More often than not, rookies in the NHL take a couple of full seasons in the minors before getting the call to play in the big league. However, injuries do happen. Older players do get hurt a bit more often than younger guys, whether it’s wear and tear, or something else. When that happens, and the player gets put on injured reserve for an extended period of time, the team will go to it’s AHL affiliate and call up a rookie to take his place for the time being. When the veteran player is set to come back, and the doctors clear him to play, the rookie is then sent back to his AHL team for the rest of the season.
But what happens when the rookie turns out to be better than the veteran he replaced?
For example, the New Jersey Devils experienced a few injuries to their defensive group. Peter Harrold, Anton Volchenkov, and captain Bryce Salvador all experienced injuries. All the while, their offense also got banged up, losing Ryane Clowe for a while. The Devils, despite their depth defensively, had to reach into their minor league affiliate in Albany, to call up a couple of young guns to help them through this time. The Devils called up rookies Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill, and Reid Boucher to play for the big club while the older guys are licking their wounds. During their stints, Gelinas has been playing amazing hockey, and has shown that he deserves to stay in the NHL, with 3 goals and 9 assists in 23 games. Jon Merrill has been playing fine defensive hockey. Reid Boucher has been playing soundly, and was assigned to play with the top line in the last few games.
But what would happen if some of the injured guys start coming back?
The Los Angeles Kings have also been experiencing some issues with injuries. Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick got hurt, and the Kings called up Tyler Toffoli and Martin Jones to take their places. Both have been playing well when called upon, Toffoli getting nearly a point per game, and Jones winning all 3 of his games while allowing just 2 goals. But when Carter came back, Toffoli kept his spot. When Quick will return, it seems obvious that they will send Jones back to the minors, because a team can only have 2 keepers dressed at a time, however.
The Devils will have a different issue, because the players they called up are seemingly better than the players they are replacing.
Typical protocol would dictate that you send down the rookie, and say thanks and wait for your next opportunity. But some rookies play too well to get sent down again. At that point, the team would have to make a move in order to keep that rookie in the lineup, by sending someone else down, or placing them on waivers, or even a trade.
The issues with this process, is in the way veteran’s contracts are set up. Any veteran who is sent down has to pass through waivers in order to be fully sent down. During that time, any team can claim that player for themselves. A simple release costs the team more money than to keep the player, due to salary cap penalties for buyouts, and trades require two willing sides.
So to answer the question, albeit case specific usually, I think that if the young rookie earns his playing time during the injury, and plays better than how the veteran would have played, the team should make a spot for him, however it may be possible. Despite the complications with the system in terms of making a spot, if the player is becoming an essential part of the team, and a leg on which the team can depend on, then I don’t see any reason that the rook should be moved back to the minors. I know that it’s challenging to move older guys coming off of injuries, because no one would want them unless they are truly desperate, but striking gold in a call-up does happen, and when it does, it’s beautiful.
The New Jersey Devils are the most prevalent case of this in the NHL, because their rookie studs began the season in the AHL, and have impressed at the NHL level. Most call-ups are there for emergency purposes, and may never see ice time in the NHL. It remains to be seen what New Jersey will do from here, with their injured troops on the mend. I think the young guys, who have breathed some life into this team, should stay. But, of course, that’s much easier said than done.