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NHL

Junior players caught in NHL crunch

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 8:28 p.m.
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The Devils decided to keep first-round pick Stefan Matteau rather than send him to juniors. (Getty Images)
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MONTREAL, CANADA - JANUARY 19: Alex Galchenyuk #27 of the Montreal Canadiens skates during the warm up period prior to facing the Toronto Maple Leafs in their NHL game at the Bell Centre on January 19, 2013 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 2-1. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
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The Flyers returned prospect Scott Laughton to the juniors before letting his entry-level contract kick in. (Getty Images)

Stefan Matteau is still with the New Jersey Devils. He may even be with them the rest of the week.

But, then, you might not see him the rest of the season.

Matteau was one of dozens of NHL teenagers caught up in a quirky rule that allowed teams to play their junior-age players for five games before making a decision to return them to their junior club or keep them on the roster and have this season count as the first one of their three-year, entry-level deal.

Some players, like Philadelphia's Scott Laughton, were returned to their junior team after playing five games.

Others, like Matteau, still have undecided fates. Just because Matteau, New Jersey's No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, has yet been sent back, doesn't mean he will necessarily play for the Devils the rest of the way. New Jersey will play the Islanders on Thursday night and Matteau could be there — only watching from the press box in a suit and not in uniform.

“He has played extremely well in the time he has been given,” Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “He's an 18-year-old, and there are a lot of things to consider before we make a decision.”

The Penguins did not invite any of their junior prospects to their six-day training camp.

Junior standouts like Olli Maatta (London/Ontario Hockey League), Scott Harrington (London/OHL) and Derrick Pouliot (Portland/Western Hockey League) remained with their teams, the Penguins preferring they gain more experience before reaching the NHL.

Lamoriello insisted Matteau's contract would not be an issue. Matteau can remain on the roster; he just can't play or the contract kicks in now that he's completed five games, the last of which was a 2-1 loss in Boston on Tuesday. He played just 8:56 of gametime vs. the Bruins.

Here's why that's important: Should Matteau, or any player with a similar status, play a sixth game, the contract counts against the salary cap and he moves a year closer toward free agency. And while Matteau is a talented player, he's not quite a phenom yet and could benefit from more seasoning in juniors.

Then again, the Devils thought enough of Matteau to put him on the top line with Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk against Montreal on Sunday night.

It's the kind of jam teams around the league were faced with this week as the five-game window expired.

Matteau played against Montreal rookie Alex Galchenyuk in Sunday's game. Galchenyuk, with five points in five games, was in the same spot as Matteau. The Canadiens decided this week to keep Galchenyuk, though, the third overall pick in the draft.

The Flyers sent Laughton, their 18-year-old first-round pick, back to his Oshawa junior team in the OHL. Laughton likely won't play again for the Flyers this season, even if they make a playoff run, because there's no sense wasting a year of his contract. He was scoreless in five games with Flyers.

“He needs to play and he needs to play in all situations,” general manager Paul Holmgren said. “He's a good young prospect and the little bit of time he had here with us was good for him and good for us.”

Because of the lockout that wiped out the first three months of the season, rookies had only a few days of training camp to impress club officials, then prove they were worth keeping after only five games. There's enough pressure to make a team and play well for any rookie. This season, it soared.

Among the players who stayed in the NHL are Buffalo Sabres center Mikhail Grigorenko, Boston Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton, and Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov.

Winnipeg has yet to make a decision on center Mark Scheifele (he's played in three of six games), and Anaheim Ducks forward Rickard Rakell has played in four of the team's five games.

The Minnesota Wild sent defenseman Mathew Dumba back to juniors. The Wild envision him becoming a top-shelf, puck-moving defenseman. His development will eventually be aided by the offseason acquisition of veteran defenseman Ryan Suter. But Dumba returned to the Western Hockey League without playing a game for the Wild, though he now knows what it's like to be at the highest tier of hockey.

“I think that's huge for me, getting to know the guys personally and just knowing what it takes to be at this level,” he said.

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