Ken Holland didn’t think he would have to be forced into making this decision. The last time the Detroit Red Wings drafted a player and inserted him into the opening night lineup a couple of months later was when No. 3 overall pick Keith Primeau made the jump as an 18-year-old. That was nearly three decades ago.
Since then, the franchise’s model has been to treat their prospects like a fine wine: don’t pop the cork until they’ve aged — for a very, very long time.
That was the plan when the Red Wings selected Michael Rasmussen with the No. 9 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. With two years of junior eligibility remaining, Holland expected the kid would get a quick look at training camp and then go back to the Western Hockey League.
That still might happen. Rasmussen has a different plan.
With three goals in four games heading into Friday night’s exhibition against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the native of Surrey, B.C., has stuck around longer than anyone in Detroit anticipated. As crazy as it might sound coming from an organization as patient with their prospects as the Red Wings, Holland said he is not ruling out the possibility of keeping him in the lineup for the start of the season.
“As the competition’s gotten a little stiffer, he’s probably played better than we anticipated,” the Red Wings general manager said by phone on Thursday. “I still think I’m leaning towards letting him go back and having a great year in junior. But we’ll see what happens in the next three days. I’d say right now he’s probably on the bubble. He’s played real well. Whether we send him back or start with him at this time, he’s done everything that we could have hope and more.”
It’s not just Rasmussen who has exceeded expectations.
Last year, five players — Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, Matthew Tkachuk and Jakob Chychrun — played beyond the nine-game mark, after which the season counts as the first year of a player’s entry-level contract. This year, there could be even more.
Nico Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick, has three goals and five points in three exhibition games for New Jersey. Fans in Philadelphia joked that No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick officially became a Flyer — and put his recent injury history to rest — by getting into a fight with Boston’s David Krejci earlier this week.
Florida’s Owen Tippett (10th overall) and New York Rangers forward Filip Chytil (21st) are both expected to start the season in the NHL. “Talent has no age,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters.
Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli said Kailer Yamamoto (22nd) has made a “very strong argument” to make the team after scoring five goals in four games.
So much for all the talk that this was supposed to be a weak draft year.
“It’s funny, every time we say that that it’s a weak draft, we start drafting players and then at the end we go, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good draft,’” Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon said in an interview Friday. “Obviously there weren’t the superstars at the front end of it. But there’s a lot of quality players all the way through to 50 or 60.”
No one is expecting that Hischier or Patrick or Tippett will do this season what Matthews (40 goals) and Laine (36 goals) did last season. The 2017 draft did not contain any generational talents. But what with the regular season less than a week away, this year’s draft class is showing that it can definitely play.
“Based on our coaches and how his camp has gone, he’ll probably be in our starting lineup,” Tallon said of Tippett, who had one assist in three games. “What I like about him is he wants the puck and he wants it in critical situations. I think his game is very well suited to the pros.”
Making the opening-night roster is one thing. Sticking for the entire season is another. Tallon said Jonathan Huberdeau looked NHL-ready when he arrived to his first training camp as the third-overall pick in 2011, before “getting crushed” with a hit.
“Even though he was having a good camp, I thought it was a positive to go back and get his body stronger physically so he wouldn’t get hurt” Tallon said.
Another factor to consider, said Holland, is whether it’s best for a player’s development to be challenged in the NHL or to dominate in junior. “We have to make a good decision, not only for the short term but the long term of Rasmussen’s career.”
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos