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Clock ticks for junior-aged prospects on NHL rosters

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

The clock could strike midnight for several top junior-aged prospects this week when general managers around the NHL are forced to make franchise-defining decisions on the immediate future of those young stars.

Will Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, chosen No. 1 in the 2014 NHL Draft, take the next step in his career? Can Jonathan Drouin, selected No. 3 by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2013 NHL Draft, stick with the team that returned him to the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at the end of training camp in the 2013-14 preseason?

Those questions will be answered as early as Wednesday.

JUNIOR-AGED PLAYERS


Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers

Drafted: No. 1 in 2014

2014-15 stats: 7 games, 0-2-2, minus-2, 21:54 avg. time on ice

Why he stays: Ekblad is fourth on the team in average ice time per game and gaining valuable experience alongside veteran Brian Campbell. He has done everything first-year coach Gerard Gallant has asked of him and seems adamant about learning from his mistakes.

Why he goes: It appears the Panthers are in rebuilding mode with a new coaching staff and new faces throughout the lineup. Returning Ekblad to the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League for a fourth season where he will be the center of attention and given an opportunity to star for Canada at the IIHF 2015 World Junior Championship could be best for his development.

Likely outcome: Ekblad has found instant chemistry with Campbell and has seemingly made the Panthers a better team on the back end -- he stays.

Sam Reinhart, F, Buffalo Sabres


Drafted: No. 2 in 2014

2014-15 stats: 8 games, 0-1-1, minus-1, 10:41 avg. time on ice

Why he stays: He certainly doesn't play like an 18-year-old and knows where to go on the ice to put himself in good position. He's capable of playing a two-way game and is getting an opportunity to grow and develop on a roster full of young players.

Why he goes: Reinhart has recently been playing in a bottom-six role for coach Ted Nolan and is finding it tough to get going offensively. The question is what the Sabres gain this season by keeping Reinhart on their roster. The team will struggle to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so returning him to the Kootenay Ice in the WHL will provide him with valuable ice time and a chance to get stronger.

Likely outcome: The 6-foot-1, 185-pound right-handed shot has been a healthy scratch twice this season and has worked with various line combinations in an effort to get him going. The Sabres should give him a year to build his strength and again lead his team in juniors.

Jonathan Drouin, F, Tampa Bay Lightning

Drafted: No. 3 in 2013

2014-15 stats: 5 games, 1-2-3, minus-1, 17:12 avg. time on ice

Why he stays: Drouin is getting every opportunity to prove himself since returning to ice after sustaining a thumb injury in training camp. He has been dangerous alongside Stamkos and Filppula and has also been credited with being extremely responsible defensively in his own end. Stamkos had high praise for the 19-year-old, saying he has poise and confidence not ordinarily seen in a player his age.

Why he goes: The only thing that could keep Drouin back is his durability. Can he withstand the rigors of an 82-game regular season playing a top-six role against the best players in the world?

Likely outcome: It's all systems go for the 5-11, 186-pound left-handed shooter to make a statement in his rookie season in the NHL. Drouin appears comfortable and confident under the tutelage of coach Jon Cooper; the fact Stamkos has enjoyed working with him on the top line is all that really matters.

Mirco Mueller, D, San Jose Sharks

Drafted: No. 18 in 2013

2014-15 stats: 8 games, 0-2-2, plus-2, 18:09 avg. time on ice

Why he stays: San Jose coach Todd McLellan has already hinted the organization will keep Mueller the entire season. He has done well alongside veteran Brent Burns and, while not flashy, is as consistent as they come along the blue line.

Why he goes: Mueller (6-3, 184), who has missed two games as a healthy scratch, has acknowledged he struggles with the speed and size of the players at times. Perhaps one more year with the Everett Silvertips in the WHL will help establish more confidence in that area.

Likely outcome: The coaching staff meets with Mueller quite often in the video room to review and improve his game and it's something he takes great pride in. He's shown confidence and a willingness to execute quickly. He appears ready for his rookie season in the NHL.

-- Mike G. Morreale

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 team believes the prospect in question may not get the required playing time against bigger, stronger and faster players, he can still be returned to his junior team without burning a year of his three-year entry-level contract. He wouldn't be eligible to play in the American Hockey League since there is an agreement in place between the NHL and Canadian Hockey League that prohibits 18- and 19-year-old prospects from playing in the AHL.

One other stipulation to consider: A player on an NHL roster for 40 accrued games, whether he was sent back to junior or not, becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency at age 26 instead of 27. That scenario could come back to haunt an organization down the road.

The Edmonton Oilers appear to be sold on power-forward Leon Draisaitl, chosen No. 3 in the 2014 NHL Draft. They're set to dress Draisaitl in his 10th game on Wednesday against the Nashville Predators at Rexall Place.

Does Draisaitl feel he's done enough to remain with the Oilers and not be returned to the Prince Albert Raiders in the Western Hockey League for a third season?

"I think so; it's always hard to answer that question since there are always things you can do better and things you have to get better at," said Draisaitl, who celebrated a birthday on Oct. 27. "I'm a 19-year-old guy. There are things you can get better at, but I think I was pretty solid for the most part in the games."

One thing is certain, no prospect wants to hear he is being returned after getting that initial taste of the good life.

"Of course I would be disappointed [if returned to Prince Albert]," Draisaitl said. "I said it right from the start, I want to play in the NHL, but if [I am returned] then that's the way it is. Obviously, I don't want to, I want to be here, but whatever happens, I can still get better. Whatever league I'm playing in, I'm going to do my best to get better."

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound left-handed shooter has one power-play goal and three points in nine games with the Oilers and has averaged 13:14 of ice time for coach Dallas Eakins. He has recently been centering the second line with David Perron and Teddy Purcell.

"I think it was a great time so far," Draisaitl said. "I've learned a lot, all the people that I've been with, they've been tremendously supportive and they've taught me a lot already."

Drouin, No. 1 on NHL.com's Top 60 rankings list, has a goal and three points in five games; his ninth game would tentatively be Nov. 8 on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Coach Jon Cooper has provided Drouin top-line minutes alongside center Valtteri Filppula and right wing Steven Stamkos, and Drouin has performed well on the power play.

Could the solid start in any way be the result of spending an extra year in juniors?

NHL Network analyst Craig Button, who 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, felt the decision to return Drouin to juniors last year was the right move.

"I believe that players can go too early [into the NHL], but can't go too late," Button said. "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 essentially only played a year-and-a-half of junior hockey [prior to 2013-14], so I think going back for another year wouldn't hurt his development.

"I think the Stamkos growing-pains experience contributed to [the Drouin decision]."

New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said if in doubt about keeping a player beyond the nine-game trial, he should be returned.

"I don't think you could ever put a barometer on whether a player's development is taking too long or not," Lamoriello said. "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.

"It's a decision you make and shouldn't feel bad about, because given the information at that time, that was the right decision made. You should never look back."

One player in his first season in the League but not restricted by the nine-game threshold is New York Rangers forward Anthony Duclair.

Duclair, chosen in the third round (No. 80) of the 2013 draft, did not sign his first contract until Jan. 6, 2014; six days after the deadline of Dec. 31, 2013. As a result, he has just two years remaining on his entry-level contract after this season, and is eligible for restricted free agency in 2017 no matter if the Rangers keep him on their roster or return him to the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL.

As such, the Rangers are already in the first year of Duclair's entry-level contract and could essentially return him to Quebec whenever they see fit. That could happen once forward Derek Stepan (fractured fibula) comes off long-term injured reserve on Nov. 3.

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