We're nearing the point in time when the Calgary Flames have to make a decision on Sean Monahan and choose whether or not to send him back to the Ottawa 67s or keep him up for a season at the NHL-level in a year in which they didn't expect to compete. Though Monahan was selected sixth overall, it seemed like a pretty easy decision back in September—get Monahan a few NHL games, and then send him back to junior hockey and let him dominate for the 67s and for Team Canada at the World U-20s in December.
That position has been somewhat complicated in the last week. Monahan and the Flames are exceeding every reasonable expectation in the early going of the NHL season. Meanwhile, the 67s have begun the season 5-8 and will be probably be one of those teams fighting for one of the lower playoff seeds. Of the two Eastern Conference divisions, the 67s are playing in the toughest one with Oshawa and Kingston, both off to terrific starts. No other Eastern term has yet to establish themselves and the return of Monahan would obviously help the 67s take control as the third or fourth seed in the conference.
The Flames, though? With a win over Los Angeles in the dying seconds Monday night, Calgary are 4-2-2 and are right in the mix in a very competitive Pacific Division. They are there somewhat because of their goaltending and somewhat because of the production of Monahan: With nine points in his first eight NHL games, he's just one back of Tomas Hertl for the rookie scoring lead, and Hertl had a four-goal game to his benefit.
Most rookies don't get the proverbial "9-game tryout" at the NHL-level before going back to junior. Despite the dozens of rookies selected in the first round from CHL clubs since the institution of the salary cap, only four have played nine games before being sent back to their CHL team:
Wojtek Wolski (Colorado to Brampton, 2006-07)
Luc Bourdon (Vancouver to Val-d'Or, 2006-07)
Nino Niederreiter (NY Islanders to Portland, 2010-11)
Brett Bulmer (Minnesota to Kelowna, 2011-12)
(The other names are players that are from Europe or the NCAA and were assigned to the AHL at the 9-game mark)
A fifth, Scott Laughton in 2013, played five games for Philadelphia before being sent down to Oshawa. In 2013, five games was the maximum a junior-aged player could play before a year was taken off of his entry-level contract.
In every other case, players fail to make it to nine games before they're sent down, or they're kept up and play the full season as an 18- or 19-year-old. Looking at the names above, it's clear that a nine-game NHL tryout before a demotion isn't a fast-track to NHL success. Bourdon aside (who was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in the spring of 2008) the remaining three players aren't exactly household names at the NHL-level. Niederreiter is the only regular NHLer and while he was a household name for Switzerland during the 2010 World U-20s, he's just scored three goals in his first 73 NHL games after dominating the junior ranks.
If a rookie has been kept up as long as Monahan, there's a pretty good chance he'll stick around the rest of the season. The problem is that there's been no reason to send him down yet. He's producing at a very high rate and has been one of the Flames better forwards in terms of puck-possession thus far. With Monahan on the ice, the Flames have taken 72 unblocked shots versus 69 by the opposition at 5-on-5. He's handled himself very well defensively.
The problem you run into is by keeping him up, are you keeping him up based on the expectations he's set for himself in his first eight NHL games? After Monday's game in Los Angeles (he scored his sixth goal of the year) his shooting percentage has rocketed up to 31.4%, a rate that is about three times above what you would normally expect. Pucks have found their way into the back of the net when Monahan has touched them, which is interesting because he's actually scoring at a 40% higher rate per game than he did in the OHL last season.
Expectations are running quite high. There's lots of reason to temper excitement, but on the other side, he's already been compared to the fourth highest scorer in NHL history and a Hall of Fame player, based on eight career games:
One Western Conference talent evaluator likened Monahan's game to a Hall of Famer.
"He's going to be a really, really good player," he said. "He's Ron Francis."
Monahan has already shown he can compete at this level, that he can play with men and that another season in junior won't do him much good. One NHL scout said the debate is already over in his mind. Monahan isn't going anywhere.
"He's kind of forced their hand a little bit," the scout said on Monday. "I think they keep him." [ESPN Insider]
I'd prefer to point to Monahan's high shooting percentage totals to explain his high points rate early on in his career. It's not only that his individual shooting percentage is sky-high, but his teammates are doing him a lot of favours as well. The Flames have scored on 14.58% of shots while he's been on the ice (players tend regress somewhere to between 6% and 10% over a full season) and Monahan has earned a point on every goal the Flames have scored at even strength while he's been on the ice.
Other people are looking at that as well, including Darren Hynes of the Canadian Press. Kent Wilson at Flames Nation pointed to the return of Mike Cammalleri last night, and the eventual return of Matt Stajan, cutting into Monahan's minutes. Should the Flames play Monahan for two more games, he'll be up for his first restricted free agent contract in the summer of 2016 (and become more expensive). Should he play at least 40 games this season, he'll be up for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2020, likely after the current management group has expired in Calgary.
But in the short-term, keeping him around is preferable. For the Flames, a team that needs visible faces and somebody to market as the future, the value of keeping Monahan through to Game 82 outweighs the value of having Monahan play at a cheaper price in the year 2020.
One other thing that I don't see being discussed is Monahan's age. With his October 12 birthday, he's effectively a 19-year-old player and has a year up on everybody in his draft class. If he were six months younger, it would be an easier argument in favour of sending him back to junior and letting him play out his 18-year-old season. Since 2006, just 10 players have spent their 18-year-old seasons in the NHL, but 57 players have spent their 19-year-old seasons there. That does somewhat tilt the scales in Monahan's favour.
There's a good argument that exists for sending Monahan back to Ottawa, but the benefits of that decision won't be seen until years down the line, when a lot of things could change. Given how rare it is for a player to be sent down after he's hit the 8-game mark, if you're a 67s fan I wouldn't count on the return of Monahan anytime soon. NHL teams don't often think with the future in mind, especially when the present team is exceeding expectations. Maybe around Game 40, if Monahan has really cooled off and the Flames are well-out of playoff contention, they'll send him down to avoid seeing his unrestricted free agent status begin a year earlier than it would otherwise. If that happens, hopefully the current group of 67s can keep the team within playoff contention in the weak Eastern Conference.
UPDATE - Per Flames reporter Eric Francis, Monahan will stick around with Calgary: