The NHL's collective bargaining agreement allows teams nine regular-season games to evaluate a player who is on his entry-level contract before deciding whether to send him back to his junior team (OHL, QMJHL or WHL). The decision is based on many factors -- including the desire to keep the first year of the player's contract from kicking in as well as team needs -- but the most important one is the player's readiness to skate against the highest level of competition in the world.
The most notable decision last season was the Tampa Bay Lightning's choice to send No. 3 overall pick Jonathan Drouin back to Halifax, when some considered him the best prospect in that year's draft class.
My general rule when evaluating the decision is that I advocate keeping guys who can reasonably project to play in a top-nine forward or top-four defenseman role with regularity; this allows the player to develop while also starting the timer on his path to free agency. If the team figures to be a contender (as was the case with Drouin in 2013-14), I take that into account and am more likely to recommend a return to junior.
What follows are my recommendations on a handful of top NHL rookies, based on my conversations with those inside the game and my observations. Calgary Flames first-rounder Sam Bennett is not discussed here, mainly because it's likely he will be sent down once he has recovered from his current injury.
Aaron Ekblad | D | Florida Panthers
Junior team: Barrie Colts (OHL)