10 rookies approaching the 10-game mark: Who stays and who goes?

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The nine-game bench mark is the first important one to watch for rookies in an under-20 season.

It’s at this point where NHL teams have to decide whether or not to keep a player up with the team, thus “burning” a season on their three-year entry-level contract, or send him down and postpone that countdown for another year. Players who are in their age-20 season will have their ELCs start counting no matter if they’re in the NHL, AHL, or elsewhere.

For a full list of slide candidates, whether they’re still on a pro roster or not, check out CapFriendly’s page.

There is an added wrinkle for players drafted out of the CHL. Per an agreement with the NHL, under-20 players must be returned to their CHL teams if they were drafted out of that league — they aren’t eligible for the AHL until they turn 20 years old.

This same restriction does not apply to players selected out of Europe, the NCAA or those who were on loan to a CHL team. A good example of this is Chicago’s 19-year-old defenceman Henri Jokiharju — while he was drafted to the NHL from the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, he was technically with that team on loan from Tappara in Finland. So if the Hawks wanted to demote him, they would have the option to put Jokiharju in the AHL — but he’s been playing on their top pair with Duncan Keith, so that appears to be a moot point anyway.

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A more important benchmark comes later in the season.

Players are credited with a full year of service once they play in their 40th game, which has free agency implications since players can become UFA eligible once they have accrued seven years of service in the NHL. So while playing more than nine games ticks a year off an ELC, they don’t move a year closer to unrestricted free agent status until they play in their 40th game of the season.

Got all that?

Some players have already been sent back to major junior before hitting 10 games — Los Angeles Kings second-rounder Jaret Anderson-Dolan had one assist in five NHL games before the club returned him to WHL Spokane this week. Others have their big dates coming up.

Here we highlight a number of rookies whose contracts can slide with a demotion to junior or the AHL, and the decision facing their team. Players who were always a lock to stay in the NHL all season, such as Rasmus Dahlin or Andrei Svechnikov, are left off the list below:

Michael Rasmussen, Detroit: The ninth overall pick in 2017 is getting his first taste of the NHL after being returned for the full WHL season in 2017-18. He’s played in eight of Detroit’s nine games, has one assist and averages 12:25 per game playing mostly on the third line. But it appears the hulking, six-foot-six, 221-pound power forward will be sticking around for the next little while, though given how he’s being used, it seems unlikely he’ll stay up all season.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal: Per Eric Engels in our Canadiens prospect report, Montreal isn’t worried about passing the nine-game mark with Kotkaniemi. Mostly playing on the third line, Kotkaniemi is averaging 14:05 per game and has three assists so far. But he plays with the vision and patience of an NHLer and fills an area of need for Montreal down the middle.

He’ll for sure stick past the nine-game mark, and as long as Montreal is hanging around the playoffs and Kotkaniemi continues at his current level, he’s likely to stay up all season. If Montreal does ever decide to send him down, he is AHL-eligible.

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Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa: Currently injured, Tkachuk will be given every opportunity to stay with the Senators all season and that is by far the most likely outcome here. He’s played four games, has three goals and six points, and brings the same kind of physicality that has made his brother Matthew so popular in Calgary.

The rebuilding Sens need the kind of draw and excitement Tkachuk can bring. He was drafted out of Boston University so can be sent to the AHL if the team so chooses, but it’s worth noting his CHL rights belong to the London Knights. Still, odds are Tkachuk is in the NHL for good.

Isac Lundestrom, Anaheim: Junior-eligible Max Comtois played in his 10th game this week, so we already know his contract will not slide. But when the Ducks get healthy, room will need to be made. Picked 23rd overall this past summer, Lundestrom has just one assist in eight games, but has filled in at each of the three forward positions and looks comfortable and capable as an NHLer.

But when the likes of Patrick Eaves, Jakob Silfverberg and Ondrej Kase return there will be a lot less opportunity on the wing. Lundestrom is currently playing high up the lineup with Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano, but since he can go to the AHL and be recalled at a later date, he may be a more likely candidate for demotion than Comtois, who wouldn’t be eligible for a recall.

At the same time, the likes of Pontus Aberg or Ben Street, who don’t figure prominently into future plans, could just be sent through waivers instead. Lundestrom is making this decision harder for a team whose off-season goal was to get younger and quicker.

