessed Skinner's relentless motor in the OHL playoffs, however, that he decided this was the guy the franchise needed. Skinner played a big part in helping lead the Rangers to the Western Conference finals against the Windsor Spitfires, losing a seven-game series to the eventual OHL champion. In 20 postseason games, Skinner had 20 goals and 13 assists.
"A pretty significant clip for any player in the playoffs, and that, in part, had a great influence on our thinking," MacDonald said. "That playoff performance he had was what tipped the scales."
Rutherford said top prospects almost always make the decision on their immediate future through their play in training camp. Skinner was as relentless in training camp as he was his two seasons in the OHL.
"It's really all about where they're at and whether we think they're going to be able to handle the rigors of the NHL," Rutherford said. "This League is tough for anybody at any point in their career, but especially coming into your first year."
-- Mike Morreale, NHL.com staff writer
Jonathan Huberdeau isn't ready to say he wouldn't have won the Calder Trophy last season without spending an extra year in junior hockey. The No. 3 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft does say the decision by the Florida Panthers to wait a year before letting him start his pro career has already paid dividends.
"It was good for me to go back to juniors," Huberdeau told NHL.com. "I wasn't ready physically. Going back to junior we had a good team, so that made it fun to go there and also be the captain and have more of a leader role. It helped me. I can't ask for more. I came back last year and I was ready. I was more ready physically and I had a better season than I think I would have had if I had stayed, even if you don't know for sure."
Despite leading the Panthers in scoring during the preseason in 2011, Huberdeau was sent back for a third season with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before he could make a regular-season appearance.
Florida management felt the highly skilled left wing needed to get stronger to withstand the rigors of a full NHL season.
"It was really tempting [to keep him]," general manager Dale Tallon said at the time. "You have to make the decision that's best for the long term, for the kid's benefit and for our benefit. He's 173 pounds, and I think in his heart, too, he knows he needs to get stronger. The discussion with him, his family, his agent on a regular basis the last week or so, you can tell there's a vulnerability there on the size, but we know we didn't mess up in the draft, that's for sure."
Current Case Study No. 4
Huberdeau used his additional time in juniors wisely. He had another productive season in the QMJHL in 2011-12, although a foot injury derailed things temporarily. Huberdeau led Saint John to a second consecutive Memorial Cup tournament, although the Sea Dogs fell short in their quest to repeat as champions.
Surprisingly, Huberdeau found himself in the QMJHL again at the start of the 2012-13 season, but that was only because of the NHL lockout and the desire of the Panthers to have their young star keep playing.
Once the lockout ended, there was little doubt Huberdeau would stay with the Panthers. He ended up tying for the NHL rookie scoring lead with 31 points in 48 games.
"I think it helped him," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "He had a heck of a training camp. That's a hard thing. But I think we've got a more mature young man instead of a teenager. [Huberdeau] knows he is a vital piece of this organization right now and he's not all wide-eyed and just enjoying the experience. He knows that there's a level of responsibility to come out and play, and that comes with that maturity."
Huberdeau admitted he was disappointed at being sent back to junior hockey but said he understood it was the right call.
"I had played the best hockey I could play," Huberdeau said. "I didn't have any regrets when they told me. Of course, you're disappointed because it's obvious you want to play in the NHL whenever you can. Certainly, I thought I was ready, but as they told me, this League isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. I understood, and I was still happy because I had done everything I needed to do. I just went back to Saint John and worked even harder."
-- Alain Poupart, NHL.com correspondent
It's evident Larsson has struggled at times in finding his niche or comfort zone as a professional after being thrown into the NHL fire the season after his selection.
Unlike many New Jersey prospects, Larsson did not start in the American Hockey League or spend an extra year in his home country acquiring additional seasoning.
Some believe the trial by fire has contributed to Larsson's unsteady play.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said the organization stands by Larsson and will do whatever it takes to help him reach his potential.
"I don't think you could ever put a barometer on whether a player's development it taking too long or not," Lamoriello told NHL.com. "A lot of it has to do with how the team is doing when you have a young player; you have to be careful with how you recognize that. When a team is struggling a little, and you have a young player, there's a lot of pressure on him. If the team is going good, he can go along slowly."
The Devils' 0-3-3 start to the 2013-14 season, Larsson's third in the NHL, hasn't helped the situation.
Though it is generally accepted that it takes a defenseman more time to grow into his role, some have wondered if another year in Sweden or a season in the AHL would have benefitted Larsson.
Current Case Study No. 5
But Lamoriello said Larsson earned his NHL place following his nine-game audition with the team to open the 2011-12 season.
"It was an easy decision," Lamoriello said. "His play in training camp and certainly in the earlier games made this a unanimous decision."
Unlike Canadian junior players younger than 20, players drafted out of Europe can be assigned to the AHL or ECHL at any age.
As a rookie in 2011-12, Larsson had two goals and 18 points in 65 games. He equaled a franchise record for rookie defenders with Scott Niedermayer and Bruce Driver with a point in five straight games. Those numbers certainly support New Jersey's decision to keep Larsson.
Inconsistency has crept into his game the past two seasons, however.
One NHL scout told NHL.com that Europeans are sometimes moved to North America too early in their development. There are times when returning a teenager home could pay big dividends in the long run.
Don Baizley, a highly successful player agent for more than 30 years, advocated his young international talent spending one or more seasons back home before heading to the NHL. Among his clients, Baizley advised Teemu Selanne (Winnipeg Jets, 1988, No. 10), Peter Forsberg (Philadelphia Flyers, 1991, No. 6) and Saku Koivu (Montreal Canadiens, 1993, No. 21) to remain overseas before coming to play in the NHL.
In each of those cases, the decision proved to be the right one.
"We really gave Adam a lot at that initial time when he was here [in 2011-12]," Lamoriello said. "As far as his development, you would always like to have it better. But it's certainly not to the point where we don't feel good about where he's at in his development. He's going to be fine."
This fall, Devils coach Peter DeBoer praised his young defender for an exceptional training camp, but he was a healthy scratch for one of the first six games this season.
Larsson averaged 18:06 of ice time and saw more action in penalty-killing situations than on the power play during 2012-13. He finished with no goals and six assists in 37 games. He had four goals and 19 points in 33 games with the team's AHL affiliate in Albany during the work stoppage.
"It's no secret that defensemen take a while to come into their own in this League, and I believe Adam is on the verge of that," DeBoer told NHL.com during training camp.
Though he didn't score a goal last season, Larsson finished sixth on the team in hits (94) and fifth in blocked shots (67).
"He's got tons of potential," Devils captain Bryce Salvador told NHL.com. "It's a tough position to come in and produce, and very rarely do you have a defenseman who hasn't spent time in the minors. So I think that last year was tough for him. But, all in all, he has the assets and skills and he'll be fine."
With more game exposure and ice time on the power play in 2013-14, can Larsson become the type of asset the Devils envisioned when they drafted him two years ago?
"You have to realize he's still a young kid and you can't overanalyze, just let him play," Salvador said. "He's making plays out there that top defensemen make, and he's going to grow on his own. Fortunately, he's in a good organization that's patient with him; they see the bigger picture in what they have with him."
-- Mike Morreale, NHL.com staff writer