When the Calgary Flames chose Sean Monahan with the sixth-overall pick in the 2013 NHL entry draft, they had a hard time containing their excitement.
This was, after all, an organization that hadn’t drafted high in a while and when they did, drafted badly.
In Monahan, they saw a chance to end a losing skid. He was viewed as a Ron Francis-type, a player with size and hockey sense they hoped would one day evolve into the No. 1 centre Calgary has lacked since Joe Nieuwendyk left the organization in the mid-1990s.
On the other hand, the Flames were also acutely aware they were in the early stages of a rebuild and thus, were determined to do the right thing by Monahan. If, at 18, he appeared unready for the rigours of a full NHL season, they would return him to the OHL and allow his game time to develop with the Ottawa 67’s.
But a funny thing happened on Monahan’s trip back to the nation’s capital: It never happened.
Monahan showed well at the team’s rookie camp, and then continued his strong play in the exhibition season. The regular season would provide the final litmus test, but even when the pace of play picked up – and Monahan started facing real NHL opposition – his game didn’t fall off in any meaningful way. After nine games, Monahan led the Flames in goals (six), and on many occasions, had been one of their best forwards.
Game in and game out, he looked as though he belongs.
Accordingly, the decision the Flames made Wednesday – to keep Monahan around indefinitely – was tantamount to no decision at all.
In the salary-cap era, where the league is trending to far younger players all the time, it is a decision lots of NHL teams face now that the season is well under way. Teams from Toronto (with Morgan Rielly) to Pittsburgh (with Olli Matta) face the same essential decision: Keep a promising rookie around or return him to junior?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
For example, the Tampa Bay Lightning sent the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, Jonathan Drouin, back to junior after training camp. Drouin, a smallish but highly skilled forward, was deemed not physically mature enough to play in the NHL right away.
Often, the decision to keep – or return – a junior is shaded in grey, because it has to do with many factors, all of which involve maturity, on and off the ice.
Not every player adjusts immediately to the whirl of life. They no longer live with a billet family; and they are no longer subject to long bus rides and $60-per-week stipends. It is life in a spotlight and, for some players, it can be overwhelming.
On the ice, the challenges can be equally daunting. There are no nights off in the NHL, and every mistake is subject to far greater scrutiny.
So when teams make the evaluation, they weigh all these factors, and then consider the financial implications as well.
If a player plays 10 NHL games, a year is burned off his entry-level contract. Under the CBA, there is another window to return a player to junior before he plays 40 games, at which point a team could postpone a players’ eligibility for arbitration and free agency by a year.
Most teams, such as Calgary, will worry less about the financial implications of the decision on the grounds that if the player becomes a star, they’re prepared to pay him that way, even if they have to do it one year earlier.
Monahan was one of the oldest players eligible for the 2013 draft, because his birthday falls after Sept. 1 (he turned 19 earlier this month). He is also physically filled out a little more than say, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was when the Edmonton Oilers made the decision to keep him around two years ago, after he went first overall in the 2011 entry draft.
Some teams also keep players around just so they can practice with NHL pros, but tightly control the minutes they play in games. Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche (No. 1 in 2013) fits that category. Currently, Monahan is playing close to 16 minutes a game. It might drop off once injured centre Matt Stajan returns, but it isn’t going to fall off a cliff, either.
No, the Flames kept Monahan around for all the right reasons – not because they’re trying to force an unprepared kid into the lineup, but because he earned his place there.
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