It’s one thing for a rookie to crack an opening night roster in the NHL. It’s something else to stick beyond his ninth game. In the next few days, nearly a dozen freshmen will learn if they’ve truly made the cut.
The issue at hand is the “slide rule.” According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players aged 18 or 19 as of September 15 before the start of a season are eligible to have their contracts deferred by one year if they have not played 10 NHL games in a previous or current season. Keeping a player around isn’t just a matter of development or his ability to help the team but of contract and cap management.
There are 10 rookies on NHL rosters who are affected by the rule. More than half of them could play that pivotal 10th game this week.
Connor McDavid will certainly skate for the Oilers in Game 10 tonight against the Wild. He’s in for the duration of the season. So is Jack Eichel, who will play his 10th game for the Sabres on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
Three other rookies will hit the 10-game mark on Thursday as well: Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers, Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart and Carolina’s Noah Hanifin.
Ehlers isn’t going anywhere. He’s not just scoring (three goals and six points in eight games), he’s generating chances at a rate that outstrips every other rookie in the league. His speed is a constant factor in the Jets’ attack and he’s proved that he can handle minutes against top competition. There’s no question he belongs.
Reinhart hasn’t been quite as effective offensively (one goal, four points), and there have been a couple of nights where he’s been largely invisible. But he’s also proved that he can handle minutes on the top line against tough competition and can keep his head when everyone around him is losing theirs. In a 7–2 loss to Montreal last Friday, Reinhart was a +14 in Corsi events (15/1)—shots on either goal including missed shots and blocks. That’s a tribute to both his hockey sense and his perseverance. With the option being a fifth year in junior, it’s all but certain that Reinhart stays.
Hanifin requires a more nuanced decision. He’s been good as advertised, skill-wise, but the skating that got him out of trouble in college doesn’t always get the job done in this league. He’s making the sort of mistakes you’d expect of a rookie, but on a Carolina defense that’s already shy of talent they tend to get magnified. He’s currently getting about 16 minutes and change of ice time per night, which is nowhere near what he could expect playing in the minors. Would he benefit more from a heavier workload or does skating against tougher competition enhance his development? Odds are the ’Canes will bet on the latter and keep him around, but his future is still up in the air.
Friday will mark the 10th game for Detroit’s Dylan Larkin, who was given an opportunity largely out of necessity with Pavel Datsyuk sidelined until mid-November. Larkin has made the most of it, showcasing his speed, creativity and versatility. It’s inconceivable that he won’t stick around.
There will be tougher calls to make next week.
Barring injury/healthy scratches, three rookies could play a pivotal game on Nov. 4 when the Canucks host the Penguins. Winger Daniel Sprong, a 2015 second rounder, seems to have the tools to make a difference for the offensively challenged Penguins. He’s shown that he can handle the physical game—a concern when he was drafted—and his elite hockey sense is apparent. There have been the occasional defensive issues, but those are correctable problems. The real issue here is that coach Mike Johnston doesn’t have enough faith to give him top-six minutes, and a bottom-six role doesn’t seem ideal for his high-end skill set. It’s possible the Pens are using those limited minutes as a gateway to a larger role later in the season, but there is also a chance that they don’t feel he’s ready for that responsibility just yet. Sprong is5050 to stay at this point.
The Canucks aren’t tipping their hand as to their plans for forwards Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, but neither should look into a long-term lease on an apartment. Virtanen had just 5:38 of ice time against Detroit on Saturday, which was down from the 7:45 and 9:10 in his two previous games against Washington and Edmonton, respectively. He hasn’t been bad, but there's a tentativeness to his game that suggests he’s more worried about making the wrong play than he is willing to take a chance to make the right one. If coach Willie Desjardins isn’t willing to give him the ice time to work through that, Virtanen is better served by being sent back to juniors.
The same is probably true of McCann, although he actually saw more ice in the Detroit game (11:48) than he had in his previous three outings. Like Virtanen, he’s struggling with his defensive play at times and has been prone to lapses in coverage that end up being prime scoring chances for the opposition. It’s nothing a little work and a little confidence couldn’t address, but that might be better accomplished at the junior level.
The decision’s been delayed on the final player: St. Louis forward Robby Fabbri, who was injured (concussion) in his second game of the season but will return for Tuesday’s game against the Lightning. He gives the Blues some speed and offensive punch, but will be under the gun to stick around if he’s limited to a bottom-six role.
The numbers game
• Captain Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks is now the first player in NHL history to score an overtime goal in consecutive 1–0 games, and the first player to pot two such goals in in the same season.
• Coyotes phenom Max Domi is in some pretty good company. On Monday night in Toronto he joined Dave Christian, Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne as the only rookies in Coyotes/original Jets history to score 10 or more points in his first nine games of a season.
• Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano played in his 630th straight game since his NHL debut with the Oilers on Oct. 4, 2007. He tied winger Andy Hebenton (Rangers, Bruins 1955-64) for the second-longest such streak to start a career but has a ways to go to catch Doug Jarvis, who holds the league’s all-time iron man record (964 straight from 1975 to ’88 with the Canadiens, Capitals and Whalers).
• It’s been 20 years to the day since Detroit’s Russian Five changed the game forever. Here’s a look back at their legacy.
• A Division I coach explains when and how a parent should deal with issues involving their child’s playing time. If your son or daughter participates in the game, this is a must-read.
• Jenny Scrivens is living the dream playing pro hockey in the new National Women’s Hockey League.