Thursday night, against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Arizona Coyotes scratched both Dylan Strome and Lawson Crouse. Through seven Coyotes games this season, Strome has only played in three. Crouse has appeared in five of those games, while rookie defenseman Jakob Chychrun has played six.
Chychrun seems to have cemented his place in the lineup, averaging approximately 16 minutes per game and tallying three points so far. His fellow rookies, on the other hand, have not. Crouse is averaging just over eight minutes per game, a situation that doesn’t bode well for his development, and Strome has sat in the press box more often than not.
Yet Coyotes coach Dave Tippett doesn’t seem to have seriously considered sending Strome or Crouse back to the Ontario Hockey League. He seems content to ease them into the process of being pros, letting them learn through practice and being around veteran players.
The question is — is that what’s best for their development?
A similar question could be asked about Mikhail Sergachev, who has played in three of the Montreal Canadiens’ seven games, or Matthew Tkachuk, who has played in seven of nine games for the Calgary Flames. Sergachev has played just over 30 minutes since the beginning of the season. That’s maybe 10 minutes more than he’d likely be playing per game in Windsor, particularly since the Spitfires are gearing up to host the Mastercard Memorial Cup at the end of the season.
Tkachuk’s junior team, the London Knights, could very well be in the Memorial Cup (given that they won last season). Strome’s Erie Otters aren’t too far behind, and it’s not a reach to say that Crouse’s Kingston Frontenacs would welcome him back with open arms.
No matter who it is, every NHL team who has a CHL-eligible rookie is going to have to make an important decision — one with both cap and contract implications — in the next couple of weeks. Do they send players back to their major-junior leagues, or do they keep them and burn a year of their entry-level contract, even if they don’t plan to play them full-time? Teams can only postpone making that decision by sitting players in the press box for so long.
The prevailing opinion on this year’s crop of rookies seems to be that, for most of them, returning to their major-junior team is a bad idea because they’re above that level of competition. An AHL assignment would be ideal, of course, but it’s not an option.
However, returning to the OHL didn’t hurt Max Domi, and it didn’t hurt Mitch Marner. Spending an extra year in a major-junior league can benefit a player if the coaching staffs of his NHL club and his CHL club are on the same page about what to prioritize in terms of development.
While the temptation to keep a player and “ease him into being a pro” is understandable, keeping a high-quality rookie and not playing him is the start of a slippery slope for some coaching staffs — one that can lead to, for example, a situation where the coach says the rookie hasn’t played enough to be trusted to play in certain situations, so the coach is going to play a less skilled vet over him due to the experience factor.
The Coyotes are in a situation, both roster-wise and salary cap-wise, where they can afford to spend two roster spots on rookies who aren’t playing every night. Not every team has that luxury. Regardless, if a team is planning for the future and isn’t in win-now mode (as is the case with most teams who have high first-rounders), they should be prioritizing the development of players, whatever that means for the specific player involved.
One thing you can be certain of: Sitting your player in the press box night after night does far less for his development than steamrolling opponents in the OHL will.