The nine-game warrior – A term I’m officially coining today to describe the players who fit into that exciting bubble between junior hockey and the NHL. The nine-game term refers to the threshold of games that junior eligible players can dress for before kickstarting their entry-level-contracts. Playing only nine games before a player is returned to junior allows a team to postpone the clock starting on their bargain deal, all while extending their audition, and therefore exposure to real NHL-level competition.
We already have a good idea of some players who will undoubtedly receive some kind of an audition to open the NHL season. That list will likely include Kirby Dach, Bowen Byram, Noah Dobson, and Barrett Hayton. Today, however, I also want to discuss some of the players who might surprise. As we near the conclusion of the NHL preseason, and yes this is still ONLY preseason, we’ve seen the likes of a few young players who seem surprisingly ready to make an impact – let’s assess their chances.
Editor's note: Following submission of this article, Byram and Cozens have since been returned to their respective WHL teams for the 2019-20 season. We are keeping this in to reflect Brayden's thoughts while the two were at NHL training camps.
Kirby Dach – CHI
Although some people may have been caught off guard by the Blackhawks selection of Kirby Dach at third overall, Chicago GM Stan Bowman maintains that the team selected the best player available. Dach is currently sitting out with concussion-like symptoms that were incurred during his debut at the Traverse City Tournament. The Hawks are eager to get the 6-4 centerman into their lineup for assessment purposes, so much so that they’ll be willing to carry him on their roster through to the regular season. While his junior team in Saskatoon will surely miss the offense that he can provide, it’s possible that the Hawks retain Dach late into October, or even further. His skill and skating ability are extremely high; however, consistency of effort and production have been a question. If the former dips to an unacceptable level, the Blades will have him back before long.
Chances of starting the regular season – 75%
Chance of exceeding 9 GP – 35%
Bowen Byram – COL
Colorado boasts one of the most skilled young bluelines currently in the league, neglecting their recent fourth overall selection. At 18 years old, Byram has a chance to attain a precedent that hasn’t been considered for junior eligible defensemen since Seth Jones. The Avs have thus far retained the services of the left-shot who has thus far played an assertive pre-season. The team has refused to restrain the Cranbrook native, allowing him ample time on ice, including upwards of five minutes on the power play against Vegas. Ultimately, considering the luxury that the organization currently holds in their defensive depth, there isn’t a necessity to retain the young defenseman for an extended period. That doesn’t however mean that he won’t receive an opportunity to prove his worth in the regular season, and once that door opens, anything can change.
Chances of starting the regular season – 55%
Chance of exceeding 9 GP – 20%
Barrett Hayton – ARZ
The Coyotes blew us away a year ago when they selected Hayton in the top 5 of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. In the year that followed, we watched as he sadly endured an injury-absorbed season in the OHL where he was otherwise outstanding. Last fall, there was considered to be a chance that Hayton would even begin the year with the Coyotes before sustaining an injury. Thus far in the team’s pre-season ventures, Hayton has been bestowed a healthy amount of ice time including some powerplay time that he’s made well on. Although his development status remains bound by the CHL-NHL agreement, there is a good chance that the ‘Yotes allow him ample opportunity to prove himself at the NHL level over the course of the first few weeks, if not more.
Chances of starting the regular season – 90%
Chance of exceeding 9 GP – 80%
Dylan Cozens – BUF
Being selected by Buffalo at seventh overall in this summer’s entry draft was mostly a blessing for Cozens in the sense that it allows for the highly touted center to develop under less pressure and expectations. Given his broad array of tools, the Whitehorse native would have been worthy of a top-5 selection in other years. Under the new head coach Ralph Krueger, Cozens has been forced to earn his ice time, even during the Sabres preseason, a technique that will likely challenge Cozens’ persistence and intensity. He hasn't given the organization a clear reason to be demoted so the door remains open… for now.
Chances of starting the regular season – 30%
Chance of exceeding 9 GP – 15%
Ty Smith – NJD
As one of the youngest players selected in the 2018 NHL draft, the Devils’ top defense prospect remains bound to return to the Spokane Chiefs if not retained by New Jersey. The organization’s offseason retooling that included the acquisition of PK Subban means that Smith has to truly earn a position at the NHL level if he wants to have any hope of sticking around. The 180 lb left shot is capable of providing a strong transition element as well as a relentless hold on the blueline at the junior level, but making those elements effective as a pro will likely take some time and practice. While returning to the WHL would be far from restrictive in terms of his development, an opportunity to see the ice at full speed of an NHL game will likely be beneficial as well.
Chances of starting the regular season – 70%
Chance of exceeding 9 GP – 30%
Ryan Suzuki – CAR
One of the latest selected first-time eligible players in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft who remains with his NHL club this preseason is Ryan Suzuki. Both he and Brayden Tracey remain on with their respective clubs in the NHL, although for Tracey, the clock seems to be ticking much quicker. The plethora of skilled prospects in Carolina’s system means that, as internal evaluators, they have significantly more work to do. In a way, that could open the door for Suzuki to at least challenge his peers later into the team’s cuts. With so much experience surrounding him, it seems unlikely that he is one of the players to emerge, but the fact that he has endured until now while playing a significant role in his preseason opportunity is meaningful.
Chances of starting the regular season – 25%
Chance of exceeding 9 GP – 5%
Cale Fleury, Defense – Montreal Canadiens
The 20-year-old Calgary native has his sights fixed on a shaky bottom pairing in Montreal for the upcoming campaign. He’s already played nearly a full slate of games in the AHL with the Laval Rocket in which he managed a very respectable rookie scoring rate. After cutting ten pounds in the offseason, the 6-1, now 205 lb right shot seems to have the pace and agility to at least defend at par or better than replacement value in the NHL. While Noah Juulsen has been the budding Canadiens defense prospect of note in the past, early signs point to Fleury overtaking the 2015 first-round draft pick in the Habs’ depth chart as he deals with concussion symptoms.
Chances of starting the regular season – 65%
Chance of exceeding 9 GP – 55%
Regardless of how each of these players fares over the next several weeks, the way that their individual auditions have gone thus far is a positive sign. An important thing to remember in regards to where these players end up is that a positive result in the short term doesn’t necessarily pave the path for long-term success. Likewise, a demotion for any of these players should be considered far from a failure – if your fantasy season hinges on one of these prospects having a big year, you’ve probably got some other issues that need addressing. With that being said, I believe that if you’ve been lucky/smart enough to draft any or several of these players in your fantasy leagues over the past couple of years you’ve got the right strategy and they’ll certainly pay off in the years to come.
Thanks for reading.