Keeping rookies a tough decision
These are nervous days for teenage players around the NHL.
The clock is ticking, their bags are packed.
Will they stay or will they go? And, perhaps more to the point for NHL teams, what happens to these elite prospects when a team elects to keep them rather than send them back to the cloistered lives of major junior hockey?
It's not just assessing what a player can do on the ice.
"You really have to know what they're like as people," Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini told ESPN.com this week.
Tambellini and the Oilers are poster boys for the "staying or going" debate. A year ago, the team opted to keep three high-end rookies in their everyday lineup: 2010 No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi.
This season, the Oilers have another decision to make in the next couple of days -- whether to keep Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in this past June's draft. He leads the team and all NHL rookies as of Wednesday with five goals and eight points in his first eight games.
Hall and Eberle lived together last season, while Paajarvi, who had been playing elite hockey in Sweden and living on his own since he was 16, took his own place in Edmonton.
Tambellini won't tip his hand as to which way the Oilers will go with Nugent-Hopkins, but it's clear the other three youngsters' transitions to NHL life were aided immeasurably by a team staffer who helped them with the basic tenets of living as an adult -- where to live, where to buy the correct food to feed a pro athlete's body, how to set up bill payments, getting essential services for their apartments and so on.
"Things you take for granted, some of these young men have never been exposed to before," Tambellini said. "Professionally, they're so far ahead of their ages."
Making sure the player is in the right environment off the ice if the team makes a decision to keep him for the balance of the season can have a major impact on his development. Were they based just on the player's performance on the ice, these decisions would be more clear-cut.
Nugent-Hopkins, for instance, has been one of the team's best forwards. "He's played well. He's a confident young man," Tambellini said.
But there are also financial considerations for teams. If a first-year player competes in 10 or more games, regardless of how many more games he plays the rest of the season, it counts as Year 1 of his three-year entry-level contract and brings restricted free agency one step closer. If the player plays 40 or more games this season, it counts as one season toward unrestricted free agency.
Teams will always weigh whether someone will play enough to help his development at the NHL level, but there is also the flip side -- whether a player's development will be stunted by returning to junior because his skill set is too high, the game becomes too easy and bad habits develop.
Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren said he doesn't get too caught up in the nine-game benchmark. He kept former first-round draft pick Luca Sbisa (now with Anaheim) for 39 games in his rookie season before sending him back to the Western Hockey League. Sbisa lived with a local high school principal whom the Flyers have used over the years to billet young players (Justin Williams also stayed with her).
This season, Holmgren must decide on Sean Couturier, who is one of the youngest players in the league (he turns 19 in December), but has already made a positive impression with his hockey smarts. The eighth overall pick this past June is currently staying with veteran Daniel Briere, so Holmgren said he doesn't have any concerns about whether Couturier is receiving the right messages on preparation, etc.
Like many teams, the Flyers employ a nutritionist for the entire team, but this can be especially important for young players who are embarking on their first culinary experiences. Holmgren noted the entire sport has evolved so much, these young players are already well schooled in many areas related to being a good pro athlete by the time they reach the NHL.
Still, he said, "there's a lot of things they don't know."
And it's up to the teams to help them learn those things.
Last season, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford opted to keep the league's youngest player, Jeff Skinner, with the club. There was no quibbling with that decision, as Skinner went on to become the youngest winner of the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Just 19, Skinner remains one of the youngest players in the game. He admitted he was nervous at first to even talk to his teammates in the locker room, let alone do his own laundry and cook for himself.
Skinner said the transition from junior hockey, where he saw his parents all the time, to NHL hockey was helped by living with backup netminder Justin Peters.
"It was definitely a big part of my adjustment," Skinner told ESPN.com. "Last year was sort of my first year away from home, far away from home."
Rutherford said he always sits down with the player, the player's parents and his agent to figure out the best plan for making sure the transition goes as smoothly as possible.
One of Skinner's good friends from junior hockey, Gabriel Landeskog, is going through the rookie experience with the Colorado Avalanche. While other top picks like Mika Zibanejad of Ottawa and Mark Scheifele of Winnipeg were recently dispatched to Sweden and major junior, Landeskog will be staying with the Avs.
The second overall pick this past June, the talented Swedish winger has already drawn comparisons to Avs great Peter Forsberg and will be living with a billet family, a situation that will be reminiscent of his time with the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers.
"You have to put them in an environment where they can focus on hockey," Avs GM Greg Sherman said in an interview this week. "We know the family and we're comfortable with the situation."
The Avs, like many teams, are experienced in dealing with teenage players. Matt Duchene (the third overall pick in 2009) lived with veteran defenseman Adam Foote and Ryan O'Reilly (33rd overall pick in 2009) lived with veteran forward Darcy Tucker.
Sherman is quick to point out that these players could do their own laundry, make their own meals and hook up cable. But what the Avs and most teams try to do is minimize the external pressures that are inherent with transitioning from boyhood to manhood. After all, there's going to be enough pressure given the expectations put on these teenage stars by the thousands of fans who buy tickets and the media who cover these teams.
So, as more younger players end up on NHL rosters, one of the big challenges for teams is to be mindful of looking beyond on-ice performance as a barometer of how they are adjusting.
The Hurricanes and other NHL teams are taking pains to ensure young players aren't being taken advantage of off the ice, as well, counting on staff and team leaders to be cognizant of off-ice issues that may crop up for young men with big contracts living away from home for the first time. It's not just a new group of friends a young player may have, but who those friends are.
"That, to me, is a very hard thing to sort out at any point in your life, but especially at this point of their life," Rutherford said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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