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NHL or juniors? Tough decisions ahead

Choices at hand whether to keep rookies after nine-game trial, which would trigger first year of entry-level contracts, or return them to juniors

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

The beginning of a new NHL season also marked the start for several teenage players hoping to make a big first impression.

Center Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and left wing Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, the top two picks of the 2016 NHL Draft, were among them. Matthews scored four goals in his NHL debut on Oct. 12 and Laine scored his first hat trick seven days later.

But there are several other young players trying to make those roster decisions difficult for their general managers and coaches. Many of the top prospects in the NHL are setting the standard for how the game should be played.

"If you compare the speed that we saw 15 or 20 years ago, and even back into my first year (calling NHL games), which was 1980, it was so much different then," said Emmy Award-winning NHL play-by-play announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick. "After [former Philadelphia Flyers forward] Bill Barber retired, he and I were watching old tape of games he played in the 1970s, shot from the same camera angles at the time we were watching it. He said, 'In my day, the guy that could skate stood out. Now it's the guy who can't.'"

The NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for nine games at the start of the regular season when a player on his entry-level contract can be evaluated. A prospect who plays for any team in the Canadian Hockey League (which includes the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League) can be returned to his junior team at any point before the player dresses for his 10th game without his contract kicking in (thus beginning his NHL service and getting him to free agency quicker). The player is not eligible to play in the American Hockey League because of an agreement between the NHL and CHL that prohibits 18- and 19-year-old prospects from playing in the AHL.

College players and those drafted from European leagues who have signed entry-level contracts are eligible to play in the AHL.

In addition to Matthews and Laine, there were four other players selected in the 2016 draft that made their team's opening-night roster: Edmonton Oilers right wing Jesse Puljujarvi; Calgary Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk; Montreal Canadiens defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun.

There are high picks from the 2015 draft also looking to secure an NHL role this season following the nine-game trial.

Here's a look at 12 rookies expected to reach the end of their nine-game trial period in the next week or two, and their chances of sticking all season.

Video: TBL@TOR: Matthews fires a wrister past Bishop

Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Age: 19

Drafted: 2016 (No. 1)
2016-17: 7 games, 6-4-10; 16:43 avg. ice time

Projected outcome: Remains with the Maple Leafs all season
Summary: There's no doubt about this decision. Matthews (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) became the first player in the modern era to score four goals in his first NHL game in a 5-4 overtime loss against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on Oct. 12. He has played on a line with left wing Zach Hyman and right wing William Nylander, and is considered a frontrunner to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

"I've known Auston for a while in terms of his body of work and watching him play and develop over time, and I don't think he'll be eaten up at all by the theater that is Toronto," NBC Sports hockey analyst Pierre McGuire said. "I think one of the big things is the fact that [coach] Mike Babcock, general manager] Lou Lamoriello, and [team president] Brendan Shanahan are there. That's going to help a lot in terms of insulating him."

Patrik Laine, LW, Winnipeg Jets
Age: 18

Drafted: 2016 (No. 2)
2016-17: 7 games, 6-2-8; 19:12 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Jets all season

Summary: Like Matthews, Laine (6-5, 206) definitely is here to stay. Despite a heavy workload in 2015-16, playing in 109 games with Tappara in Liiga, Finland's top league and for his country in various tournaments, including the World Cup of Hockey 2016, Laine has shown flashes of becoming a special NHL player. He has been rotated throughout the Jets lineup but seems to have found some chemistry with center Mark Scheifele. At 18 years, 183 days, Laine became the youngest player in franchise history to have a hat trick when he scored three goals against Toronto on Oct. 19.

There's no question he possesses an NHL-ready shot, something he is putting to good use in the early stages of the season. Laine leads all rookie forwards in total ice time (134:24), and leads all rookies with four power-play goals.

Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Edmonton Oilers
Age: 18

Drafted: 2016 (No. 4)
2016-17: 5 games, 1-1-2; 11:33 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Oilers all season
The Oilers have a difficult decision here. Puljujarvi (6-4, 203) is the second-youngest player in the NHL behind Sergachev, and the jury is still out on whether he'll be able to withstand the rigors of an 82-game NHL schedule. However, Edmonton coach Todd McLellan has stressed the importance of keeping Puljujarvi around to get him acclimated to the NHL environment.

Puljujarvi seems to be gaining more confidence each game, and was considered one of the finest 200-foot players available in the 2016 draft. The Oilers control 53.25 percent (SAT%) of all shots attempted when Puljujarvi is on the ice. His best game to date came in a 4-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday, when picked up his first NHL assist and exhibited a strong backcheck to knock the puck off the stick of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. Puljujarvi also has seen time on the power play.

Video: BUF@CGY: Tkachuk ties game with first NHL goal

Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames
Age: 18

Drafted: 2016 (No. 6)
2016-17: 6 games, 1-1-2; 12:11 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Flames all season
Spending a majority of his time alongside second-year center Sam Bennett and veteran right wing Troy Brouwer, Tkachuk (6-2, 202) has 12 shots, five hits and three steals. He has proven he can play at the highest level, and has seen time on the power play. The concernis whether he will be able to sustain his in-your-face style on a consistent basis, because that's when he's most effective.

The Flames love what Tkachuk brings to the lineup. He's tough, provides energy and likes to throw the body. He did a lot to help London of the Ontario Hockey League win the Memorial Cup last season with teammates Mitchell Marner (Maple Leafs) and Christian Dvorak (Coyotes). Some believe spending one more season to mature and establish himself as a premier player in the OHL might be better for Tkachuk's development; however, the Flames do not have another good, young player within their organization with his determination and skill set who can fill in a top-nine role.

