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Whiz kids Sean Monahan, Olli Maatta, Morgan Rielly staying in NHL

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Center Sean Monahan will be staying with the Calgary Flames.

If Flames center Sean Monahan, 19, sustains his hot start, he could be a Calder Trophy contender. (Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

Sean Monahan made it easy on the Calgary Flames.

The organization may have kept its expectations in check after drafting the promising two-way center sixth overall last June, but after watching the smooth transition he made to the NHL through his first nine games — highlighted by his team-leading six goals — there was no reason to return him to Ottawa of the OHL.

And so, with the team’s 10th game coming up tonight in Dallas, the Flames made it official on Wednesday. The 19-year-old will stick in the NHL for now.

The decision to employ junior-eligible players like Monahan past their ninth game isn’t always this simple. The long-term development of a player is of paramount importance, especially to a rebuilding franchise like the Flames. And just because a player starts hot (Monahan is among the league’s rookie leaders in points, with 10, and goals, 6), it doesn’t mean that the NHL is the ideal environment for him as a person. But Monahan proved himself up to the challenge, emerging as the team’s best forward on more nights than not and demonstrating his potential to handle the challenges that lie ahead. He earned his spot.

MUIR: Progress reports for notable rebuilding teams

So did Toronto blueliner Morgan Rielly, 19. The fifth pick of the 2012 draft was given a real chance to make the club when Mark Fraser was sidelined with a knee injury. Rielly has played well, putting up four assists and a minus-3 rating through eight games while averaging exactly 18 minutes of ice time. He’s earned the confidence of the coaching staff with his ability to quickly read and react to the play, and his transition skills have fit in perfectly with coach Randy Carlyle’s aggressive system.

The Penguins made a similar call with defenseman Olli Maatta, 19, announcing this morning that he would stay with the team. Not exactly a tough call there, either. The 22nd overall pick in the 2012 draft stepped up when Kris Letang went down, playing with remarkable maturity and consistency, and proving himself to be one of the top-six defenders in the organization.

Pittsburgh has other depth options, including Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland, but those players seem more appealing as injury insurance than as part of the everyday team. Plus, Maatta shoots left, making him a better fit on the third pair alongside right-shooting Matt Niskanen, who has secured his own spot on the team with a surprisingly effective two-way game in the early going.

Burning a year off his entry-level contract seems like a small price to pay for all the upside he offers the team.

If only the answer was as easy in Dallas.

There were more than a few scouts who believed that winger Valeri Nichushkin was the most NHL-ready player in the 2013 draft. He was built like a man (6′-4″, 205 pounds)and had proved that he could play with men last season in the KHL.

Not that anyone thought it would be as simple as plug in-and-play — it rarely is for Europeans who have to adapt to a new ice surface as well as a new culture — but after a few highlight reel moments during the preseason, hopes were high that Nichushkin could make some kind of contribution to the rebuilding Stars from the start.

So far it hasn’t worked out that way. There have been a few flashes of brilliance, but for the most part Nichushkin has been overmatched with the puck and lost without it. He’s played mostly protected minutes as the Stars try to ease him in, but he’s also getting just a third of his starts in the offensive zone, which puts pressure on his defensive game. It also limits his chances to score, which is how he’s always proven his value in the past. And you can tell that his lack of success is weighing on him.

Coach Lindy Ruff made an interesting call yesterday, putting Nichushkin on the top unit alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in practice. No word yet on whether they’ll line up that way tonight against Calgary, but it bears watching. Skating with higher caliber players might kick-start his offense, but the coach has to worry about the message this sends. Nichushkin has done nothing to earn this assignment, and with Ruff on the verge of benching either Sergei Gonchar or Alex Goligoski — or both — tonight, he’s essentially saying accountability for some, but not all.

Nichushkin’s part of the future in Dallas, something the two veteran defenders are not, so it can be argued that handing him this opportunity shows that the team is more interested in exploring ways to help him develop than it is maintaining a meritocracy. That’s their choice.

And giving their first-round pick every chance to succeed makes sense from a marketing standpoint for a team that, while far more entertaining this season, still hasn’t caught the attention of the local sports fan.

But you have to wonder how much longer they’ll allow the experiment to play out for a someone who really doesn’t look like he belongs. There are rumors circulating that suggest Nichushkin could be released to play for Russia at the World Juniors in December, after which he’d be loaned to the KHL to finish out the season.

That wouldn’t be his preferred course, but unless he proves he deserves it like Monahan and Maatta, that’s probably the best way to go.

  • Published On Oct 24, 2013
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