After action on Monday night, rookie centre Sean Monahan led the Calgary Flames with six goals and was second on the team with nine points through eight games. With a hot start to his career, the sixth overall pick in this summer’s draft has emerged as the face of the Flames’ rebuild.
That puts Calgary in quite a predicament, because the best-case scenario for both franchise and player long term is likely to return him to junior.
To begin with, Monahan’s point totals are not built on a firm foundation. He has scored six goals on 19 shots for a 31.6 shooting percentage in a league where a number one-third of that is quite good. The coach, according to extraskater.com, has been quite careful to manage his ice time, getting him out in the offensive zone as much as possible and keeping him away from the defensive end of the rink.
None of these are criticisms of an exceptional 19-year-old; it is just important to be realistic about what Monahan is likely to do over the rest of the season. Unless Monahan dramatically improves his play, a point-per-game season or something close to it simply is not in the cards.
With expectations lowered to a realistic level, the emphasis can shift to what should be the organization’s top priority: the best development path for its most exceptional prospect.
It’s a question every team faces eventually: Should a prospect be returned to junior, where he will get premium ice time and dominate, or stay in the much tougher NHL where the major league coaching staff can keep a close eye on him?
Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland is one of those who advocate the slower approach. It was a lesson Holland learned during his time in the high minor leagues, and one he related to Behind the Moves author Jason Farris:
The minute a young kid would play well for six weeks, he’d get [called] up and [provide] a little bit of spark [to the parent club,] and then six weeks later they would [be sent back] down and they were just beaten up. The league was too tough. They couldn’t make a difference. It took you another few weeks, few months to get those players back to where they [had been] confidence-wise and playing-wise. So from a player-development standpoint – a personal-development standpoint – [I learned that] people are ready when they’re ready and [I learned about] the importance of building a foundation.
It is difficult to separate the various components that go into developing an NHL player—the philosophy and diligence of the scouts, the individual’s personal drive and attributes and the development model—but it is equally difficult to argue against Detroit’s patience with young players, given the results.
The logical extension of a patient approach is to send Monahan back to junior.
Monahan has fought through hard times with a poor OHL team; at 19 he stands a good chance of being a true all-situations difference-maker. Monahan would doubtless benefit from playing in the most critical moments (both offensive and defensive) of the game. He would also be a strong candidate for the Canadian World Junior team.
The alternative, keeping him in the NHL, is riskier.
Monahan will not be the everyman he would be in junior; his ice-time will doubtless be carefully controlled and high-leverage defensive moments will by and large find him on the bench. If, as seems likely, his scoring drops off, he will face considerable media scrutiny. That scrutiny will be exacerbated if the Flames are losing games, an entirely plausible outcome.
The trouble for Calgary is that it’s hard to send down the team’s leading goal scorer. The optics are terrible, for the player, team and fans, and no amount of statistical reasoning is likely to convince the masses that a point-per-game player did not deserve a longer audition. The Flames’ management group, assuming it uses such data, may not be convinced by it. That makes it unlikely that the team will choose to return Monahan to the OHL.
Fortunately for Flames fans, keeping Monahan in the NHL could work out just fine.
The development theories espoused by Holland (and others) lack solid evidential grounding; the choice between an immediate leap to the NHL and a more patient approach is a judgment call where either approach is defensible. For that matter, it's possible that Monahan's overall play could improve dramatically, and that the pessimistic projections above will not be borne out.
But it remains a risk—a risk that could have been avoided by dispatching Monahan to junior immediately following the preseason. Calgary decided not to insist upon a patient path, instead giving Monahan an opportunity to earn a full NHL season at 19; with his early results, it's hard to change that path now.
The team will just have to hope that it isn't rushing the player, and that if it is, there are no long-term negative ramifications.