For all the conflict the NHL lockout gave us, it also eliminated one big hockey debate altogether: Should pro clubs lend their teenage phenoms to their respective national teams for the World Junior Championships for a fortnight during the middle of the season?
With no NHL games holding them back, young Canadian stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Dougie Hamilton and Jonathan Huberdeau all wore the red and white last Boxing Day. But only one Canadian NHLer, Minnesota Wild defenceman Mathew Dumba, has been given the green light for 2014’s tourney so far.
If the Flames (Sean Monahan), Leafs (Morgan Rielly), Capitals (Tom Wilson) and Avalanche (Nathan MacKinnon) were to change course and allow their players to zip off to Sweden, they’d be risking off-the-clock injury, a dose of jet lag and, in the case of the Avs and Leafs, opening a big hole in a roster fighting for the post-season. Recently fired Calgary GM Jay Feaster also said he was holding Monahan back in the interests of his “professional development as a hockey player.”
But keeping 19-year-olds away from the world stage is short-term thinking. What better way to grow a young player’s skills, confidence and leadership than to let him play a top-five role under the pressure of winning a gold medal for his country?
Think of New Jersey’s Adam Henrique. In his first full NHL season after winning silver with Team Canada at the 2010 World Juniors, the rookie forward scored 51 points and earned a Calder nomination. More importantly, he played with poise beyond his years in do-or-die situations, scoring five playoff goals and playing a critical role in the Devils’ run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
Every NHL club wants its prospects to grow into seasoned stars for the long haul. Win or lose, the Wild will reap rewards from Dumba’s participation overseas—ditto Buffalo and Carolina from Mikhail Grigorenko’s and Elias Lindholm’s, respectively. Other teams should follow suit.