Staying up or going down: Entry-level contracts approaching 9 games

Christine Simpson sits down with first overall pick Nico Hischier to get his thoughts on his draft experience and being in the NHL.

If nicknames were rooted in a player’s relationship with his organization, Victor ‘Found Money’ Mete would be rolling off tongues all over Montreal.

Six weeks ago, a huge swath of the Canadiens fan base had, at best, a vague notion of who Mete was. And even those with intimate knowledge of his abilities — including members of the front office, likely — had no inclining he was the answer to the question, “Hey, who the heck is gonna fill that Andrei Markov-sized hole on the left side of the first pair next to Shea Weber?”

Mete, drafted 100th overall in 2016, has gone from intriguing to indispensable for Montreal in the span of seven games, a vibrant bright spot in an otherwise awful start for the Habs. That’s why, even though he’s one of about a dozen “entry-level slide” candidates in the league, there’s virtually no chance he’s returned by Montreal to the London Knights of the OHL.

As a quick refresher — and if you want to go deeper and a bit cross-eyed, download the CBA and dive into section 9.1 — most teenagers who have yet to play 10 NHL games can be re-assigned to a lower league without having one of the three years on their entry-level deal burned. One exception is Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes. Keller didn’t sign his deal until his age 19 season and, having already “slid” one season when he played three games last year, Keller is on the clock no matter where he plays — which will be in the NHL for the next 15 years.

There’s actually a dearth of these decisions being made around Canada this season. With Mete’s spot in Montreal a foregone conclusion, the only other candidates are right winger Kailer Yamamoto in Edmonton and centre Logan Brown in Ottawa.

Brown has played just one game for the Senators, who’ve already returned Alex Formenton to the same Knights team that likely thought it would have Mete right now. The smart money is on Brown finding his way back to the defending Memorial Cup-champion Windsor Spitfires, but it’s still not a sure thing.

Yamamoto, meanwhile, is similar to Mete in that his play stands as a small source of happiness in an otherwise miserable place. While the Oilers’ fortunes have continued to sink, Yamamoto has seen his responsibilities increase. He played over 18 minutes on Saturday versus the Ottawa Senators and saw 22:20 in Edmonton’s latest loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night, registering an assist in each contest.

It’s still possible Yamamoto goes from playing beside Connor McDavid to starring with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, but he’s got six more games to prove he’s truly ready for full-time NHL duty.

Here’s a look at some other slide situations around the league. (Two quick reminders: the 40-game mark — at which point a player moves one season closer to qualifying for unrestricted free agency — is usually the most important pressure point for clubs. Also, this kind of article can be done in a day, not a week, thanks to the information at capfriendly.com.)

Go Buy a Condo
Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils
We might as well group them as a pair in case they want to be roommates. Hischier, the first overall pick from last June, was expected to stick with the Devils and has four assists through six outings.

Bratt’s 3-3-6 start is as pleasantly surprising as his team’s. The 162nd overall pick from 2016 looks like a steal.

Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers
It’s almost a perfect situation in Philly where the turbo-charged Flyers can ease Patrick in on the third line. He’s yet to see 15 minutes in any one game, but still has a goal and two helpers through six contests.

Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
One of the reasons Montreal had so many holes on its blue line is because the club traded its top prospect to the Bolts in the summer for Jonathan Drouin. Sergachev has been playing on the second pair with steady Anton Stralman and that’s where he’ll stay.

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks
An ultra-talented player on an entry-level deal is just too much to pass up for Chicago. DeBrincat has great hands and the Hawks won’t have any trouble putting them to use.

On the bubble
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets
The only players drafted ahead of Dubois in 2016 were Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. The youngster still figures prominently into the Blue Jackets’ long-term plans, but the win-now vibe in Ohio may mean he’s best served with a final year in the QMJHL.

Here today, gone tomorrow?
Samuel Girard, Nashville Predators
What’s that you say, the Preds have found a gem of a defenceman outside the first round of the draft? Shocking. Girard may not be long for Nashville this season, but he’ll be part of the spectacular blue line crew soon enough.

Owen Tippett, Florida Panthers
The 10th overall pick from 2017 played his first NHL game Tuesday night and wound up minus-2 in a 5-1 whipping at the hands of the Flyers. He could be a central figure on Canada’s World Junior Championship squad.

Janne Kuokkanen and Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes
A second-rounder from 2016, Kuokkanen needs a little more seasoning before he can join fellow Finns Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho in Carolina’s forward crew.

Necas, meanwhile, made his season debut in Edmonton on Tuesday. The centre may not stick around this year, but his last name — according to the Carolina Twitter feed — literally means ‘bad weather’ in Czech.

He was born to be a Hurricane.

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