- Craig Custance
We'll be the first to admit that, occasionally, we're guilty of overthinking things in this space. When the initial surprise of the Tampa Bay Lightning's decision to send Jonathan Drouin back to his junior team wore off, the prudence of the decision started to sink in. In this case, the overthinking came when I started to analyze the financial benefits of delaying the start of Drouin's entry-level deal.
It occurred to me that the Lightning have one of the brightest young minds in hockey in assistant general manager Julien BriseBois, whose background in law and arbitration cases helped prepare him for a future as a hockey executive, where managing the salary cap is one of his duties in Tampa Bay.
I remember thinking, "This is a guy who gets it. This is a guy who can appreciate the financial benefit of delaying the start of the entry-level deal, working in a bridge contract and then ultimately reaping the rewards of having a young player contributing on a winning team at a cheaper price for longer."
Just to make sure my jump to conclusions mat wasn't defective, I had a conversation with BriseBois last week.
So how big an impact did the benefit of delaying the entry-level deal have on the Drouin decision? "Zero percent," BriseBois answered.
What? But all my theories ...
"In our case here, we just looked at who were the 23 best players to keep on our roster to help us win now and have a good start to our year. Those are the players we kept. We felt keeping someone that wasn't one of those 23, it wouldn't be fair to the other players and our coaching staff," BriseBois said. "We made the decision on what's best for the Lightning now."
Tampa Bay essentially had six players competing for three spots. The three players who could best help the Lightning win on opening night would get those three spots. Drouin just wasn't one of those guys. The decision was made. Are there added financial benefits? Maybe. But that wasn't a factor.
"If he makes the team next year and plays at 19, 20 and 21 years old, he should be a better player at 21 than 18," BriseBois said. "But we literally, never even discussed it. If he makes us a better team now, then we're better off having him on the team now."
It sends a clear message to the team that Tampa isn't in rebuilding mode at all. Management wants to win now, and Jon Cooper's Lightning have responded with a 5-3 start, sitting three points outside the Atlantic division-leading Red Wings.
Similar evaluations are happening with junior-eligible players on other playoff contenders. Players near the nine-game mark will force a decision as to whether or not teams want to trigger a year on their entry-level deal.
The most fascinating decision comes in Calgary. Sean Monahan, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft, scored again last night. The surprising Flames won again, and currently sit at 4-2-2 during a season in which they were supposed to plummet to the bottom of the standings. That's a message their coach, Bob Hartley, clearly didn't get.
With his goal over the Kings, Monahan now has nine points in eight games, scoring six goals. He's drawing notice around the league, where comparisons to established players are being made. He's been compared to Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar. Last night, Kings coach Darryl Sutter added to the list.
"He's a real good player," Sutter said. "He reminds me a lot of my brother Brent at that age."
In his first full season with the Islanders, 19-year-old Brent Sutter had 43 points in 43 games, scoring 21 goals.
One Western Conference talent evaluator likened Monahan's game to a Hall of Famer.
"He's going to be a really, really good player," he said. "He's Ron Francis."
As strong as Calgary's start has been, it's still a reach to expect this team to make the playoffs this season. They play in a Pacific division that includes San Jose, arguably the league's best team, the red-hot Ducks, mature Coyotes, Kings, Canucks and an Oilers team that will eventually go on a run.
Monahan has already shown he can compete at this level, that he can play with men and that another season in junior won't do him much good. One NHL scout said the debate is already over in his mind. Monahan isn't going anywhere.
"He's kind of forced their hand a little bit," the scout said on Monday. "I think they keep him."
The best, and perhaps only, argument remaining to send him back to Ottawa is simply financial. Under the guidance of Jay Feaster and Brian Burke, this Calgary team will be much better in three seasons than it is now. There's certainly a real benefit to having a potential future star such as Monahan on his entry-level deal when the Flames are ready to seriously contend. It would allow a team that is historically willing to spend to the salary cap the opportunity to invest in veterans, rather than pay Monahan on a second contract that could potentially be worth dramatically more than his current deal if the Flames follow the Oilers' model.
But if that's the only remaining argument to send him to junior, Monahan's staying. According to Feaster, Calgary's decision will be based on development, not future cap savings.
"We will make a 'hockey' decision on whether to keep him, and not one driven by the issue of whether his contract slides. We believe there are enough tools available to us in the new CBA that we are not concerned about 'burning' a year," Feaster wrote in an email Monday. "We will decide based on what we believe to be the best development path for Sean, and what we believe to be in his and our best interests."
The carrot to save a year on the entry-level isn't a big enough motivation to overrule a decision based on player development. On the flip side, there's a theory that there's a benefit to fast-forwarding the entry-level deal of Russian players, so you can get to that second contract to better compete with the KHL.
In Dallas, the Stars are "99 percent" committed to keeping Valeri Nichushkin in the NHL beyond nine games. Getting to the second contract won't factor into that decision, either.
"We just think it's better for him to stay here," Stars general manager Jim Nill said Monday. The benefits of the entry-level slide isn't just a major consideration right now among teams.
"I don't think it's a big factor. If they're ready, they're ready," Nill said. "We're all looking for players."
ESPN Insider Craig Custance explores why teams are making the decision to keep junior-eligible players in the NHL in 2013-14, and explores what will happen to players like Sean Monahan, Olli Maatta and Valeri Nichushkin.