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Decision time looms for 2011 picks playing in NHL

by Adam Kimelman
Philadelphia Flyers rookie center Sean Couturier said he isn't crossing days off his calendar, but for him and four other players taken in the 2011 Entry Draft still playing in the NHL, they're entering the most crucial week of their young NHL careers.

All five players -- Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog, New Jersey's Adam Larsson, Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad and Couturier -- are scheduled to play their ninth games this week, meaning their new bosses are approaching deadline time.

Teams can return their teenage prospects to their junior teams at any time, but doing so before they play in their 10th game delays the start of their entry-level contract. The last player to skate in more than nine games and still be returned to his junior club was defenseman Luca Sbisa, the 19th pick of the 2008 draft, who played 39 games with the Flyers before being sent back to the WHL. If a player skates in more than 40 games, he accrues one season toward free agency.

The first player to hit the nine-game threshold was Zibanejad, the sixth pick of the draft, who played his ninth game Tuesday against Carolina. That was as many as he'll get, however, as the team decided Wednesday to return him to his team in Sweden, Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League.

In nine games, Zibanejad had just 1 assist and a minus-3 rating while averaging 12:54 of ice time per game.

"We think, for the long-term development of him, to give him the opportunity to become what we believe he has a chance to become, and that is a quality NHL player, that this is the right step for him at this moment," Senators General Manager Bryan Murray told reporters Wednesday.

Murray said coach Paul MacLean fought to keep Zibanejad, who had settled into a third-line role, but Murray said the decision came down to his desire to see Zibanejad get top-line minutes, something he didn't believe was going to happen in Ottawa.

"I think the reason we're probably sending him back is that we want him to have the puck, we want him to have a chance to score points, to be a legitimate top-six NHL player," he said. "I think at 18 years of age, he was playing the last little bit to survive and not make mistakes, rather than be a creative kind of kid that we think he'll turn out to be."

The most interesting game this week could come Friday, as the top two picks in the draft each are scheduled to play their 10th game -- against each other -- when the Oilers visit the Avalanche.

Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick, entered the week leading all rookies with 5 goals and 7 points in seven games. He had a hat trick in just his third game, and will play his ninth game Thursday against Washington.


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While Nugent-Hopkins said no one has told him if he's staying, at least one of his teammates is making his opinion known.

"He's a point-a-game player," linemate Taylor Hall told the Associated Press. "He's got 5 goals. It's pretty hard to say that's not NHL-caliber. He was brought in to produce offense, and he's done that in spades. That's what he wanted to do. I've said all along that if he came in and did what he did best, and he's even done more than that, he'd be a capable NHL player this year."

While Nugent-Hopkins isn't a certainty to play in that game, Landeskog is.

"He's going to be with us," Avalanche GM Greg Sherman told "He's going to stay."

With the way Landeskog has started, there's no reason for him to go back to junior. Through eight games, the big left wing is second on the team with 4 goals, and leads all rookie forwards in ice time at 16:45 per game -- one second more than Nugent-Hopkins. He had his first two-goal game Saturday against Chicago; his second goal, with 1:48 left in regulation, led to a shootout the Avalanche won.

"(Landeskog) continues to impress for an 18-year-old," coach Joe Sacco told the Denver Post following Saturday's game. "He continues to develop in the right way. He just works hard, and that line (Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly and Daniel Winnik) has been very good. They really make some big plays when you need it and defensively they're doing a heck of a job. Most of the time I'm matching them up against the other team's top line. That's not an easy task."

Sherman said having O'Reilly and Matt Duchene, who played in the NHL all season as 18-year-olds, as key members of the team, helped him reach his decision.
"His play dictated (him staying)," Sherman said. "You have to weigh a lot of variables with an 18-year-old player, and I drew on the past with Matt and Ryan handling the rigors of an NHL season (as 18-year-olds) … we think that with Gabriel so far, things are all very positive. It's a good situation."

Landeskog will play game No. 9 Wednesday in Calgary, the same night Couturier will play his ninth game. The eighth pick in the draft, Couturier has 2 goals and 2 assists in eight games, but more impressively he leads the team with a plus-4 rating and is second among the team's forwards in shorthanded ice time per game, at 4:02.

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told that he hasn't told Couturier that he's staying, but it sounds like the decision has been made. He won't have long to finalize things, either, as game No. 10 is Thursday against Winnipeg.

"He's still playing a role on the hockey team," Holmgren said. "He's getting adequate minutes in my opinion. He's getting to practice at a pace he wouldn't get if he got sent back to junior. I think … the longer he stays, the better it is for him and for us.

"If he clearly looked like he wasn't ready and couldn't handle either the physical nature of the game up here, the speed of the game, or whatever, then we'd have to sit down and make a decision. Right now it looks like he's handing a lot of the aspects of the game and doing OK."

Couturier, who recently moved into the home of teammate Danny Briere -- not a sign about the youngster's future, according to Holmgren -- said he's not waiting by the phone for a call about whether he's staying or going.

"They'll tell me when they tell me," he told "It's really just one day at a time. I'm just enjoying myself."

Briere knows he doesn't get a vote in the process, but like Hall in Edmonton, he's seen enough to know his teenage teammate is NHL-ready right now.

"The way he's played, he doesn't deserve to be sent down," Briere told "I don't know all the (salary) cap and all those little things, but he certainly played well enough to deserve to stay here for the full year. You look at his defensive play, you look at him on the penalty-kill unit … those are all positive things. I don't know how much it would help him to go back down. That's the part that is a little scary, because he's definitely NHL-ready."

Larsson, the lone defenseman in the group, won't play his ninth game until Saturday, with game No. 10 not coming until Nov. 2, giving New Jersey extra time to decide on his future. Not that they should need much convincing of Larsson's value. He's scoreless through six games, but is second on the team and tops among all rookies in ice time at 23:51 per game.

"No doubt from what he has shown so far," Henrik Tallinder, Larsson's defense partner through most of the preseason, told the (Newark) Star-Ledger. "You can tell he's the real deal. At 18 it's unbelievable how calm and poised he is. It's remarkable. I think his skill level is one part of it and it's his personality, too. He's a calm guy. He never gets stressed on the ice."

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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