Which rookies will stay and which will return to junior?

Morgan Rielly (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
Morgan Rielly (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

There have been some exemplary performances by rookies early on in the 2013-14 campaign, from San Jose sniper Tomas Hertl (currently third in NHL scoring) to bluebloods Nathan MacKinnon of Colorado and Seth Jones of Nashville. Sean Monahan has been a revelation in Calgary. Those four are playing the whole season in the pros, of that there is little doubt. But there are other teens in the NHL right now who may get sent back down to major junior before or at the nine-game mark of their season.

That’s the maximum amount of games a rookie can play before a year of their entry-level contract is activated and it’s an important benchmark. Here are some of the more interesting cases as teams edge toward that nine-game line.

Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh: The Finnish blueliner has great size and though his initial appeal in junior came from his defensive attention, he broke out for big points in the playoffs for the Ontario League’s London Knights in 2012. Those Knights host the Memorial Cup this year, meaning Maatta could compete for the national trophy for a third consecutive season. That’s a great atmosphere to develop in.

Up with the Penguins, he’s getting decent minutes (average TOI of 14:31) playing a bottom-pairing role. His partners are constantly changing, with Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen and Robert Bortuzzo all taking turns the past three games. The fact Maatta has been the constant is a big checkmark for him, though if the Penguins want him to rule at the world juniors, where he would be Finland’s top defenseman, it wouldn’t be a bad call and they wouldn’t have to send him back to London to do so: Devante Smith-Pelly (Anaheim) and Brett Connolly (Tampa Bay) were both loaned to Team Canada for the 2012 WJC, but not returned to junior.

Matt Dumba, Minnesota: Another blueliner who would really help his national team at the world juniors, the Canadian Dumba has been a healthy scratch for the Wild, playing in four of Minnesota’s seven games. This makes me think the team really doesn’t know what they want to do with him yet, stretching out the process so that he has time to watch games from the press box and learn from D-men such as Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Dumba’s coach back in the Western League is Brent Sutter, whom I’m sure would love to have his star blueliner with him when he steps behind Canada’s bench at the world juniors. Dumba’s home club, the Red Deer Rebels, are also off to a decent start, so he wouldn’t be languishing if sent back.

Tom Wilson, Washington: This is a tricky one. Wilson is playing less than seven minutes a game for the Capitals, though it is increasing slightly. His linemates are bottom-sixers Jay Beagle and (the husk of) Martin Erat, so he’s not playing an offensive role, though he has more to his game. Wilson is a big boy who can punish players physically and the beating he laid on Calgary’s Lance Bouma after a hit that injured Jack Hillen was a stand-up move for a rookie. If he heads back to OHL Plymouth, he’ll be on a pretty good team and can go for gold with Canada at the world juniors. This may come down to what role the Caps envision for Wilson: power forward in the making, or bruiser with talent.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto: This one feels closer to a finished deal. Rielly is playing the minutes Toronto coach Randy Carlyle wanted him to play if he was going to earn a permanent role and the Leafs are winning with him in the lineup. Rielly has excellent offensive skills and is learning on the job with Cody Franson on the second pairing. His WHL Moose Jaw Warriors don’t have a high ceiling this year and though he could be traded to a contender, the world juniors are the only immediate benefit to sending him back.