Roughly six games into the NHL season, a trio of 19-year-old blueliners, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly, Minnesota Wild’s Matthew Dumba and Pittsburgh Penguins’ Olli Maatta, have made strong cases to stick in The Show.
Coming into this year, it seemed there wasn’t much room for Rielly on Toronto’s back end. They already had seven defencemen under one-way contracts, including puck movers Jake Gardiner and John Michael-Liles. But Leafs GM Dave Nonis sent Liles to the AHL and an injury to Mark Fraser opened up an opportunity for Rielly.
Throughout his first five games, the 6-foot, 205-pound Rielly, who was selected fifth overall in the 2012 draft, has easily exceeded expectations, notching three assists along the way. He has not only shown he has second-to-none skating abilities and impeccable hockey sense, but he’s also held his own in his own zone. He has worked hard along the wall and hasn’t hesitated to throw his weight around.
Hockey icon Don Cherry made his opinion known that Rielly shouldn’t head back to the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors this year on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada on Oct. 12.
“Everybody is asking me about Morgan Rielly; should they send him back,” said Cherry. “Here’s the problem: This kid is dynamite. He’s the best defenceman they’ve got. Now, if they send him back – they might, I’m not saying they won’t – they can’t send him back.”
Cherry might be stretching it a bit when he says Rielly is the Leafs’ best defenceman, but not by much. Only team captain Dion Phaneuf and possibly Cody Franson have appeared to have a step on Rielly. It is somewhat of a testament to Toronto’s subpar blueline, but it’s mainly because he’s simply that talented.
Dumba hasn’t turned as many heads as Rielly, but he hasn’t looked out of place at all on the Wild’s back end. He has transitioned his offensive skill well to the pros while playing with a chip on his shoulder.
Albeit he didn’t exactly show he was ready to make the jump to the pros last year with the Red Deer Rebels, it seemed there was opportunity in Minnesota for Dumba this season. Besides Ryan Suter, they don’t have much high-end talent on their blueline. They, after all, do only have two defenders (Suter and Jared Spurgeon) making north of $2 million a season.
However, they do have a surplus of depth defenders under one-way contracts. This has SB Nation writer Daniel Chan thinking Dumba is Red Deer bound.
That is a lot of pro defenseman for Dumba to find a permanent space in Minnesota. In addition, his first few games with the Wild weren’t Brodin level. He was good but showed many rookie mistakes and that he needed more time to develop.
But Marco Scandella has been struggling lately. Nate Prosser has not even played a game yet. That leaves five defenseman and opens up the sixth spot for an offensive defenseman, an element missing from the Wild’s blueline.
It is not that surprising to see that Maatta has made his presence known on the Penguins’ back end. He showed last year while playing for the London Knights, especially in their playoff run, that he’s a diamond in the rough talent.
Throughout his first six games in Pittsburgh, the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Maatta, who was selected 22nd overall in 2012, has put the rookie nerves to the side. He has looked poised with puck, transitioning it out of his own zone smoothly.
The Hockey Writers’ Sean Griffin made his case on why keeping Maatta in Pittsburgh is the right move for the Finnish blueliner and the Penguins.
At only 19 years of age, Maatta has exceeded expectations with his solid play in the defensive zone and keen sense for the game. What’s more, his calm demeanor and skating ability actually have some comparing him to Sergei Gonchar. As a result, many are suggesting that the Pens’ only logical action would be to keep Olli for the long haul.
And, why not? The top four (Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin) is a virtual lock to remain unchanged once everyone is healthy but the club needs a capable third pairing. And, if the first few games are any indication, the combination of Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo is more than capable of filling that role.
Although it seems like the trio of defenders are ready to make the jump, whether it is the smart move for them and their respective teams could be a different story.
The two main arguments on if it’s the smarter decision to send players back to junior are risk vs. reward and whether it’s better for the team’s long-term picture to save the first year of the entry-level contract.
In terms of risk vs. reward, it seems there isn’t a player whose development was hindered by going back to junior for his 19-year-old season. Therefore, it’s simply the safe decision. Young guns, as a rule, light up their respective junior leagues while boosting their confidence along the away. Not to mention, in the case of Rielly, Dumba and Maatta, they would all quite likely get the opportunity to represent their countries in the world junior championship.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are lots of precedents that suggest rushing a player into The Show can hurt his development. Case in point: Nino Niederrieter. His 19-year-old season was a disaster with the New York Islanders. With hindsight vision it's safe to say Garth Snow, who ended up trading El Nino to the Wild in the offseason, would have sent him back to the Portland Winterhawks for his 19-year-old season.
In a salary cap world, three-year entry-level deals can’t be taken for granted. Every team ultimately needs impact players on these apprentice contracts. It is very tough to ice a competitive team without a handful players that make their presence felt earning less than $2 million a season. Therefore, it might be smarter for some teams to hold off on bringing in a 19-year-old youngster who may not be clearly ready if the entry-level contract would be more valuable to the team three years down the road.
James Conley of SB Nation lays out why he feels it’s the smarter decision for the Penguins to send Maatta back to London because of salary cap obstacles.
Maatta may only add $900,000 to the roster, but saving that kind of money now is no small deal (not to mention the kind of bargain he'll be in the final year of the ELC). Maatta just might be NHL ready, but ask Shero what he could have done with an extra $900,000 to start this season.
There's an adage that holds that the safest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket. Maatta, indeed, looks great. But the Penguins intend to compete for the Cup in every year of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era -- not just five games into a season.
Putting Maatta back in their pocket, so to speak, will make for a greater payday down the road.
As for Rielly and Dumba, their cap numbers are very similar to Maatta. However, their teams’ situations are different from Pittsburgh. Unlike the Penguins, the Leafs and Wild aren’t locks to make the playoffs and have a lot of pressure to do so. Therefore, it appears they don’t have the luxury of postponing the start of an entry-level deal for the long-term picture. They need to win games now. So their general managers are probably not too worried about three years down the road because they might not be with the team then unless they get results this year.
Players’ entry-level contracts don’t kick in until their 10th game of the season. They can still be sent back to junior after the ninth game, but it would essentially mean their team wasted the first year of the contract.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen