If Sean Monahan suits up for the Calgary Flames tonight in Los Angeles and Tuesday night in Phoenix, he will have played nine games this season and the Flames will face a crucial, possibly franchise-altering decision whether to keep him in Calgary this season or send him back to junior hockey.
But Aleksander Barkov in Florida could go down to the American League if the Panthers think that’s what would be best for his development. Stefan Matteau and Patrick Sieloff, meanwhile, are two 19-year-olds who are currently playing in the AHL and not junior hockey.
So what’s the difference between players such as Monahan and guys like Barkov, Matteau and Sieloff? Well, it all has to do with the agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League, an agreement that is on the verge of being renewed for another seven seasons. And for any of you who are expecting the rules for underage juniors to change, you’re going to be disappointed because all signs point to things remaining status quo, where basically the CHL dictates to the NHL and the tail wags the dog.
“(Changes have) been discussed from time to time,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to thn.com, “but I don’t think it’s something that most GMs feel is ‘broken’ or a problem that needs to be ‘fixed.’”
Tell that to Monahan or Olli Maatta or Morgan Rielly or Mathew Dumba, who face the prospect of being sent back to junior hockey, where they get the privilege of riding buses and making $50 a week for their efforts. Of course, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have a long and illustrious history of throwing teenagers under the bus. Let’s start with the rookie salary cap, something negotiated by the NHLPA on behalf of people who aren’t even their members.
Then there’s this. Of course it’s a very cozy and beneficial relationship for both parties. By keeping young, talented players out of the American League, the NHL not only has a partner willing to develop its players for free, but it also avoids having to burn years off a player’s entry-level contract for the purposes of free agency. And junior hockey operators maintain their death grip on the best teenaged players, whom they use to fill their buildings and those of their fellow owners.
In an equitable world, the NHL would tell the CHL that once a player is signed to a professional contract, the new employer, not the old one, makes the decision concerning that player’s development path. That’s what people such as Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford wants to do when it comes to first-round picks who have played three years of junior hockey.
After all, what would be best at this point for Monahan’s development? 1. Staying in Calgary to avoid going back to junior hockey and playing for a losing team? 2. Going back to the Ottawa 67s where he’ll dominate and possibly pick up some bad habits? 3. Going to the AHL and learning how to be a pro playing against men? It’s probably No. 3, but that option is not open to him.
Guys who are drafted out of Europe, though, once the team signs them to a contract, it has full control over where that player plays. And players such as Matteau and Sieloff, who were drafted out of the U.S. National Team Development Program, then played major junior hockey, well it’s just fine for them to play in the AHL without having to be returned to junior.
How does that make any sense? It doesn’t, unless you think protecting the CHL at all costs is the best way to develop players.
My guess is the Flames will keep Monahan up for longer than nine games, which means they will burn a year off his entry-level contract. However, they have until 40 games into the season to decide what to do with him for purposes of using up a year when it comes to free agency. And that just might be more important to them anyway. But here’s the hitch, the 40-game stipulation is for games on the team’s roster, not just games played. That means if Monahan plays 15 games then gets his Achilles tendon severed or gets drilled into the boards and has a season-ending concussion, all the games he spends on the injured list will stand as accrued games, meaning the Flames will have blown both a year on his contract and a year toward free agency.
There has been a lot of debate over whether players such as Monahan, Maatta, Dumba and Rielly should be sent back to junior hockey this season. And the only response your trusty correspondent has to that is there has never been a player in the history of hockey whose career was ruined by being brought along too slowly, but hockey’s scrap heap is littered with players who were put into situations they weren’t capable of handling.
Only time will tell what effect the handling of those players will have on their careers long-term. It’s always best to go slowly rather than quickly, but the problem is the scenario that would be best for these players isn’t where they’ll end up this season.