Junior players making early NHL jump puts CHL teams to the test

Victor Mete will be making his NHL debut for the Montreal Canadiens, and coach Julien hopes he and other young players can help infuse energy into his squad.

When Rob Simpson jotted down his pre-season depth chart for the OHL’s London Knights, the names Victor Mete and Alex Formenton figured prominently.

At least for the time being, they continue to be scratched off.

“When those guys leave for NHL camps, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Simpson, the Knights GM. “You just sit back and wait patiently and see how they look and how they do.”

Despite being lower draft picks, Mete and Formenton forced their NHL teams — the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators — to put them on their opening rosters thanks to strong September performances.

Mete (100th overall in 2016) and Formenton (47th in 2017) were two of the biggest training camp and pre-season surprises. Mete played 18:43 in his first NHL game on Thursday.

Their undetermined, unexpected absences have put the Knights in a bind. Without Mete and Formenton (and Vancouver Canucks prospect Olli Juolevi who was sent to TPS Turku of the Finnish Liiga earlier this week) the presumed Western Conference contenders have started the season 0-4.

Expectations could change if the Knights see them sooner than later.

“Definitely it does if they don’t come back,” Simpson said. “We haven’t been told one way or the other with some of our players that are still away. That’s something where you cross that bridge if you get to it and you see where your team’s at, at that point.”

The Knights aren’t the only would-be promising CHL team feeling the heat thanks to under-20 players bucking the odds to make NHL initial rosters.

Owen Tippett, Kailer Yamamoto, and Samuel Girard have all left their junior teams scrambling. The former two players were first-round NHL picks, but were only selected in June and were chosen 10th by Florida and 22nd by Edmonton. Girard, a second-rounder in 2016, earned a spot on the Nashville Predators’ star-studded defence.

As a result, the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads (0-4), WHL’s Spokane Chiefs (4-1) and QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes (0-4-1) have had to take out the erasers to remove the names of their superstars that were pencilled in.
 
“Until he’s here, we have to continue to make plans under the assumption he’s not going to be here,” Chiefs GM Scott Carter said of Yamamoto. 

While projections of Shawinigan were the lowest of the teams even with a Girard return and Spokane has managed well without Yamamoto so far, it’s in Mississauga where Tippett’s impact has been greatly felt.

Of the five players, Tippett’s NHL status is probably the least shocking. The Panthers were forthright with their intentions to give him every chance to make the team. Steelheads coach-GM James Richmond claims he isn’t surprised the 18-year-old winger took advantage.

But his absence — and a leg injury suffered by captain Michael McLeod with the New Jersey Devils — has left the Steelheads in a rut.

After removing Tippett’s 44 goals, which ranked fifth in the league last season, Mississauga has gone from a berth in the OHL final and a trendy pre-season championship contender pick to a winless record out of the gate.

“How are we going to replace that player’s minutes? Who’s going to take on some of that responsibility? That’s when it becomes a bit of an issue for the team,” Richmond said, adding the production needs to be filled by committee. “Nobody’s going to replace Owen Tippett.

“We’d love to have him back, but we’re very proud and happy for him that he’s able to be there still.”

The Chiefs have been able to stave off Yamamoto’s early departure as they try to compete for top spot in crowded the U.S. Division.

Carter said Edmonton Oilers assistant GM Keith Gretzky was bullish on the now-19-year-old winger having the potential to crack the roster because of his skill and speed.

Despite being one of the smallest players ever chosen in the first-round of the NHL Draft at five foot seven and 146 pounds, Yamamoto excelled in the pre-season. He scored five goals and fit in nicely when skating on Connor McDavid’s wing. He played 6:33 in his NHL debut on Wednesday.

The Chiefs were hoping the Spokane-born fan favourite would return by now. Getting Yamamoto back is paramount considering he had 42 goals and 99 points last season. Otherwise, Carter may have to look into “investments” on the trade market to augment his roster.

“You can’t replace what he gives you,” Carter said. “You can try to add to maybe replace some of the offence.”

As for Mete and Formenton, their spots with the Canadiens and Senators would have been predicted by no one heading into training camp.

Mete, an undersized blueliner, impressed in the pre-season by using his skating and smarts while being paired regularly with veteran Shea Weber.

Formenton only signed his entry-level deal on Monday. He didn’t play in the OHL as a 16-year-old after he was an 11th-round pick by London in 2015. He had 16 goals and 34 points in 65 games with the Knights last season.

The last second-rounder to play a full season in the NHL was Ryan O’Reilly with Colorado in 2009-10. Daniel Sprong made the Penguins out of camp two years ago, but was eventually returned to the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders.

While the Knights did recently get pest Max Jones back from Anaheim, Mete and Formenton leave big holes to fill.

“You can have a lot of problems as a general manager, but it’s a good problem to have,” Simpson said. “It means your coaches are doing a good job developing these players and you’ve had good, quality kids that want to listen and work. Now they’re being rewarded with chances at the NHL level, which is a good thing.”

Nico Hischier (NJ), Nolan Patrick (PHI), Logan Brown (OTT), Pierre-Luc Dubois (CBJ) and Mikhail Sergachev (TB) are the other under-20 CHL-eligible players to start the season in the NHL. They were all first-rounders last year or, in the case of Hischier and Patrick, the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in 2017.

Of course, just because these players are starting the season in the NHL doesn’t mean they’ll finish it there. There is a 10-game threshold before the first year of a player’s entry-level deal is used. Even still, players can be returned to junior later in the season as the Oilers did with Leon Draisaitl in 2014-15.

“You’re watching every game to see how he progresses,” Carter said. “Are they going to burn a year of his entry-level contract or not? If not, maybe we get back an early Christmas present.”

For now, all CHL teams with high hopes can do is watch their star players exceed expectations, which inadvertently – at least temporarily – puts a dent in theirs.