Evan Bouchard, Edmonton: Through six games played, Bouchard has yet to score a point and averages 12:35 per game. The Oilers have a tough choice to make here.

On the one hand, Bouchard isn’t getting top four minutes and is very much sheltered in his usage. He’s still a minus-4, though the Oilers outshoot the opposition by a slim margin when he’s on the ice. He can be a little rough at times, which isn’t unusual for an 18-year-old defenceman. On the other hand, he already led the CHL in scoring at his position last season and, outside of playing a central role for Canada at the WJC, there may not be much more for him to achieve at that level. Edmonton has another puck-moving defenceman in the AHL with Ethan Bear, who would be a likely call-up if Bouchard is sent back down.

“I thought he’s had some really strong moments in games, where he looks really poised and makes tremendous passes,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan told the Edmonton Journal. “He’s learning lessons, like a lot of 19-year-old defencemen do in the league when they enter. Nick Lidstrom, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns were all 19 in the league at one point. So some really good stuff from Evan, some stuff he needs to work on, but he’s getting that information. He’s a pretty good student, he works on things he needs to.”

Juuso Valimaki, Calgary: With Travis Hamonic returning to practice for the Flames this week, it was interesting to see Valimaki as the odd-man out Thursday morning ahead of Calgary’s game against Pittsburgh, with TJ Brodie falling to the third pair. Valimaki is the only Flames blueliner who has a positive on-ice shot differential at 5-on-5, though he also gets nearly half his starts in the offensive zone so he’s set up to succeed.

A left shot playing the left side, he has complemented Calgary’s depth there nicely behind Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin and head coach Bill Peters trusted him enough to even put out a short-term rookie pair with Valimaki and Rasmus Andersson. The good news is that at 20 years of age, Valimaki would be sent to the AHL instead of junior, but he’s been one of Calgary’s better blueliners to date and seems far more likely to stay up. Andersson, Calgary’s other rookie defenceman, is 21 and his contract has started regardless.

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Filip Chytil, NY Rangers: Centre has been a real area of need for the Rangers, which is why Chytil had some Calder buzz about him heading into the season — opportunity had the potential to lead to great success. The early returns aren’t quite that rosy, with Chytil moving all over the lineup. He’s now on the left side since fellow rookie Brett Howden has been so impressive down the middle, but Chytil’s slow start (two points in nine games) hasn’t changed the Rangers’ outlook on his season.

“The contract slide hasn’t been a focus of ours,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton told Larry Brooks of the New York Post on Monday. “We’re not thinking about Hartford for Filip. We think he’s in the right place.”

Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton: It’s no secret the Oilers need someone on the right side to step up and be a reliable contributor — and since Yamamoto is now playing alongside Connor McDavid on the top line, he’s in a better situation to stand out than ever.

Yamamoto already had a nine-game tryout last year before being sent back to junior and given Ty Rattie is out multiple weeks with an injury, there’s an even greater need for Yamamoto to stay past nine games and start the clock on his ELC. If the Oilers decide to send him down this year Yamamoto can go to the AHL, but for now the team simply doesn’t have enough options to move away from him yet.

Alex Formenton, Ottawa: Returning to the lineup Tuesday for the first time since sustaining a concussion on Oct. 10, Formenton doesn’t have a point yet in his short NHL career, but it’s coming. The 19-year-old would still need to go back to junior if the Senators choose to demote him, but the team has signalled its commitment to getting more young players into the lineup.

Formenton has NHL speed, can provide the kind of spark an underdog team like the Sens need, and is fun for fans to watch — he already had a one-game trial last season and given Ottawa’s situation is likely to be with the team through nine games.

Robert Thomas, St. Louis: Even after bringing in a number of new faces last summer, including two centres, the 19-year-old Thomas still cracked the squad, though his opportunity has been extremely limited. Thomas has been a healthy scratch the past three games and wasn’t getting a ton of ice time in the five games he did play — he got 11:12 in his debut, but played less than 10 minutes in the next three games.

A Memorial Cup champion, two-time OHL champion, reigning OHL playoff MVP and WJC gold medallist, Thomas has achieved everything in major junior, which is where he’d have to go if the Blues can’t keep him. Another rookie, Sammy Blais, was sent to AHL San Antonio this week and Robby Fabbri is nearing a return which will force the Blues into a tough decision: keep Thomas up with limited ice time, or return him to junior?

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