Why waste your rookies? (What We Learned)

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Why waste your rookies? (What We Learned)
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(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

The list of players who are NHL-ready at 18 or 19 years old is really not very long at all. More often than not, sure, someone who's the first overall pick or something is for-sure 100 percent able to play in the NHL and be competitive. Far less often, though, someone who's, say, a mid-first or even high-second round pick makes a club and is capable enough.

And yet every year it seems as though an NHL team is willing to give a kid they just drafted the chance to make the team, and they keep him up. And that, in 2014, doesn't make a lot of sense.

Here's the situation in which NHL teams should keep junior-eligible players up with the big club: If they are, somehow, a high-quality talent — i.e. cannot be replaced by a regular-old free agent signing — and, if you're being honest, your team is capable of legitimately competing for the Stanley Cup. At that point, by all means, keep them up.

Since 2005-06 (the salary cap era), there have been 15 players who were just 18 years old who ended up sticking with their NHL team's roster for more than the nine-game tryouts. A lot of those names are guys you'd expect to see on there: High draft picks with elite talent levels. Guys like Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon and Steven Stamkos and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. First overall picks, that sort of thing. But high-octane performances from these players are few and far between. Of that group, just five eclipsed 0.6 points per game, which may sound like decent performance — that's looks like a second-liner's production, after all — but it's also pretty easy to find on the open market. From 2005 to present, guys like Jason Blake, Brad Boyes, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Jussi Jokinen, and Miroslav Satan have put out about that many points per game, and these are guys who seem to bounce around the league a lot.

What's more, a lot of times these rookies that can produce that much — and remember, 13 of 18 didn't really carry much water here — are doing so because they're getting soft minutes. Their coaches make sure they start the majority of shifts in the offensive zone, and against easier competition, as a means of further boosting their scoring. More often than not that doesn't help. But what it tells you is that these are players not ready for the rigors of actually playing in the NHL. Which is fine, because most 18-year-olds aren't. Not everyone is a Crosby or even a Nugent-Hopkins.

And the fact of the matter is that even at 19 years old, most junior-level kids can't hack it at the NHL level. In addition to the 18 kids who made the big club at 18, another 79 did so a year later for their age-19 season when they still could have been assigned to juniors. The number of those guys to break even 0.5 points per game was just 20, and of that group, seven had played in the league the year before as well. So you have five 18-year-olds and 13 19-year-olds over the last nine seasons who were able to successfully convince their NHL teams they belonged and also scored at a decent enough level to justify doing so. That's 18 total players in nine seasons, but not including the youngsters playing this season, the league has given 94 of them a shot.

The reason this matters is pretty simple in today's NHL: It's asset management. If you can use a veteran player for relatively cheap instead of a highly rated rookie, you should do so at all costs because letting the rookie stay with the big club instead burns a year of his entry-level deal.

Here's an illustration of this problem: Last season, Sean Monahan played 75 games for the Flames at 19, going 22-12-34 in 75 games (0.45 per). The reason he stayed up was that in his nine-game audition with the club, he scored 5-3-8, while shooting 23.8 percent overall. At even strength, though, Monahan was a disaster: 47.4 CF% despite the easiest competition and second-easiest zone starts of any Flames forward.  While four of his five goals came at 5-on-5, his on-ice shooting percentage was 12.1, and the Flames still gave up six goals (compared to seven for) while he was on the ice in his average of 13:15 per night.

But while things didn't get harder for Monahan after he made the club — Bob Hartley continued to shelter the hell out of him, which was pretty much the only thing a coach could have responsibly done — but the scoring slowed down, as you might expect. He netted 17 over his final 64 games, which isn't a bad number of course, especially for a 19-year-old. But he continued to drown in possession, as did almost all Flames. He ended the year having still shot 15.7 percent.

This treatment, suffice it to say, is extremely common among teenagers in the NHL.

