Decision Time

October 22nd, 2013 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

Eight games in the books. Decision Time.

When Sean Monahan hits the ice tonight in the Arizona desert (they may move this inside), he will have suited up for his 9th National Hockey League contest this season, making it that crunch time for Flame’s management as to the fate of the 6th overall pick.

Did anyone think the scenario would be as decisive as it is heading into the final game? Not this writer.

For starters I honestly envisioned a pace that would have the OHL star playing nine games to the Flames 13 to 15; a dose of popcorn duty sprinkled in here and there as a way to buy more calendar, and provide the kid with some teaching by watching from above.

Instead he’s suited up for all 8 Flames contests, and it’s not just an exercise in gold stars for attendance, as the pivot leads the team in goals with six, and has posted nine points to sit 2nd in team scoring.

A look around the league shows many of Monahan’s draft counterparts in the same boat; that is decision time.

In Denver, first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon is unlikely to be heading back to Halifax as the player has a goal and six assists for 7 points in 9 games. Second overall pick Alex Barkov is a lock to stay in Florida despite only putting up six points and three goals in 9 games. Seth Jones at fourth overall is a defenseman so point totals is less of a determinant but he’s safe as safe can be with two goals and two assists in 9 games.

Remember, Monahan has scored 6 times and added 3 assists.

Is it a component of being a Flame’s follower that the decision has to be made much more difficult in Calgary? Why the need to find a reason thinks aren’t rosy or down play the stats? Wouldn’t 5 points in 9 games been enough? This expectant shoe to drop thing is tiresome.

In all honesty stats are only part of the picture as we all know, and you have to look deeper.

While average ice time is incomplete as a study it does speak to how the player is being utilized and probably suggests a whole lot about whether the organization is doing their best to “manage” a young player’s minutes or let them loose on the stiffest of stiff competition in veteran NHLers.

MacKinnon in Colorado is averaging just under 14 minutes of ice time a night. Barkov, Monahan’s other direct comparable in Florida, has averaged between 15 and 16 minutes. Both players play with teams that missed the playoffs last year, however the Avalanche certainly have a deeper set of forward gobbling up ice time and relying less on the first overall pick.

Calgary’s pick? Monahan has averaged 15.5 minutes through his eight games, and 21 minutes last night in Los Angeles. In his last four games he’s average 17 minutes compared to 13.5 for MacKinnon, a number very much in line with his season average. Barkov, like his Calgary counterpart is trending upwards, averaging 17.5 minutes in his last four games.

If you really want to talk protecting young players and the last change, Monahan has only played three games on Saddledome ice, while the other two have played four dates on home ice.

The Big Picture

My biggest concern coming into this season was the fear that the Flames would have made up their collective mind about the young player before the season even started. This extreme could be a huge mistake regardless of what end of the spectrum you look at.

If the marketing angle takes over and they need a young player to show season ticket holders that the rebuild is on and going swimmingly despite the same ticket price being attached to a team without Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff then you see a player determined to stay regardless of actual on ice talent. This phenomenon was certainly in play 15 years ago when Rico Fata made the team and stayed for a good chunk of the season despite the fact that his foot speed was the only part of his game that was NHL ready.

However, a similar mistake would be to make the hurdle to make the team so unfairly high that the player has to go back in order to protect a year on his entry level contract.

Not only would that be fair to Monahan himself but also set a terrible precedent for young players coming into a rebuilding team’s system.

In the end I’m sure the team executives are doing what level headed fans are doing, by weighing the undeniable stats with what they are actually seeing on the ice. Is the kid lucky as hell and that’s it? Or is he making sound decisions with the puck and not looking out of place?

Last night in Los Angeles Monahan banged in a rebound on a powerplay, a flick of the stick that a million beer leaguers could have duplicated. But how he got to that spot on the ice at the right time ready to flick said stick is the story, and it’s one that keeps repeating itself.

His goal in Columbus was similar. His goal in San Jose was similar, his game winner against the Devils was similar. Heck his two third period chances last night that could have been the winner were similar.

He understands the game at a level that few players on the Flame’s roster can match. He doesn’t appear to be intimidated by NHL speed or size. And he’s getting better.

Its crystal clear that Bob Hartley has altered his own vision of the young player as the early season as moved along. Monahan has gone from an experiment and a great early season story to a guy that is now counted on to play a big role in the team’s fortunes night in night out. You can see this in his first unit powerplay minutes last night. You can see it from the player himself when he was interviewed after two periods talking about what needs to happen in the third, and not being giddy about scoring again in the second period.

Things have advanced more rapidly then anyone could have expected but the facts remain the same …

Go by an XBox for the basement Mr. Hudler, your teenage house guest is staying!

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