The topic of burning a year off Stefan Matteau's contract has been discussed quite a bit. John wrote an excellent post about this a while ago. Then it happened, as the Devils didn't really have a good option to replace Dainius Zubrus, who wasn't able to play due to an injury. Of course, the reaction from the fanbase wasn't too happy. To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of the move, simply because it wasn't the best plan of action. Of course, the entire thing was rather poor roster management- the Devils couldn't bring in Mathieu Darche to play due to the contract limits- they couldn't keep Matteau around and sign Darche, so we end up with the situation here. Of course, it's not as bad as you think.
Possible Contract Worries
Let us get this out of the way- yes, a year of his contract has been burned. But Has a year of UFA eligibility been burned yet? Not quite. @drivingplay (Triumph44) brought up an important point about that.
Burning an ELC year does not eo ipso mean that a player will be one year closer to UFA - he has to be on the NHL roster for 40+ games.— Driving Play (@DrivingPlay) February 7, 2013
Of course, because it's a shortened season, this follow-up tweet is kind of important- I asked him about how the 40 games works w/ the MOU and the shortened season
@nonamericanhero it's time on the roster not games played.i imagine it's 23 games or something this year— Driving Play (@DrivingPlay) February 7, 2013
Two good examples to help clarify this situation are Shea Weber and Jacob Josefson. If Weber was on the Predators roster for more than 40 games in his rookie season (which he wasn't), he would've been an unrestricted free agent last summer instead of a restricted free agent. Josefson played in 28 games in his rookie season with the Devils, but spent about 8 weeks on injured reserve and missed around 20 games, which effectively caused for him to go over the 40 accrued games mark and effectively burned a year off his UFA eligibility. Edit: I asked triumph about if playoff games count as accrued games for a season, and while he didn't get to me about it earlier, he did just tell me that they don't count- so Matteau can technically play in the playoffs w/o gaining accrued games.
Now let us assume that the amount of accrued games in the shortened season is 23 like Triumph suggested (which seems about right) for the lockout shortened season- If Matteau's on the Devils roster for 22 games and they send him to Blainville (Juniors) or Albany (AHL, albeit next season), he won't lose a year of UFA Eligibility. However, if he gets injured (and the Devils aren't able to send him down) or he sticks with the team past game 23, then he burns a year of UFA eligibility. Triumph elaborated a bit more on this with this post on Driving Play, so i'd suggest you read that because he more or less covers all the remaining bases.
The main concern is that he'll need a new contract sooner, however it's not the biggest deal considering Lou isn't someone who likes giving out huge second contracts- and in the case of a big second contract, it would likely mean Matteau would have to put up excellent numbers in the next two seasons, which doesn't seem likely. As for him going UFA earlier, if Matteau isn't on the roster past the 23rd game, he won't be an unrestricted free agent in 2019
What Exactly Does Stefan Matteau Need to Improve on In Juniors? Nothing, Really
A lot of us are forgetting exactly what kind of player Stefan Matteau is. If the Devils were dealing with a high-end offensive prospect who needs to improve his strength/other skills or isn't going to be effective in a bottom 6 role (i.e. Mark Schiefele, Ryan Strome, Reid Boucher), then it would be an obvious decision to send them back to Junior. Matteau isn't one of those players. I've seen a few Armada games during the lockout, and from what I saw, he's not a guy who dangles and skates, but rather someone who crashes the net and shoots the puck. He uses his physical presence to win puck battles and create chaos in front of the net. He's physically mature enough to stay in the NHL, strength and size aren't issues here. He doesn't have the skill level of most 18 year old forwards to make the NHL (i.e. Yakupov, Galchenyuk, Grigorenko), but he's more physically mature than they are. Sure, he probably won't contribute on the scoresheet, but he won't be a complete liability if he can't score (assuming he sticks past the 23 game marker).
Essentially, keeping him around isn't the worst thing for his development. He's not a guy who needs to stay in junior to get stronger. The knocks on him are that he's not a scorer and he needs to be more disciplined. He has two points in eight games, which isn't bad considering he's not receiving a lot of minutes, and he's spending most of his time at even strength with Ilya Kovalchuk, the team's deadliest scorer. As for his penalties, he's only been tagged for one minor. Again, the limited minutes are a big factor in this. If he does play more minutes, he'll likely take more penalties simply because there will be more opportunities for him to take penalties. His issues w/ anger and emotions on ice will likely go away as he matures, and through 8 NHL games he hasn't done anything stupid. While we're dealing with small population sizes here, it's at least a start.
While keeping him up might be an issue with his contract, it's not like the Devils are ruining him. They're giving him opportunities to play and he's making the most out of them. If the Devils were a bad team and they were doing this, I'd probably say that they're ruining him, as giving an 18 year old sheltered minutes on a bad NHL team is pointless. Of course, the Devils aren't a bad team so they have this luxury.
Tempering Expectations on Matteau
Like I said before, Matteau's not a skill player who needs to get stronger. On the other hand, we need to remember that Matteau's not going to be the next Cam Neely. The best case scenario is that he'll probably be a Milan Lucic or David Backes type player, as in an effective scoring power forward. Worst case scenario? Probably a good 4th liner like Gregory Campbell or Ryan Carter. The worst of the worst cases is that he becomes a goon- although from the 8 games he's played, he doesn't seem like the goonish type. The good- with Matteau's skillset, the chances of him being a useful NHLer is pretty high.
Needless to say, the Devils did put themselves into this hole. I don't think that the Devils were expecting Zubrus to go down, and Matteau was the best option available on the 23 man roster. While the Devils are going to have to make lemonade out of the lemons they gave themselves, I really don't think that worrying about Stefan Matteau's contract and him possibly going UFA in 2019 is something we should all be worrying about right now.