By Jeff O’Connor
At least the Stefan Matteau issue has finally been resolved. Having played in his sixth game on Thursday night, the first year of his professional contract has kicked in. There are plenty of reasons why this resolution makes sense.
The first is a general statement. He needed to be back on an ice sheet playing hockey somewhere. Considering the season is already shortened, any missed chances for him to be at a rink and play in a game is a wasted opportunity. Before last night, he went eight days without playing in a competitive game (last Tuesday at Boston). Is it that big of a deal? Probably not, but at least we know what the plan is now instead of him sitting in a press box somewhere.
Those who are worried about him being in the top line, need not. Anyone remember a man by the name of Nick Palmieri? Remember how he was a pretty efficient player (given his skill set) back in 2010-11? I can’t remember…who were his linemates down the stretch run? Oh that’s right…he was partnered up with Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac, just like Matteau is now! Not only did Palmieri flourish, but Kovalchuk was on a crazy tear at that time and Travis was Travis. If you’re worried about him playing on the top line, don’t be; he can handle it.
While he may not contribute right away, I think 30 games will give him that valuable experience he needs to be part of a productive line. Picture this: Dainius Zubrus will be back at some point soon. I would bet he’s going to be back on that top line with Travis and Ilya. I think a fair amount of Devils fans would agree that they like what they see so far out of Jacob Josefson and Bobby Butler. Take a peer down the road. With the top nine forwards pretty much set right, how would a fourth line of Matteau-Josefson-Butler sound come playoff time? Inexperienced, sure. But young legs who can grind it out along the boards and create a few chances? Yea, I think so.
Also, this will get Krys Barch off the active roster (once Zubrus comes back). Listen, Cam Janssen makes Barch look like Jari Kurri, but Barch has very little upside. Josefson is here to stay, Matteau will be here for a while and Butler has the ceiling, in my opinion, to be an x-factor for this team. Again, axing Barch from the squad is just another reason it made sense to keep Matteau.
And if Matteau learns quite a bit on the job…is it out of this world to predict that he may be able to provide what Chris Kreider did for the New York Rangers last postseason? If you remember, Kreider came right from college to the Rangers for the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last year. He totaled five goals and seven points in 18 games. I’m not sure Matteau can be quite that big of a difference maker, but I think he’s an asset worth having come playoff time.
And finally, the financial issue of losing a year off his contract was silly. His cap hit for the next three seasons in $925K. The Devils have around $14 million in cap space for this season. Over the next two years? $25 million and $40 million. Then he’s a restricted free agent prior to the 2015-16 season. Unless he absolutely KILLS the NHL over the next few years, he’s not going to get an offer sheet from any other team in the NHL. This isn’t baseball where management tries to control when a player’s clock starts. With the latest CBA and a slash in the salary cap, the financial issue of keeping Stefan Matteau with the big club was a very subtle and meaningingless one.
That said, I am happy Matteau is here. Adam Larsson learned a lot last year playing with the big club. I know Matteau will do the same. In this day and age, more teenagers are getting a chance to thrive in the NHL. The Devils have really never played teenagers over the last few years but now have done so twice in the last two seasons. It’s encouraging to see. The New Jersey Devils are tweaking the way they draft and organize their player personnel. They took a teenager to the big club last year on defense. Now it’s an offensive kid’s turn to learn the Devils way. It’s a great thing that he is staying, not only for Matteau individually, but also for the organization’s altered direction.