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'09 top draft picks make the cut, staying in NHL

by Adam Kimelman
Six players taken in the 2009 Entry Draft made their NHL team's opening-night roster. Making the League is one thing; staying there is another. But for the special six from this June's draft, they all passed their first major test.

John Tavares (No. 1, Islanders), Victor Hedman (No. 2, Lightning), Matt Duchene (No. 3, Colorado), Evander Kane (No. 4, Thrashers), Dmitry Kulikov (No. 14, Panthers) and Ryan O'Reilly (No. 33, Avalanche) haven't all passed the 10-game threshold, but all have been told that they should look into permanent housing.

Teams have nine games to evaluate their teenage prospects before having to make a decision on whether to keep them -- and activate their entry-level contract -- or return them to their junior club. It's a big decision, and one NHL 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 "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."

"The intensity of the games in October are much less than the intensity of the games in December, which is less the intensity of the games in March," Panthers GM Randy Sexton told "The big issue is his ability to continue to progress and deal with the increased intensity and the meaningfulness of the games as the season goes on."

So far, all six players have hit the mark, and all will remain with their respective NHL clubs. For Tavares and Hedman, it wasn't much of a surprise that they would stay with their clubs -- Tavares played in his 10th game Monday against Montreal, while Hedman will hit that number Thursday against Ottawa. The Islanders are in desperate need of a scorer like Tavares, while the Lightning lacked the puck-moving ability from the blue line that Hedman provides.

After those two, however, it became a true debate -- is it better for a player to develop as a big fish in a junior-hockey pond? Or should they get used to the taste of the NHL life, all the good and bad, at the earliest possible age?

Sherman had the first and hardest decisions to make, as the team has young centers Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly playing prominent roles. Last week, though, Sherman and first-year coach Joe Sacco determined that it was better to avoid messing with the chemistry the Avs have developed in their surprisingly strong start and has decided to keep both players.

Duchene has 6 points in 12 games while centering the team's second line. He's playing more than 17 minutes per game, including 3:50 per game on the power play, third among the team's forwards.

O'Reilly, however, is a major surprise to still be around. The third pick of the second round, he's the first player taken outside the first round to play in the NHL in his draft year since 2003, when Patrice Bergeron (second round, Boston), Dan Fritsche (second round, Columbus), Lasse Kukkonen (fifth round, Chicago) and Esa Pirnes (sixth round, Los Angeles) played in the 2003-04 season.

"I'm not going to say we had Ryan penned in to make our opening-night roster," Sherman said. "It's a nice surprise he fit the criteria in that manner."

O'Reilly is fourth on the team with 10 points, and second with 8 assists. His plus-10 rating in 12 games is second in the League and tops among all rookies. He's averaging 15:32 per game, but has been over 17 minutes in three straight, and he's also on the club's top penalty-killing unit.

What O'Reilly did was make the Avalanche's decision an easy one.

Evander Kane has done the same thing for the Atlanta Thrashers. The fourth pick of the draft is third on the team with 3 goals, and he's played just under 14 minutes per game in eight games. The Thrashers technically don't have to make a decision until their 10th game, which is Oct. 31, but the team announced Wednesday that Kane would be staying beyond the 10-game mark.

Kane mostly has played on the third line and hasn't seen much power play time, but that could change during Ilya Kovalchuk's injury absence.

"Evander has stepped in as an 18-year old and made a significant contribution to our club," said Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell. "He's earned the opportunity to stay in Atlanta for the foreseeable future and we look forward to his continued maturation as he grows along with the young core of players on our team."

Kulikov also made it easy for Sexton. One scout told prior to the draft that he believed the Russian-born defenseman was the most NHL-ready prospect in the draft. Sexton apparently agrees, and told reporters that Kulikov would be remaining with the club.

"He's played very well thus far," Sexton said. "He's struggled in one or two games, but for the most part he's played pretty well."

Kulikov has played with Bryan McCabe on the club's second defense pairing and also plays on the second power-play unit. He has 3 assists and a minus-7 rating while averaging 17:26 per game in nine games -- he'll play his 10th game tonight against Ottawa.

"He's had some slips, but you would expect that from an 18-year-old rookie," Sexton said. "We have seen good progress. We like a lot of the things he does."

While playing that 10th game is important, there's no magic in that number. Teams still can send players back to their junior clubs beyond that point -- Philadelphia did it last season with Luca Sbisa after 39 games -- but it's rare due to the contractual situation, as well as the fact that the player could not be recalled until his junior club's season was over.

Contact Adam Kimelman at
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