Then came this morning's skate, when Dainius Zubrus was ruled out of Thursday's game against the Lightning and Matteau was inserted into his spot as left wing on the Devils' first line. Once Matteau is declared active for tonight's game, that precious first season of the entry-level contract becomes live and suddenly Matteau is one year closer to restricted free agency and eventually one year closer to unrestricted free agency.
One would assume that means Matteau will spend the season with the NHL club, learning on the job as one of the team's bottom-six forwards, scratched for the occasional game and shifted up in the lineup for the occasional shift. Not so fast, says Pete DeBoer.
Matteau, who's motto all year has been "day by day," unsurprisingly echoed his coach in the locker room after Thursday's skate. The soon-to-be-19-year-old rookie knows nothing is guaranteed beyond tonight. But that doesn't help Devils fans a bit confused by how Lou Lamoriello and DeBoer are navigating this situation. Does this mean he's staying with the Devils all season? Can he still be returned to his junior club? What about the AHL?
The answer to all three questions is: Yes.
Before the draft, Matteau de-committed from the University of North Dakota and decided to play for a Canadian Hockey League club in the QMJHL. However, the American-born Matteau was still part of the National Team Development program when he was drafted by the Devils last June, thus presenting the Devils with an interesting loophole. Thanks to this loophole of sorts, the Devils have options.
1. The Devils can assign Matteau to their AHL affiliate in Albany.
2. They could also return him to Blainville-Boisbriand of the OMJHL, his junior club.
3. Or they could keep him in the NHL.
Regardless of what the Devils do at this point, they will burn off Matteau's first contract year, whether he's in the CHL, AHL or NHL. However, the AHL option is an intriguing one. If, like the other junior-eligible prospects in the NHL this season, Matteau had been playing in the CHL prior to being drafted, the Devils would have only been able to keep him in the NHL or send him back to his junior club. It is almost impossible to believe the Devils would have burned a year of the ELC if they had planned to send him back to junior, where he can play without getting paid on his NHL contract. With that understanding, it leads me to believe they only have two realistic options and one likely outcome: NHL and AHL.
No matter how many games Matteau plays for the Devils this season, the team has the ability to shuffle him back and forth between New Jersey and Albany without Matteau having to pass through waivers. With this option at their disposal, the Devils have no reason to bury Matteau on a bottom-six line while playing him 10-12 minutes a night when he can develop while playing against pro competition. Adam Henrique burned the first year of his ELC playing in Albany before debuting in the final game of the 2010-11 season. If there's an injury or Matteau appears overqualified for the AHL, then bring him back up and play him 12-14 minutes a night.
If the Devils are convinced that Matteau is too talented and too far along in his development to spend this season in junior -- and that's I take out of playing him over finally signing Mathieu Darche -- then at least he got some NHL experience before being sent to the AHL. Use him tonight on varying lines, move him around while Zubrus is sidelined and then send him down to Albany. Don't make him be an extra piece shifting between the fourth line and the press box. That is no way to develop a player, as even DeBoer has admitted while discussing Adam Larsson's time as a healthy scratch earlier this season. Matteau needs to play and needs to play a lot against an opposition that challenges him but doesn't overwhelm him. Sounds like the AHL to me.