Mikhail Sergachev, D, Montreal Canadiens
Age: 18

Drafted: 2016 (No. 9)
2016-17: 3 games, 0-0-0; 10:25 avg. ice time
Projected outcome:
Will be returned to Windsor of the OHL
Sergachev played three of the Canadiens' first four games but was a healthy scratch the past five. He was returned to Windsor on Monday.

At 6-3, 215 pounds Sergachev has NHL-ready size but he was the youngest player in the League and last season was his first in North America. Perhaps one more season in the OHL will help establish even more confidence as he improves and gains strength.

Jakob Chychrun, D, Arizona Coyotes
Age: 18

Drafted: 2016 (No. 16)
2016-17: 6 games, 1-2-3; 15:44 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Coyotes all season
Chychrun (6-3, 200) provides quality depth on the back end after spending two season in Sarnia (OHL). There's no reason to believe he couldn't serve as the third left-handed defenseman in Arizona behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski. Chychrun played plenty of minutes in the preseason when Michael Stone and Kevin Connauton were recovering from injuries, and has become a big part of the penalty-killing unit. Chychrun has proven he has the pedigree (his father is former NHL defenseman Jeff Chychrun) and hockey smarts to play a consistent game when given the chance.

"The skillset is what it is, and just physically he's a man-child," Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. "We knew all of that. He's been an important piece to our team so far. He continues to get better every single game and that's what he's being evaluated on."

Chychrun said, "I knew I could do this; it was just a matter of me showing up and proving it. I feel I definitely have done a good job to this point, but in this League it's a matter of doing it every single day, and that's my focus."

Video: NYR@NJD: Zacha extends Devils' lead to two goals

Pavel Zacha, C, New Jersey Devils
Age: 19

Drafted: 2015 (No. 6)
2016-17: 6 games, 0-3-3; 14:20 avg. ice time
Projected outcome:
Remains with the Devils all season
Zacha (6-3, 210) has found good chemistry playing between left wing Taylor Hall and right wing Kyle Palmieri, and has earned the trust of the coaching staff. He has won 44.8 percent of his faceoffs, but is 55 percent on offensive-zone draws. Zacha has eight hits, six blocked shots and has taken seven shots.

Sebastian Aho, LW, Carolina Hurricanes
Age: 19

Drafted: 2015 (No. 35)
2016-17: 6 games, 0-5-5; 14:36 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Hurricanes all season
: The Hurricanes can return the skilled playmaker to Karpat of Liiga or assign him to Charlotte (AHL), but all indications are Aho (5-11, 172) will stay with the Hurricanes. He has spent time with top-line center Jordan Staal and Sweden center Elias Lindholm, and has been able to create offense and scoring chances in every game. 

Travis Konecny, C, Philadelphia Flyers
Age: 19

Drafted: 2015 (No. 24)
2016-17: 8 games, 1-6-7; 15:26 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Flyers all season
Philadelphia general manager Ron Hextall already has made public his desire to keep Konecny (5-10, 175) and defenseman Ivan Provorov on the roster all season, so we'll take him at his word. Provorov was expected to earn a spot. Konecny was a bit of a question mark at the start of training camp but led the Flyers with six points in the preseason and has shown grittiness and a relentless motor at the start of the regular season. This will be the first time the Flyers have had two 19-year-old rookies in the lineup since 2000-01 (Justin Williams, Maxime Ouellet).

"I've been told it's not a nine-game tryout, but I'm still treating it that way," Konecny told the Flyers website. "I have to work hard every single day and make sure I'm doing things properly. I'm not going to sit back and relax and think the spot's mine."

Video: SJS@NYI: Beauvillier battles for first NHL goal

Anthony Beauvillier, C, New York Islanders
Age: 19

Drafted: 2015 (No. 28)
2016-17: 7 games, 1-4-5; 10:39 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Islanders all season
Beauvillier can play center and left wing, and that versatility alone is a ringing endorsement, because the Islanders are solid down the middle. Coach Jack Capuano likes his tenacity, determination, speed, compete along the wall and his ability to finish hits. Beauvillier (5-11, 170) has 12 hits and the Islanders control 52.03 percent (SAT%) of all shots attempted when he's on the ice.

Dylan Strome, C, Arizona Coyotes
Age: 19

Drafted: 2015 (No. 3)
2016-17: 3 games, 0-1-1; 12:45 avg. ice time
Projected outcome: Remains with the Coyotes all season
Chayka told returning Strome (6-3, 185) to Erie of the Ontario Hockey League for a fourth season and having him finish with 100-plus points for a third straight year is not what management has in mind at this stage in his development. In fact, Chayka believes Strome adds value to the Coyotes even though he has played three of Arizona's seven gams games this season. Strome has averaged 120 points the past two seasons with the Otters.

"I think there is a bit of misconception about Dylan in the sense of we're not happy with his progress or we don't like what we've seen so far," Chayka said. "I'm extremely positive with the strides he's taking. They're not all on the ice right now in games, but off the ice and in practice he's gone from being a guy who, quite frankly, made it with skill his whole life and talent alone. Now all of a sudden he's becoming one of the hardest-working players. That's just a necessary component of being an NHL player. I'm extremely excited about what he's got and what he's going to bring to the table."

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders
Age: 19

Drafted: 2015 (No. 16)
2016-17: 2 games, 0-0-0; 9:45 avg. ice time
Projected outcome:
Will be returned to Seattle of the WHL
The right-handed shot has shown promise but hasn't made the kind of impact Beauvillier has when given the opportunity. Perhaps a fourth and final season in Seattle, where he'll receive plenty of ice time in many situations, will bode well for Barzal (6-0, 182). Shuffling him in and out of the lineup in a bottom-six role with limited ice time in the NHL may hinder his development.

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