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Decision day closes in for 10 on entry-level contracts

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

Decision day is coming for some of the top rookies in the NHL.

Ten players remain on NHL rosters who are approaching the 10-game threshold that could determine if their entry-level contracts start or slide to next season.

Players can be sent to junior hockey, or in some situations the American Hockey League, prior to playing a 10th game and delay the start of their contract. Players still can be sent down after playing their 10th game but it would waste the first season of their three-year contract. And in the case of players sent to junior hockey, they can't be recalled until their team's season ends.

It was an easy decision for the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres when it came to centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the first two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, respectively.

McDavid, who will play his 10th game Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild, is tied for the rookie lead in goals (five) and points (nine).

Eichel, who will play his ninth game Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, is tied for the Sabres lead with three goals and is fourth among their forwards with 19:31 of ice time per game. His 10th game will be Thursday at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Forward Sam Reinhart, Eichel's teammate, went through this process last season. The second pick of the 2014 draft had one point in nine games and was returned to his junior team, Kootenay of the Western Hockey League.

This season he says he's more confident, and the result has been increased production; he has one goal and three assists in eight games while moving between center and left wing, and he's played more than 15 minutes in three of the past four games.

"I'm feeling like I belong here, like I'm getting better every day and I can help the team," he said.

Because Reinhart will turn 20 before Dec. 31 he can go to the AHL prior to the game Thursday but it's likely he stays with the Sabres.

Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin, the 15th pick of the 2014 draft, looks like he'll be staying in the NHL. The first teenager to make the Red Wings' opening-night lineup since Mike Sillinger in 1990-91, his seven points are second on the Red Wings to captain Henrik Zetterberg.

"For us it's, does he help us win games, and so far I think you've seen he's helped us win games," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said.

Larkin was supposed to face Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Noah Hanifin on Tuesday in the ninth game for both, but Hanifin will be a healthy scratch for the first time.

However, Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said Hanifin will remain in the NHL.

"He's going to play a lot of high-level hockey," Peters said. "… We have a mandated off day [Wednesday], so it [the scratch] will be a break for him. Just look at the game from a different angle."

Hanifin, the fifth pick of the 2015 draft, has two assists in eight games and is averaging 16:57 of ice time, sixth among Hurricanes defensemen.

Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers will play his ninth game Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings. The ninth pick of the 2014 draft, Ehlers has three goals and six points in eight games and has found a consistent spot at right wing on the second line with center Mark Scheifele and left wing Mathieu Perreault.

Ehlers had back-to-back 100-points seasons with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; another season of junior wouldn't help his development. So expect Ehlers to be in the lineup for his 10th game, Thursday at MTS Centre against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Vancouver Canucks soon will have to make decisions on forwards Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, each of whom is approaching his 10th game.

McCann, the 24th pick of the 2014 draft, has two goals in six games, mostly as the fourth-line center.

Virtanen, the sixth pick of the 2014 draft, has gone without a point in five games. He has nine shots on goal and is tied for the Canucks lead with 15 hits while averaging 9:04 of ice time per game.

If they remain in the lineup McCann's 10th game would be Nov. 2 against the Philadelphia Flyers and Virtanen's would be Nov. 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. However Canucks coach Willie Desjardins said last week he'd like to see them in more high-pressure scenarios before any decisions are made.

"We just haven't put them in that situation for things to happen," he said. "And I think for us to evaluate them fairly I think we have to give them an opportunity in some of those situations and we've got to see how they do."

McCann would have to go back to Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, Virtanen to Calgary of the WHL.

The Penguins have made their decision on forward Daniel Sprong, a 2015 second-round pick (No. 46). He has one goal in six games and general manager Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Tuesday that Sprong will stay past his 10th game, Nov. 4 at the Canucks, rather than go to Charlottetown of the QMJHL.

"We're really not looking at any deadlines," Rutherford said. "We're just looking at what's best for the team and what's best for him. He's played well. … It's continuing to develop, and I believe he can help our team."

The St. Louis Blues will have to decide on whether to keep forward Robby Fabbri or return him to Guelph of the OHL, but there's no rush. Fabbri sustained a concussion in his second game and will return to the lineup Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

For those players that make it past the 10-game mark, a second deadline for player and team looms. If a player on an entry-level contract remains with the club for 40 games this season, the player moves one year closer to free agency. If he is sent down between the 10th and 40th game, the free agency clock does not start.

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