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Junior Achievers: NHL teams make tough call on keeping teen prospects or sending them down

Boston Bruins' David Krejci (46) is congratulated by Nathan Horton, Dennis Seidenberg (44), of Germany, and Dougie Hamilton (27) after Krejci scored the game winning goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. Boston won 5-3. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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Boston Bruins' David Krejci (46) is congratulated by Nathan Horton, Dennis Seidenberg (44), of Germany, and Dougie Hamilton (27) after Krejci scored the game winning goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. Boston won 5-3. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Stefan Matteau is still with the New Jersey Devils. He may even be with them the rest of the week.

But, then, you might not see him the rest of the season.

Matteau was one of dozens of NHL teenagers caught up in a quirky rule that allowed teams to play their junior-age players for five games before making a decision to return them to their junior club or keep them on the roster and have this season count as the first one of their three-year, entry-level deal.

Some players, like Philadelphia's Scott Laughton, were returned to their junior team after playing five games.

Others, like Matteau, still have undecided fates. Just because Matteau, New Jersey's No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, has yet been sent back, doesn't mean he will necessarily play for the Devils the rest of the way. New Jersey will play the Islanders on Thursday night and Matteau could be there—only watching from the press box in a suit and not in uniform.

"He has played extremely well in the time he has been given," Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "He's an 18-year-old and there are a lot of things to consider before we make a decision."

Lamoriello insisted Matteau's contract would not be an issue. Matteau can remain on the roster, he just can't play, or else the contract kicks in now that he's completed five games, the last of which was a 2-1 loss in Boston Tuesday. He played just 8:56 of gametime vs. the Bruins.

Here's why that's important: Should Matteau, or any player with a similar status, play a sixth game, the contract counts against the salary cap and he moves a year closer toward free agency. And while Matteau is a talented player, he's not quite a phenom yet, and could benefit from more seasoning in juniors.

Then again, the Devils thought enough of Matteau to put him on the top line with Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk against Montreal on Sunday night.

It's the kind of jam teams around the league were faced with this week as the five-game window expired.

Matteau played against Montreal rookie Alex Galchenyuk in Sunday's game. Galchenyuk, with five points in five games, was in the same spot as Matteau. The Canadiens decided this week to keep Galchenyuk, though, the third overall pick in the draft. Florida centre Jonathan Huberdeau also is staying with the big club.

The Flyers sent Laughton, their 18-year-old first-round pick, back to his Oshawa junior team in the Ontario Hockey League. Laughton likely won't play again for the Flyers this season, even if they make a playoff run, because there's no sense wasting a year of his contract. He was scoreless in five games with Flyers.

General manager Paul Holmgren called the decision difficult but in Laughton's best interest.

"He needs to play and he needs to play in all situations," Holmgren said. "He's going back to a good team and he will play a lot in all situations. He's a good young prospect and the little bit of time he had here with us was good for him and good for us."

Because of the lockout that wiped out the first three months of the season, rookies had only a few days of training camp to impress club officials, then prove they were worth keeping after only five games. There's enough pressure to make a team and play well for any rookie. This season, it soared.

Among the players who stayed in the NHL are Buffalo Sabres centre Mikhail Grigorenko, Boston Bruins defenceman Dougie Hamilton, and Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov.

Winnipeg has yet to make a decision on centre Mark Scheifele (he's played in three of six games) and Anaheim Ducks forward Rickard Rakell has only played in four of the team's five games.

The Minnesota Wild sent defenceman Mathew Dumba back to juniors. The Wild envision him becoming a top-shelf, puck-moving defenceman. His development will eventually be aided by the off-season acquisition of veteran defenceman Ryan Suter. But Dumba returned to the Western Hockey League without ever playing a game for the Wild, though he now knows what it's like to be at the highest tier of hockey.

"I think that's huge for me, getting to know the guys personally and just knowing what it takes to be at this level," he said. "The things that happen every day, just being in the locker room, just the little stuff, the workouts, just everything that goes along with being in the NHL, I've taken away from this."

Sabres general manager Darcy Regier told reporters his decision to keep Grigorenko on the roster would have changed had the season started in September.

"He goes to junior if the decision is made in September. His game has come a long way since then," he said. "When a player plays well in the world juniors, it benefits his confidence. We got three or four extra months of development with him that way."

The Sabres, off to a 2-3-1 start and itching to get back to the post-season after missing last year, need all the talent they can get in a tough Northeast Division in which they are the lone team below .500.

"Two things, really, that went into the decision," Regier said. "It's his development in conjunction to his ability to help us win hockey games."

If the players are ready, they're going to stick around, even if NHL teams will pay more in the end.

But, of course, it all be worth it, if one of those junior achievers can help 'em hoist the Stanley Cup this summer.

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