So this is how topsy-turvy the world is. Right now, the top three teams in the Eastern Conference are 1. Toronto, 2. Tampa Bay, and 3. the New York Islanders. How's that for crazy?
Of course, it won't last, but it's still kind of funny to see considering how they finished last season.
A team that's still struggling in the Western Conference is the Edmonton Oilers. Despite having the top draft pick in last year's Entry Draft in Los Angeles, LW Taylor Hall. Edmonton is currently sitting at 13th in the conference. But, as we all know, it's still early yet.
However, with Edmonton off to a 2-2 start, people have been questioning as to whether Taylor Hall would benefit more going back to his major junior team, the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Hall currently has one assist in his first four games, and two penalty minutes. Those aren't exactly stellar statistics, which is why this discussion is happening in the first place.
NHL teams are only allowed to keep junior players for nine regular season games before they're ineligible to go back. In Canada, major juniors are still considered amateur leagues. The NCAA disagrees with that, but that's another story. The rules are that if a junior player plays ten professional games, then he's no longer considered an amateur.
And that's why NHL teams have to decide about their junior prospects so quickly. Most people would agree that nine games aren't enough to give any player a good look. It takes a player much longer than that to adjust to the league and to his team. But, those are the rules, and they must abide by them. There are work arounds with that, but I won't get into those here.
Junior-aged players can play in the minor leagues, but that's typically not done. Mostly because the minor leagues are a pretty rough place, and you don't want to see any prospect get injured. Typically, the thinking is that if the player isn't ready for the NHL, then they might as well go back to junior. The minor leagues aren't even figured into things unless the player is too old for junior hockey; that is, they're over 20 years old. However, they can play professionally in the AHL and the ECHL at 18 years old.
So should Edmonton send Hall back to juniors? Probably. He's probably not going to contribute significantly this season, and he can get more playing time in Windsor. Will Edmonton send him back? Not likely. There's a matter of pride involved with first overall picks; no one wants to look like they picked the wrong guy. So Hall will probably stay in the NHL, getting limited playing time, just to soothe the egos of the Edmonton front office.
As a Lightning blogger for Raw Charge, I've seen this before with Steven Stamkos. Watching him play his rookie season, he clearly should've played one more year in junior hockey before coming to the NHL. Then he won the Richard trophy last year. Sure, last season he was terrific, and this season he should be again. But his rookie season really wasn't - not until the last part of that season.
Would sending Stamkos back to junior have impacted his development in a negative way? After seeing him score 51 goals his sophomore season, it's easy to look back and think so. But, then again, it might impact his career negatively later on down the road - pusing him into playing at a higher level before he was ready might cause him injury problems towards the end of his career. Hind-sight is 20-20, and going over what-might-have-beens is a useless exercise. Really, we'll never actually know either way.
It's hard to say how any given player will develop. We've all seen our share of 18-year-old rookie phenoms and rookie busts. If a player clearly isn't ready for the NHL, then there's no harm in sending them back to junior. It certainly can't hurt them, anyways.
Ultimately, though, it's a matter of pride for the team's general manager. If the GM can't put his team and the well-being of his players before his pride, then that's a problem. All you have to do is look at what's going on with the New York Rangers right now to see how that will turn out.