By this time next week, the Edmonton Oilers could face a question that seemed to have been answered months ago.
What to do with Taylor Hall?
With a pair of Memorial Cup MVP trophies, a World Junior silver medal and a share of an OHL scoring championship on his mantle, it was widely presumed that Hall would need the services of a good realtor in Edmonton. With nothing left to prove in junior hockey, a return to Windsor would offer little in the way of development.
But the first five games of his NHL career reminded us of a significant fact: Junior hockey credentials won't even get you in the door at this level. Hall, still just 18 years old, has an awful lot to learn about the pro game. And with the Oilers next Friday hitting the nine-game barrier that triggers his contract, the team has to decide whether that process is best addressed in the NHL or with the OHL's Spitfires.
Prior to the draft, a scout told me that Hall would need to ditch the moves that worked in junior hockey if he wanted to succeed in the big leagues. Apparently, Hall missed that column. NHL defenders have been stifling his speed on the outside and preventing him from driving to the net in a way that junior blueliners rarely could. As a result, he's been something less than dynamic offensively, registering just one assist and surprisingly few high-quality scoring opportunities.
Not that anyone should be down on Hall for his slow start. It took Steven Stamkos eight games to register his first assist back in 2008-09, and he's turned into a somewhat useful player for the Lightning. Hall, who's played fairly well without the puck, has shown flashes of what's expected of him when the biscuit is on his blade. Thursday night's game against the Wild, for instance, offered a good indication of what lies ahead.
After sleepwalking through the first period, Hall was Edmonton's most dangerous player in the second period. Moments after jumping out of the penalty box (where he'd served a bench minor), he used his fearless speed to drive to the net and create a scoring chance. The dazzling move keyed a brief spurt of dominance for the Oilers and seemed to give Hall more confidence with the puck for the rest of the game. Nothing to show for it on the board, but enough magic to allow anyone to project what he could be down the road.
And that's really the sticking point as the Oilers contemplate Hall's fate: how far down the road will it be before he weaves that magic on a consistent basis? If not now, then cap implications come into play.
If Hall stays, the Oilers burn a year of cheap, entry-level labor. Will that year of service be more valuable to the team during a season in which it's all but certain to end up among the cellar dwellers, or three years from now when a maturing squad might be ready to make some noise in the Western Conference? Is the year worth "writing off" based on the value of a learning experience that junior hockey can no longer provide for him?
Odds are the talent-thin Oilers, who have made no indication of their intentions, will lean toward the latter. But Hall can't afford to take anything for granted over the next week. A bit more finish would be nice, but consistency and signs of progress would be even better.
What about the other key junior eligibles?
A player in his position who is held scoreless through his first six NHL games might seem to make the decision easy. But look at some of his other numbers, including the very telling ice time count. Burmistrov, the eighth overall pick last June, is getting 14:33 per game, sixth-most among Atlanta's forwards and, it's worth noting, a total that's higher than the amount earned by Nik Antropov, Anthony Stewart and several other Thrashers. His 2:01 of shorthanded time ranks third among the team's forwards and his plus-2 rating is tied for third on the squad.
More to the point, Burmistrov's learning curve is trending upward. His mistakes are fewer and the confidence of the coaching staff is growing. He's found chemistry (and protection) with linemates Ben Eager and Chris Thorburn, and last Saturday the unit saw some action against San Jose's Joe Thornton. Considering the Thrashers were willing to keep Evander Kane last fall after a similar performance, odds are Burmistrov be staying.
Forget about years down the line. Fowler already is making teams question why they passed on him at last summer's draft. The absence of a physical game, often cited as the reason why he slid all the way to Anaheim at 12, hasn't been an issue through his first six contests. Instead, his poise, skating and playmaking have coach Randy Carlyle raving. "He does so many things at a high level," Anaheim's coach said. "He makes you forget he's just 18."
A broken nose suffered last weekend cost Fowler games on Wednesday and Thursday, and prevented the Ducks from having to make a decision after tomorrow night's contest in Detroit. Instead, he'll return to action in front of his hometown crowd and pick up where he left off, averaging 20 minutes of ice and keying Anaheim's top-10 power play. At this point, it's hard to imagine him being returned to Windsor.
After starting off strong, Schenn's grip on his fourth-line job has loosened. Hs ice-time was sliced in half from his first game to his fourth, and he watched Wednesday's match from the press box -- an opportunity, coach Terry Murray said, to refocus on some of the little things that he was getting away from in his game. The lesson appeared to take as Schenn played more than 15 minutes, and made a clever feed to set up Wayne Simmonds and earn his first NHL point, in his return to action on Thursday night. But with Scott Parse about to come off IR, and several other young forwards clamoring for ice time, Schenn needs a couple more nights like that to seal his spot in the lineup.
He's sleeping like a baby. The Canes hadn't yet left Finland before GM Jim Rutherford broke the hearts of Kitchener Rangers fans. "Unless there's something that we're missing, that we haven't seen, it would safe to say that," Rutherford told the Charlotte Observer about Skinner staying in Raleigh. "We made our decision when we signed him. We felt strong about him right from the start."
The play of the seventh overall pick hasn't tailed off since he earned that endorsement, and it's not just his four points in six games that sealed the deal. Skinner has been reliable defensively, strong on the puck and willing to work in the high-traffic areas. For a team that is lacking in reliable goal scoring, Skinner is too talented to send packing.
Becoming the youngest player in franchise history to score a goal makes El Nino a name to remember for trivia time, but that alone won't keep him drawing an NHL paycheck. History, however, might.
Some teams would consider returning Niederreiter for the valuable experience he'd gain playing a key role for a Memorial Cup contender in Portland. Of course, the same argument was made a couple years ago for the return of first-rounder Josh Bailey to Windsor. Bailey missed the parade, but the process of learning on the Island seems to have expedited his development. And by way of comparison, Bailey was far less prepared, both physically and mentally, than Niederreiter has proven to be. Of course, a weaker squad needed more help back then than it does now (remember, we're talking about the first place Islanders here), and the imminent return of some banged up soldiers might diminish his playing time. Still, it says here Niederreiter's physical game and consistent approach keeps him in New York.
If Marc Savard's return was something more than a rumor, the B's might have a decision to make. After all, they're a far deeper team than most trying to work a second overall pick into their lineup, and Seguin isn't particularly well-suited for a depth role. But Savard's situation can't be overlooked and right now Seguin is a legitimate top-nine forward. Perhaps more to the point, he has game-breaking skill and is a dynamo on the shootout. For a team that went to OT and/or the shootout 27 times last season -- tops in the league -- having a player like Seguin in the lineup could pay off when the dust settles in early April