Friday Four: Stay in the NHL, or be returned to major junior?

Dallas Stars center Wyatt Johnston (53) controls the puck on an attack as St. Louis Blues' William Bitten (42), Ivan Barbashev (49) and Matej Blumel (22) follow behind in the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game in Dallas, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. (Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo)

While it’s still early in the NHL season and we’re seeing what sticks — and what doesn’t — from the first couple of weeks, it is an important time for some under-20 players around the league.

We’re at the point now where teams have to decide whether to keep these players on the NHL roster and “burn” a year of their entry-level contracts, or send them down to avoid that. Once an under-20 player plays in their 10th game, that year on the ELC counts. (Important to note: a full “year of service” doesn’t count until a player gets to 40 games played. Players can become UFA eligible after seven years of service in the NHL. So while Year 1 of the ELC will count after 10 games, a player won’t be a year closer to UFA status until Game 40.)

Players in their age-20 season will have their ELC begin counting this season whether they’re in the NHL or not.

There is another layer to this decision for players drafted out of the CHL. Per an agreement with the NHL, under-20 players taken out of the WHL, OHL or QMJHL must be returned to their junior teams if they don’t stick in the NHL. They aren’t eligible for the AHL until they turn 20.

That restriction does not apply to players drafted out of the NCAA, Europe, or those who were on loan to a CHL team from somewhere else.

This year, there are five players currently in the NHL whose teams face the CHL vs. NHL decision. One is Shane Wright, the fourth overall pick from the 2022 draft, and he’s played five games for the Seattle Kraken so far. Scout Jason Bukala examined his game and whether or not the Kingston Frontenacs product should stick in the NHL earlier this week.

So, for this week’s Friday Four, we look at the others in this category…

Cards via Jason Bukala and The Pro Hockey Group.

Wyatt Johnston, Dallas Stars
Drafted: 23rd overall in 2021

There might not be much left for Johnston to prove at the major junior level. He was the CHL’s top scorer last season with 124 points in 68 games, was named the OHL’s most outstanding player, and then led that league in playoff points with 41 in 25 games. His Windsor Spitfires fell one win shy of a league championship and Memorial Cup bid.

If the Stars felt Johnston wasn’t quite NHL ready yet, the ideal move would be to send him to the AHL to keep getting pro reps. Of course, that’s not an option for him yet. And, besides, they just might think he’s perfectly NHL ripe already.

Wyatt Johnston scores against the Senators.

Johnston has averaged 14:23 of ice time per game, seventh among Stars forwards, and has earned a spot on the second power-play unit. He has three goals and four points in eight games so far. His goals-per-60 minutes rate at 5-on-5 (1.26) is third on the whole team.

Johnston has been living with Joe Pavelski and gives some offensive punch down the middle as the third-line centre. Unless he’s made a healthy scratch, Johnston’s ninth game will come Saturday against the Rangers, and the 10th game would come on Tuesday against Los Angeles. Will he be in that game and start Year 1 of his ELC?

Dylan Guenther, Arizona Coyotes
Drafted: Ninth overall in 2021

Last season Guenther led the WHL powerhouse Edmonton Oil Kings in goals (45) and points (91) in 59 games and then added 13 goals in 16 playoff games as the team took the WHL crown. An injury, however, took him out of the Memorial Cup.

This season, Guenther has played five of Arizona’s first six games, his only missed action a healthy scratch in the season opener. His primary weapon is a lethal shot and he’s scored twice to this point already — both coming in his most recent two games played.

With the Coyotes roster in tatters, stripped back for a complete rebuild, there should be room for a player like Guenther on the team. He’s averaged 13:34 of ice per game, ninth among Coyotes forwards, in a third-line role. The question, though, is if the team thinks he has more to gain in this role (with perhaps room to move up the lineup) knowing the season will get tougher as losses pile up, or if they choose to be patient, reduce the risk, and push a contract expiration one more year down the road.

“I might be here until tomorrow morning if I say everything I like about him,” Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny told Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News. “Everyone knows he’s a shooter and an offensive player — OK, good, we’ve got that covered. But he’s way more than that. He’ll take his guy defensively, he’ll run obstruction, he’ll create time and space for his teammates. Look at the number of times he goes to the net and screens the goalie. I know it’s a cliche, but he plays the game the right way.”

Every one of the Coyotes’ games so far has been on the road, but their next four are at their new Mullett Arena home. At the end of that stretch, Guenther will have nine games played unless he’s scratched. Interestingly, the decision would have to be made on whether to keep him up or not just as the Coyotes head out on another long road trip that will last about five weeks.

Mason McTavish, Anaheim Ducks
Drafted: Third overall in 2021

Now this is a player who doesn’t really have much to prove at any other level. Just last season, McTavish won an OHL championship with the Hamilton Bulldogs, and scored two goals in the Memorial Cup championship game (which they lost). He also suited up for Team Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics, and then scored 17 points in seven games at the summer World Junior Championship for Canada, leading that tournament in scoring en route to a gold medal.

He even got a taste of the pro life last season: McTavish not only played nine NHL games before being sent back to junior (scoring three points), but he also saw three AHL games in a conditioning stint after he was injured to start the NHL season.

This season, McTavish has played all seven of Anaheim’s games so far, averaging 14:51 of ice time per game, seventh among Ducks forwards, and a spot on the top PP unit. He has yet to score a goal, but does lead the team with three primary assists at 5-on-5. Likely a centre in his career, McTavish can be eased in on the wing for now in a top-six role, with veteran Ryan Strome currently occupying the 2C spot.

Barring a healthy scratch, McTavish’s ninth game will come Sunday against the Maple Leafs, and his 10th next week in San Jose. He’s as good a bet as any to stick full-time this year.

Brandt Clarke, Los Angeles Kings
Drafted: Eighth overall in 2021

It can be harder for young defencemen to break into the NHL early in normal times. And Clarke has faced some challenges in the past couple of very unusual seasons.

First, there was no OHL season in his draft year, so he shipped off to Slovakia to play. Then last season he missed Kings rookie camp with mononucleosis, wasn’t selected to play for Team Canada at the WJC, and had his season with the Barrie Colts cut short with a knee injury.

Yet, he’s still a talented, offensively inclined defenceman who scored 59 points in 55 games for the Colts last season and was fifth in league scoring at the position. And the Kings could sure use an infusion of offence to their budding roster.

Brandt Clarke primary assist.

Clarke has played eight of L.A.’s nine games so far, missing just the opener. He’s averaging 13:34 per game, but has been up over 17 minutes in one game. He’s been fairly sheltered with his offensive zone starts so far, but when Clarke has been on the ice the Kings have a 62.38 expected goals for percentage — best among all L.A. blueliners. He has two assists so far.

Unless scratched, Clarke’s ninth game will come Saturday against Toronto, with the 10th game happening Monday in St. Louis. So, will the defenceman stay? According to Mayor’s Manor, it’s far more likely than not that the 19-year-old is an NHLer now.

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