And hey, 22 goals from a 19-year-old is tied with Taylor Hall, Peter Mueller, and Gabriel Landeskog, which isn't bad company, for the 11th-best teen total since the Second Bettman Lockout (behind both Crosby and Stamkos's age-18 and -19 seasons, Skinner, Jonathan Toews, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Matt Duchene, and John Tavares). You take that. But the question for the Flames is why they kept him up at all. They were always going to finish near the bottom of the league with or without his 22 goals, and in fact his 22 goals might have actually hurt their chances to get a little better draft position this past June.

It further burned a year of Monahan's ELC, which means they're going to have to cut him a bigger check a year earlier than they should have. They could probably have gotten 22 goals out of any number of veteran centers or wings (Monahan played the wing all year but is a natural pivot) if they sheltered him as much as they did this rookie, and it wouldn't have cost them anything down the road. Part ways with the replacement guy after one year, who cares? Instead, Monahan — who in my book has improved significantly for this year — might be looking at $5 million in two summers if he continues on his upward trajectory toward his age-22 season and beyond. Maybe Calgary's in a position to compete by then, and they have to pay Monahan, or another rookie, more than they otherwise might have had to.

Another example, and one that's a bit more germane to the situation: The Sabres seriously punting the Mikhail Grigorenko situation two years in a row. Grigorenko somehow made the Sabres as a rookie in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. He played 25 games, scored just five points, and was so ineffective that the Sabres decided they'd rather send him back to Quebec. So he goes back to the Q and scored 30-24-54 in 33, but only after burning a year of his deal because he got into more than nine NHL games. This from a team that was about to be the dregs of the league, and had to know that would have been the case. Last year, he makes the Sabres again, but only plays 18 games before once again being sent back to Quebec, where he goes 15-24-39 in 23. To what end, really? This season, he's a permanent fixture in the AHL, where he seems to be doing very well over a small sample, with 4-3-7 in eight games.

He's now in the final year of his deal, and the Sabres should have no problem re-signing him in the summer, both because he's only an AHLer these days, and because they have mountains of cap space. But it's illustrative of just how bad this kind of treatment can get: young guys who are even on the border of being better off down in lower leagues, who aren't helping their team toward any goal besides the end of their 82-game schedule so they can golf all summer, should not be getting more than nine games in the NHL. It's foolish, it's a waste of a roster spot, and it costs you money down the road.

That's why Tim Murray did the right thing this week in sending down Sam Reinhart. This was a player who clearly wasn't ready (0-1-1 and just three shots on goal in nine games), but even if he went 9-9-18 in those nine, to what end? The Sabres would be among the worst teams in the league with or without Gretzky-level production from him, and his theoretical personal success would actually be counterproductive to their ability to compete for the real prize here (a certain C. McDavid). Let alone the fact that he'd cash in on an RFA deal three years down the line.

Speaking of McDavid, it's important to note that he'll be an NHL player in 11 months, and he'll have no business being sent back to junior. But if I'm Buffalo, and I'm expecting to be awful again, I might send him back anyway. Might as well milk an extra year out of that deal, because he's going to be expensive as hell after his ELC expires. That would just be good asset management.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Perfectly placed pass from Francois Beauchemin, perfectly placed shot from Corey Perry. I love goals like this.

Arizona Coyotes: Keith Yandle is putting up points for the Coyotes this year, but has anyone noticed that he's playing soft minutes to do it? No, huh?

Boston Bruins: I wonder how this Claude Julien extension is going to look in a few years. If the Bruins' window really is closing (it is), then people might, retroactively and unfairly, look back on it as being some sort of harbinger of doom.

Buffalo Sabres: Here's a wonderful exploration of just how bad the Sabres were on Saturday night. Only 69 more of these to go, gang!

Calgary Flames: The good news is that with all these Flames getting hurt, they had no choice but to recall Sven Baertschi. Dude's been a little hard done by and unlucky the last few years.

Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward's shutout on Saturday was his first since March 2012. Which seems impossible but man I guess Cam Ward really has been awful for years.

Chicago Blackhawks: Did you know Trevor van Riemsdyk is the brother of James van Riemsdyk? A weird but true fact! And they played each other this weekend! Wow!

