To rush or not rush prospects?

Where should MacKinnon, Drouin, Jones start their professional careers?

Updated: July 18, 2013, 12:31 PM ET
By Neil Greenberg | ESPN Insider

Nathan MacKinnonBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesNathan MacKinnon was selected No. 1 overall by the Colorado Avalanche last month.

The Colorado Avalanche selected 17-year-old Nathan MacKinnon first overall in the 2013 entry draft, making him the first player from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since Sidney Crosby to be the top pick.

"[MacKinnon] was always rated right up there," said Joe Sakic, Colorado's executive vice president of hockey operations. "We did our homework. We had our internal meetings, and that's the guy we all felt is a can't-miss kid, a guy that's a perfect fit for our organization."

Nine defensemen were taken in the first round, led by 18-year-old Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks as the fourth overall pick. Nashville Predators general manager David Poile was optimistic after signing the young blueliner to his entry-level deal. "[Seth] has excelled at the junior and international levels, and we anticipate him enjoying great success at the NHL level," he said.

No pressure, kids.

When the NHL emerged from the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season, new rules were put in place that allowed younger players to make big contributions to their teams, irrespective of their physical development. Speed and creativity were more in demand than power and experience, and the new collective bargaining agreement encouraged teams to get more out of their young stars than in years past, especially if they were up against the salary cap. With the salary cap declining in 2013-14, teams will face even more pressure to get the highest return on their investments. Add to that one of the most talented draft classes in recent memory and the temptation to push a player through the NHL system becomes even more alluring.

The NHL has an agreement with the Canadian Hockey League that if a junior-age player (16-20 years old) drafted out of the major junior ranks still has eligibility left and does not stick with the NHL club he has signed with, he will have to return to his junior team rather than going to the AHL or ECHL. However, if he dresses for a 10th NHL game, he is considered to have played his first season with respect to his contractual rights and moves one year closer to restricted free agency -- whether he is sent back to juniors or not.

This poses a complex dilemma for a team: rush a player with junior eligibility to the NHL for help now or let him develop further in the CHL and perhaps the American Hockey League to get the most bang for the buck during his entry-level contract years. In other words, what should teams do with highly touted picks like MacKinnon and Jones to get the best value from them?

Neil Greenberg is ESPN Insider's NHL analytics expert. His columns have appeared on the Washington Post website, and he is a regular guest on Sirius XM NHL Radio.