Sunday night at Montreal was certainly a big night for Stefan Matteau. He had several members of family and friends present at the Bell Centre and he was starting the game alongside Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk. Despite starting on the top line, Matteau did not stay with them and his ice time diminished to less than ten for the third game out of his four so far with the Devils. It wasn't a great performance or even a good performance. Nevertheless, it's impressive solely for the fact that he's playing in the National Hockey League at the age of 18, his first taste of professional hockey. How good he has been, or rather how awful he hasn't been, is just icing on the proverbial cake. Rather, it's icing on the cake only if Matteau is returned to the QMJHL for the rest of this season real soon.
Since the 2013 regular season has been shortened to 48 games, the slide rule on entry level contracts (ELC) has been reduced to six games. As in, if a player under the age of 20 as of September 15 plays six or more games in the NHL, then his contract will come into effect for the 2013 season. It will count on the salary cap and it will mean the player is eligible for free agency at a younger age. Five or less means the contract won't count yet. Therefore, someone at the age of 18 selected in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft can have their contract slide twice at most. This means the player will hit free agency later than if it began right after the draft. This means it's usually best for teams to let the ELC slide as long as they can if only to save money later. Usually this is a good idea also because the player needs time to develop before playing in the best league in the world. However, there are exceptions.
The obvious exceptions are the players who showed off that they were ready for the NHL at age 17 or 18. I'm talking about the Kovalchuks, the Oveckins, the Crosbys, the Malkins, the Tavareses (Tavaresii?), and so forth. The players who have nothing more to prove among their peers and are so skilled that they can hang at the next level. They are stars who have or will command big dollars regardless of when they hit free agency so the savings for a year or two may not actually matter. That said, where does one draw the line between obvious-star-player and prospect-with-talent-that-might-handle-it? At what point does it seem to make "sense" to begin the ELC early?
Over at NHL Numbers, Brent Morris made a convincing case that it really depends on whether the young player is as good as an average NHL player. Basically, if he can play competent hockey while not being totally limited or sheltered, then he's going to stick around. If not, then he won't. I think that's a good measure as any. We witnessed this concept first hand last season with Adam Larsson. I wrote a lot about how the Devils shouldn't bring him into the NHL right away, how he should be in Sweden for another year or perhaps go to the AHL. I really didn't want his contract to begin earlier than necessary and I really didn't want him to be asked to perform at the highest level right away. As it turned out, Larsson was given 20+ minutes per game right away and acclimated himself quickly to the NHL. My eyes were open and I admitted I was wrong to doubt him. He didn't last through the whole season, but it was quickly apparent that he was at least a decent NHL defenseman at age 18. Knowing that he can perform at this level is partially why fans are frustrated that he hasn't got into a game this season.
Getting back to Matteau, he's just played his fourth game and he can appear in just one more before his contract begins. Has he been an average NHL forward? In my opinion, no. A quick summary of his first four games based on the stats at NHL.com and Corsi generated with Robert P's template (first three games for the Devils are in this post) shows that he has not been an average forward.
|1/22||vs PHI||12||10:37||3||3||7||10||2 PIM|
The good news is that Matteau hasn't been a liability in terms of possession at even strength, he got a couple of shots on net, and he only took one penalty. Given that Matteau has been a PIM machine in junior leagues, the fact he was able to remain mostly disciplined is a big one. The bad news is that he's provided nothing much beyond a couple of shots. He hasn't been a particularly noticeable defender. He hasn't generated a point. Most of all, his ice time has been very limited. He only played more than ten minutes once in his four games and he's been shuffled through the lineup. A part of that has to do with the poor play of others, but if Matteau was really a NHL-ready forward, then Peter DeBoer would have given him more minutes and Matteau would have done more on the ice. Remember, this team is weak at forward so I would think anyone who plays well would at least get more ice time. Matteau has done a couple of nice things in spots, but it's clear to me that he's not an average NHL forward right now. Therefore, there's not much of a reason for the Devils to keep him regardless of how bad their bottom six may be. Matteau's not likely going to help the team all that much this season.
Let me put it another way. Matteau's ELC counts for a cap hit of $925,000 according to CapGeek. That's not an expensive contract. However, is six shots out of eight attempts over four games really worth that much money? Yes, he has ended up even in Corsi over all four games, but is that worth committing that much money? Most of all, is it worth taking a $925k hit on the books for a player who has played only roughly between 6-10 minutes per game? Even though the Devils can definitely afford it, they can get more from other bottom-six caliber players for cheaper than that. Bobby Butler could be called up and do at least what Matteau has done. I'm confident Mathieu Darche, who the Devils can and likely will sign, can accomplish these results and more. Some of the players on the roster making less than $925,000 already do more than this. Basically, Matteau hasn't been playing like his ELC would indicate. Therefore, it wouldn't be smart to start his ELC early until he does.
Now, I have to stress that I know he's only 18 and this is his first hands-on experience with professional hockey. I believe the team's expectations weren't that high to begin with. I can completely understand that this was just an evaluation period. From that standpoint, I think there's some real positives. Matteau didn't look too out of place in spite of playing so little. We can be more confident that he can become a NHL player one day in the future, something we stated in our Top 25 Under 25 List. I think the extra time working with NHL players and coaches can only help his skills and approach to the game. Having played in a few NHL games will surely give him the motivation to improve. All I'm saying these four games have shown that he's not a NHL forward right now and so he shouldn't stay in New Jersey beyond that fifth game. Instead, he should go back Blainville-Boisbriand in the QMJHL and use his experience to perform better against his peers. And that's perfectly fine.
Of course, what the Devils will actually do, who knows? WIll Matteau play his fifth and final game for New Jersey against Boston? Will the Devils "bank" that last game and only recall him later in the second? Will the Devils actually burn the ELC and keep Matteau? We shall see very soon. Please leave your opinions about Matteau and his time New Jersey so far in the comments. Thank you for reading.