TORONTO — Going into training camp, Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney was all but certain that Dylan Strome would go back to juniors. Midway through, Strome's play was so good he wondered if the No. 3 pick should stay in the NHL.
In the final analysis, the Coyotes saw Strome look like an 18-year-old in the final few pre-season games and sent him back to the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters. And they weren't alone in taking the patient approach.
Only four players drafted in June are on opening-night rosters: No. 1 pick Connor McDavid for the Edmonton Oilers, No. 2 pick Jack Eichel for the Buffalo Sabres, No. 4 pick Noah Hanifin for the Carolina Hurricanes and No. 46 pick Daniel Sprong for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Coyotes, Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers in particular followed through on their long-term plans by letting top-10 picks go back to the CHL.
"For an 18 or 19 year old, you better be sure, 100 per cent sure," Maloney said. "It's probably similar to what the Leafs did with (No. 4 pick Mitch) Marner and some of the other guys that went back. The reality is that physically they're just not ready to compete at this level all the time."
Marner is back with the OHL's London Knights now as co-captain, and on Wednesday the Otters announced Strome will wear the "C" this season. No. 6 pick Pavel Zacha of the Devils goes back to the Sarnia Sting to play with top 2016 prospect Jakob Chychrun, and No. 7 pick Ivan Provorov of the Flyers goes back to the loaded Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League.
As tempting as it is to keep 18-year-olds for a nine-game trial run or even the season, Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall said it's "dangerous" risk.
"It's one thing now, it's another thing in October, November, and December," Hextall told reporters at camp last week. "This is what's right for the kids."
Maloney said young players often generate pre-season hype for the first few practices and games before veterans kick their play into gear. There was certainly some excitement about Leafs prospects Marner, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, but Toronto stayed true to its vow to let young players develop in the junior ranks and the minors.
After picking him second in 2007, the Flyers wanted winger James van Riemsdyk to turn pro. He had the size to play with grown men, but van Riemsdyk figured it better for his development to play at the University of New Hampshire, which he did for two seasons.
"You never really hear about guys regretting staying an extra year," van Riemsdyk said. "Sometimes you hear about guys regretting leaving early. ... I wanted to make sure i was really ready for what was next for me."
Van Riemsdyk made his NHL debut at the age of 28 and was part of Philadelphia's run to the Stanley Cup final. Among the teams drafting in the top 10 last year, the climb to that level will be steeper, but they see their top picks as key pieces of the future.
Maloney said the Coyotes don't want Strome to be a "run-of-the-mill NHL player" and would rather let him dominate the OHL like Max Domi did last season as a 19-year-old. Like Domi, Strome could lead a team and represent Canada at the world junior championship to get a taste of a higher level of competition.
"I don't see how that is ever a bad experience," Maloney said. "We want him to be a front-line player, and I think there's steps to get there."
Letting him play this year would've been a risky step contractually and physically. In recent years the Sabres burned a year of Mikhail Grigorenko's entry-level contract by being indecisive about his status, and the Oilers did the same with Leon Draisaitl last season.
Strome or any rookie can play nine games before the contract counts for a season but not beyond that.
"To me that's not something you take a chance on and then a month later say, 'Uh oh,' send him back and now you blow a year of the contract," Maloney said. "You only have these guys a certain amount of time in your organization."
Physically, there's the concern that an 18- or 19-year-old kid might be injured by something as simple as a hit from a six-foot-five, 200-pound veteran. Maloney said the Coyotes are "bullish" on Strome's future but didn't want to risk him getting hurt.
"All you have to do is look around the league and how many young players that came in the league and they're great for two months and then they pop out a shoulder," he said. "The injuries are always a concern with young players that aren't physically mature enough to handle it."
Then there are the exceptions. On Thursday, McDavid will debut in St. Louis, Eichel at home against the Ottawa Senators and Hanifin in Nashville.
"Obviously the top two dogs, that's pretty easy," Maloney said. "But even a guy like Noah Hanifin, that guy's big and he's physically a man, so maybe he can withstand the physical pounding that you get in the NHL. Time will tell."
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press