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NHL lockout complicating life for junior teams

Connor McDavid knew it was coming.

The Erie Otters forward was well aware that he had a target on his back, just like every other rookie coming into the Ontario Hockey League, though his bull's eye might have been a little larger than most. McDavid wasn't just the first overall pick in last spring's OHL draft. He came in as an under-aged 15-year-old, just the third player to be granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada. (Defenseman Aaron Ekblad in 2011 and center John Tavares in 2005 are the others.)

So it came as no surprise that on his very first shift, while carrying the puck into the offensive zone, he was flat-out dummied by Niagara Ice Dogs defenseman Dougie Hamilton.

That "Welcome to the OHL" moment is a rite of passage for every rookie, exceptional or otherwise. Someone was going to deliver it.

But it shouldn't have been Hamilton.

Under normal circumstances, the rangy defender would have spent the evening of Sept. 20 resting up for a grueling day at the Boston Bruins' training camp, not suiting up for a season opener with his junior side.

But with camps delayed by the lockout and their pro hockey futures in limbo, Hamilton and dozens of other NHL potentials are being indefinitely held back in junior.

The ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft -- yet another gift received from the Maple Leafs in exchange for Phil Kessel -- Hamilton might be the best defensive prospect in the world. He's big, smart and smooth, and after being named the OHL's top blueliner last season, he was at a point where there was little to be gained from using up the rest of his junior eligibility.

The consensus had it that he'd make the jump and skate with the Stanley Cup-contending Bruins this year.

But instead of setting out to prove himself in exhibition matches against grown men, he's blowing up 15-year-olds and trying to prevent his game from stagnating.

And his team is left to wonder how long they'll have him and what they'll do to replace him when...if...the NHL gets its act together.

It's not an unusual story this fall. NHL camps coincide with the beginning of the season across the Canadian Hockey League. Junior rosters are in flux as pro hopefuls jet off for their chance to make an impression on potential employers.

Usually, they come back. Sometimes they don't. But junior teams are used to having an idea which way things are headed.

Now? With the NHL and NHLPA having gone nearly two weeks without talks, there's no way of knowing how things are going to play out. It's this uncertainty that has teams and players doing their best not to spin their tires.

Take Hamilton and his Niagara side. Coming off a season in which its veteran-heavy team fell to London in the OHL final, the Ice Dogs were looking to rebuild. Among others, the team had lost goaltender Mark Visentin (Phoenix), defender Jamie Oleksiak (Dallas) and forward Freddie Hamilton (San Jose) to graduation.

But the anticipated roster holes didn't end there. Although he remained eligible, it was expected that Ryan Strome, the first pick by the New York Islanders (sixth overall in 2011) would follow Hamilton to the NHL. Brett Ritchie, a 2011 second-rounder, was anticipated to get a long look from a Dallas squad in desperate need of an offensive jolt, and maybe even stick with the Stars.

While the Ice Dogs roster is particularly volatile, they're hardly the only team dealing with the uncertainty.

As reported first on Tuesday night by TSN, each NHL team was allowed last month to submit a list of up to three junior-eligible players who would be subject to recall for training camp purposes -- and perhaps more -- if and when the 2012-13 NHL season gets underway. Any players whose names were not submitted would be restricted to standard emergency recall rules.

Hamilton, Strome and Ritchie were on the list. So were OHL stars Stefan Noesen and Cody Ceci (Ottawa), Radek Faksa (Dallas), Ryan Murphy (Carolina), Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg), John Gibson (Anaheim) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh).

It's the same across the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where top prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida) and Ryan Murray (Columbus) try to stay sharp while waiting for the CBA resolution that will give them a chance to prove themselves.

Then there's Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick from last summer who returned home to Russia to play in the KHL but could be back in the OHL soon if the IIHF, as expected, demands that he return to Sarnia. Yakupov has been suspended by the KHL until the issue of his not having a transfer card is resolved.

Yakupov's attempt to go home is telling. It's not that junior is bad -- hey, at least they're skating regularly, right? And players who were left behind during the last lockout, guys like Corey Perry, Jeff Carter and Mike Green, didn't seem to suffer from staying in place. But there's still a sense of missed opportunity, of been-there, done-that ennui.

Where do you go when you've already seen all the sights?

Until they hear otherwise, it's back to the buses, with one eye on SportsCentre for CBA developments and the other on the calendar counting down the days until national teams assemble in advance of the 2014 World Junior tournament in Malmo, Sweden.

It's no easier on the junior organizations.

In the short term, the presence of these players is a boon to the league. Guys like Hamilton, Galchenyuk and Gibson don't just help you win. They put butts in seats , no small consideration for a gate-driven concern.

But for most teams, the business-end of junior hockey requires three-step- ahead-type thinking. They're used to bobbing and weaving, but the NHL lockout is a wrench even the savviest of thinkers can't completely dodge.

Having these players on hand means an additional asset, or least the illusion of one.

Trading a game-changing player like Hamilton or Strome to a contender would generate a return of picks and prospects that could expedite Niagara's rebuilding process. It could also alter the balance of power in a league where competition is intense and windows of contention open only briefly.

But the water is muddied by uncertainty over availability. After all, what's the going rate for a player who could guide a new team to a championship...or could be lost to the NHL at a moment's notice? You don't want to be the GM who gives up a player like Hamilton for a handful of beans, only to have him stay all season and help another team knock you off. Nor do you want to be the guy who mortgages the future, only to have the NHL snatch up your prize acquisition after a week or two.

Lost in these larger concerns is another missed opportunity -- for young players who are ticketed for reassignment to a lower league, but who were looking forward to getting their feet wet at the higher level while the big boys were at NHL camp. This was to be their chance to make an impression that might earn them an injury- or late-season call-up to the O, or at least give them the experience that could mean a leg up on next season.

Of course, collateral damage is inevitable in any battle. Connor McDavid can tell you a bit about that.

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