NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils rookie forward Stefan Matteau is set to make his sixth appearance with the team on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Prudential Center, meaning his entry-level contract would kick in.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer had Matteau skating on left wing alongside center Travis Zajac and right wing Ilya Kovalchuk during the team's morning skate on Thursday in the absence of injured Dainius Zubrus (upper body).
"We have Zubrus out [Thursday] and [Matteau] is the next left wing available to us and the most ready to play," DeBoer said after practice. "He'll go in."
If the Devils opted to send Matteau back to his junior team, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior League, the organization would have saved a year on his entry-level deal.
"From day one, [Devils general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] said contract status wouldn't stand in the way if he thought Stef would help us," DeBoer said. "He's got to go do his thing. I don't think by us playing him this game it was a lifetime contract or a guarantee that he'd be here for the next 40 games, but it's another opportunity for him to show he's an NHL player.
"We really like a lot of the things he does, and he's got to simplify some areas. He's still learning, but there's a lot there to work with."
A rather subdued Matteau was surrounded by reporters and television cameras following practice.
"It's a big step, but not a guarantee that I'll be here all year … it's one more game and at least one more day," Matteau said. "I don't want to put any expectations on myself and just take it day by day. I've been working hard, but whether or not I stay for good is out of my control and not my decision. I believe I can be here, one day, but I'm just taking it day by day right now."
In New Jersey's opening five games, Matteau didn't record a point, sported a plus-1 rating and has averaged 8:28 in ice time. He did open his last two games on the team's top line with Zajac and Kovalchuk while Adam Henrique was recovering from thumb surgery, but was eventually moved to the fourth unit.
"We'll just tell him to skate and work hard and do the things he's been doing all year," Zajac said. "He's a smart guy and he'll learn. He's going to get better every game."
Zubrus, who has one goal and four points in nine games this season for New Jersey (5-1-3), apparently suffered his injury in a 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday. There is no timetable on his return to the lineup.
"[Zajac and Kovalchuk] are pretty good hockey players," Matteau said with a smile. "They make the game easier. They're the two best players in the world, so it'll be great."
Matteau admits to learning a lot while watching the last four games from above the ice level.
"Being up top you see how simple the game is, but how smart everyone is," he said. "I learned you need to hold on to the puck and protect, and take it to the net. After my fifth game, I was told that Lou [Lamoreillo] wanted me to watch the top guys, see how they play and what they do."
David Clarkson, who leads the Devils with seven goals and 12 points, feels Matteau will only improve.
"He seems like a great kid," Clarkson told NHL.com. "I think this kid is going to have a heck of a career; he's a great player and a big boy who can skate. It'll be a pretty exciting night for him to get that game in and to know that he could be here the full season."
Here are the possible line combinations for the Devils:
Stefan Matteau - Travis Zajac - Ilya Kovalchuk Patrik Elias - Adam Henrique - David Clarkson Ryan Carter - Stephen Gionta - Steve Bernier Krys Barch - Jacob Josefson - Bobby Butler
Bryce Salvador - Mark Fayne Anton Volchenkov - Marek Zidlicky Andy Greene - Adam Larsson
Martin Brodeur Johan Hedberg
Injured: Dainius Zubrus Scratched: Peter Harrold, Henrik Tallinder
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL