While it’s less than two weeks into the season, several teams will soon be faced with an important decision when it comes to some of their top young talents. Once a junior-aged player plays in his tenth game of the season, it officially burns the first year of their entry-level contract. Some teams have shown a willingness to do so in recent years while others have been more hesitant. Here are the players that teams will need to need to make a decision in the near future.
Games played totals are as of Saturday, October 12. The list of players has been restricted to players that have played in at least one NHL game this season or are currently up with their team.
Tobias Bjornfot (Kings) – 3 GP – He has played in all but one game so far but it’s fair to say that Bjornfot has struggled at times. Los Angeles isn’t the deepest team defensively but from a longer-term perspective, it’s reasonable to think that Rob Blake would like to keep an extra cheap year on the books for when they’re likely to be more of a postseason contender so while Bjornfot is up for now, that may change before much longer.
Noah Dobson (Islanders) – 2 GP – Unlike a lot of players on this list, it’s the NHL or the CHL for Dobson and he was pretty dominant at the junior level a year ago. That makes it a bit more understandable that New York is keeping him around even if he isn’t a full-time member of their top-six yet. Dobson is probably going to be in a similar spot over the next month or so where he’ll get a few games but will spend a lot of time as a scratch as well. If they do decide to send him back to the QMJHL, they’ll be limiting how long he actually spends there.
Martin Fehervary (Capitals) – 3 GP – Feharvary making the opening roster one year after being a mid-second-round pick came as a surprise but he held his own. However, with Washington having some cap concerns, they’ve already sent him down. They did so early enough that he could come up for a couple of weeks without triggering the first year of his deal but instead, it will be how he performs in the AHL that determines whether or not his contract will begin this season or next.
David Gustafsson (Jets) – 0 GP – This isn’t an injury situation; the Jets have simply made the 2018 second-round pick a healthy scratch in every game so far. He’s still under contract in the SHL (though his contract isn’t known to contain a European Assignment Clause) so this could simply be a case of them trying to decide what path is the best for his development. It’s hard to imagine him going past nine games at this stage.
Barrett Hayton (Coyotes) – 2 GP – For the second straight year, Hayton broke camp with the Coyotes but playing time has been sparse so far. Similar to Dobson, he’s in NHL or CHL territory and there isn’t much left for him to prove in junior hockey. This should be another case where he’ll be up for a while yet but his playing time will be limited until they decide whether or not to keep him for ten games or more.
Ville Heinola (Jets) – 5 GP – A month ago, Heinola wasn’t even on the radar for a roster spot coming into training camp despite the departures of several key defenders. Now, with Dustin Byfuglien gone as well, there’s even more ice time up for grabs and he has made the most of it, logging over 19 minutes a game. Unless Byfuglien changes his plans quickly, there’s a reasonable chance he’ll get past the nine-game mark (though he has been scratched for two straight games now) but the second threshold may be one to watch for here. (More on that shortly.)
Jack Hughes (Devils) – 5 GP – This one is pretty much a given. While he has looked a little overmatched at times, Hughes has still shown several promising flashes. Top picks will get a long look and there’s no reason to think that won’t be the case here. Barring a big surprise, he’ll be up for the full season.
Kaapo Kakko (Rangers) – 3 GP – Playing time has been limited due to a strange scheduling oddity that has the Rangers playing just three times in the first two weeks of the season so that means it will take until a little later in the calendar for him to get to nine games. He hasn’t looked out of place through his three games and there’s little reason to think he won’t be up for the season.
Rasmus Sandin (Maple Leafs) – 6 GP – Sandin has played in every game so far, albeit in a rather limited role. Travis Dermott’s return isn’t too far away and once he’s activated, there may not be a spot for Sandin. Accordingly, Toronto could hold Sandin out for a couple of games in the next couple of weeks if they wanted to play it safe. If he does get into ten games, he’s another player who the second threshold will be a factor on.
For some teams, preserving that extra cheap year on an entry-level deal is crucial but others have been more inclined to go past that threshold and focus on the second one instead. That one is 40 games on the roster and that one includes games as a scratch; it’s not games played-focused. Once a player meets that threshold, they accrue one year of eligibility towards unrestricted free agency. In other words, they burn a year of team control at that time.
Getting to that threshold would allow for more evaluation for the prospects and in the cases of Dobson and Hayton, it would limit how much time they’d ultimately be forced to spend in junior at a level they’re already above if they were indeed sent back. Anyone who goes past the ten games played mark but doesn’t reach 40 on the active roster won’t have enough service time to be eligible for an offer sheet at the expiration of their contract either which also has to be taken into consideration.
For players like Hughes and Kakko, it’s a safe bet that the decision is all but made already; they’ll be sticking around for the entire season. Others like Gustafsson appear to be likely to not get to ten games played. But there are a handful of prospects that teams are going to make a call on before too much longer, even if they do scratch them for some games to delay having to make that decision. With things largely quiet on the trade front in the early going, this will be one of the elements to watch for over the next few weeks.