Colorado Avalanche: Don't everyone all look at once but the Avs only have 11 points from 12 games this year and they're giving up almost three goals a night.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Every injury update out of Columbus these days is like, “We thought he was good to go, then he fell down the stairs on the way out the door and his car blew up on the way to the rink.” It's kind of amazing in that way.

Dallas Stars: Speaking of injuries, the Stars got some good news this weekend: Valeri Nichushkin should be back sooner than later.

Detroit Red Wings: And also Pavel Datsyuk might finally be close to 100 percent. He “only” has eight points in five games.

Edmonton Oilers: Remember when the Oilers sent down one of their best defensemen (Martin Marincin) because they wanted to keep Brad Hunt? Yeah, they waived Hunt yesterday.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers beat the Flyers on Saturday night behind Aaron Ekblad's first career goal. Here it is:

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings have lost three in a row. They currently have as many points as the Flames. This seems like a legitimate point of concern. Or at least, it would if they didn't still have one more point than the Blackhawks.

Minnesota Wild: Thomas Vanek scored the Wild's first power play goal of the season, then Nino Niederreiter did the same, bumping the team to 2 for 31. They were 6-3-0 without scoring on the power play. That's weird.

Montreal Canadiens: Brendan Gallagher thinks being a good and rich professional hockey player is nice. Bold take.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: Anton Volchenkov got four games for this hit on Friday, which concussed Michael Ferland. Weird play.

New Jersey Devils: Maybe it just so happens that Andy Greene is really good and it doesn't matter who he plays with.

New York Islanders: The Isles have dropped their last three games, but to be fair they've played Winnipeg and Colorado in that str... wait. That's bad.

New York Rangers: Ryan Malone is on waivers? Who saw this coming? I'm being told it's everyone. Everyone saw this coming.

Ottawa Senators: The Senators looked positively awful on Saturday night. Now, granted, they were playing the Bruins, who have shown a bit of a tendency to make teams look awful the last few years. But the Bruins were so banged-up they were close to dressing Cam Neely.

Philadelphia Flyers: Steve Mason is great again!!! (The Flyers still lost.)

Pittsburgh Penguins: Wow, Marc-Andre Fleury is on two straight clean sheets right now. Combined number of saves he had to make? Just 54. He could have slept through that Buffalo game and only given up one.

San Jose Sharks: You can tell by his reaction that this is Tomas Hertl's first goal in like two weeks.

St. Louis Blues: Vladimir Tarasenko is straight-up going off lately. Five goals in his last three games, including two on Saturday against Colorado. The Blues need the help, too.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Speaking of Russians going off lately: Nikita Kucherov has nine points in his last five.

Toronto Maple Leafs: A big 45-save effort for James Reimer, which included — and this is 100 percent true — 26 in the third period alone. The Leafs, for their part, had 27 in the whole game. But yeah, the Leafs are running a great system.

Vancouver Canucks: For lack of anyone better being available, the Canucks recalled Bo Horvat, who has zero points in five AHL games this year.

Washington Capitals: Braden Holtby thinks he hasn't been good enough lately. He's right.

Winnipeg Jets: Ondrej Pavelec 65-minute shutout alert.

Play of the Weekend

Shoutout to Matt Fraser for scoring twice in 1:28 to put the Bruins above .500 for once. That second one was a real nice shot, following a great area pass from Carl Soderberg:

Gold Star Award

Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Like a lot of xenophobes, Don Cherry doesn't like being called a xenophobe.

Minus of the Weekend

Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images
Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

Michael Del Zotto ran afoul of a well-known porn star over the weekend, and her job is only relevant because it leads one to wonder who has been paid more in their careers for not being dressed.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Canadian Jesus” has a bright idea.

To Toronto:
Eric Staal
Andrej Sekera

To Carolina:
Tyler Bozak
Jake Gardiner
Tyler Biggs
1st round pick 2015
3rd round pick 2016

Signoff

We used to make drawings. Cave drawings! Which is my way of saying we were cave men.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here