From now until NHL teams finalize their rosters next week for the start of the new season, you will hear one question about all others: When is a precocious youngster, the developing apple of the organization's eye, actually ready for prime-time duty?
In Edmonton, where they're wondering if Leon Draisaitl ready to crack the Oilers lineup after being the third overall choice in the June entry draft, they are leaning toward yes. If Draisaitl can step in and anchor the second line, then the Oilers' need for a No. 2 centre, after trading Sam Gagner, goes away.
In Calgary, where they're asking the same question about Sam Bennett, the fourth overall choice, they're tilting in the direction of no. Going into camp, Flames general manager Brad Treliving said repeatedly he would be shocked if Bennett made the team, largely because he was almost a full year younger than last year's No. 1 draft choice, Sean Monahan, who did crack the team's roster a year ago and produced 22 goals as an NHL rookie.
Monahan was deemed ready, more or less, although after a summer of intense physical preparation, it is clear he is far readier to play today than he was a year ago – becoming bigger, stronger and fitter.
Altogether, seven of the top 10 players selected in the 2013 entry draft cracked NHL lineups last fall, from Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado all the way down to No. 10 Valeri Nichushkin, who spent a big part of the season playing on the Dallas Stars' top line with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.
But perhaps the most instructive case was the player who didn't make it to the NHL – MacKinnon's junior teammate, Jonathan Drouin, who went third overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but was sent back to junior after the exhibition season and eventually tore up the QMJHL once he got over the disappointment of his demotion.
A lot of teams pay lip service to doing the right thing by a player, and then get seduced by talent and potential and the fact that the NHL is increasingly a young man's league anyway, so why not just toss them into the deep end and see if they sink or swim?
It was difficult for Drouin to watch, not just as MacKinnon, Monahan and Nichuschkin played so well, but also to see Aleksandr Barkov make Florida, Seth Jones make Nashville, Elias Lindholm make Carolina and even see Rasmus Ristolainen get into 34 games for the Buffalo Sabres. But Tampa felt that Drouin, at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, just didn't have the physical maturity to play right away.
They didn't even fall back on that middle option – of keeping a player up to nine games in the NHL, or most of the first month, before a year clicked off his entry-level contract. Ultimately, the Lightning drafted Drouin as a possible replacement for Martin St. Louis and the St. Louis era came to an end far sooner than they imagined.
So this year, there was an opening and Drouin may eventually grab it, after he recovers from a fractured thumb, unluckily suffered during camp.
But there is no real one-size-fits-all response to the question of when is a player ready – and no one understands the dilemma better than Edmonton, which was facing the same question about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back in 2011. Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick in that year's draft, was thought to be heading back to junior because he was rail-thin and hadn't grown into his adult body.
But he played so well in camp that they kept him around and by Christmas, he was in the top 30 of NHL scorers. Then he got hurt – and for of the past couple of seasons, has had to deal with the lingering effects of shoulder problems that stemmed from those injuries.
Was Nugent-Hopkins really ready for the NHL? You can argue it both ways. Yes, because of his playing ability. No because his physical development hadn't caught up to those otherworldly playmaking skills.
Draisaitl is far more physically mature – more like Taylor Hall than Nugent-Hopkins – and thus could do for Edmonton what Monahan did for Calgary last year.
Bennett? After missing the early part of camp recovering from a groin injury in the rookie tournament, Bennett has been excellent for the Flames in two exhibition games, making what seemed like an obvious call a little more difficult. Equally obvious is a player's long-term interests should be the overriding factor in any decision, not the expediency of the moment.
Ready or not, opening night is now less than a week away. Whatever direction they go could have an impact on the long-term future – of the player and the organization. It's a decision they need to get right.