Did Devils Make ‘Right Decision’ With Stefan Matteau?

Corey Griffin

Pete DeBoer said Monday that he thought the Devils made the “right decision” by returning Stefan Matteau to junior for the QMJHL playoffs. It was a quote that got me thinking because, let’s be honest, Matteau’s status and handling this year has been one of the bigger issues surrounding this team. So, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s DeBoer’s quote in full.

Via Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice:

“I think it’s the right decision,” DeBoer said. “He got great experience, learned a lot. He’s got a big upside and a bright future. I think the league at this time of year goes to another level and it’s tough for young guys their first time around to find that. I think it was the right move.”

You’re right, Pete. It was the “right decision” to send Matteau back to junior now. He wasn’t dressing, even with the Devils starting some questionable forwards on a nightly basis. With the pace quickening toward a playoff push, Matteau would’ve been overmatched, even more than he already was. But the question is not whether it was the right decision now, it’s whether it was the right decision all along. Should Matteau have even stuck around in the first place?

It was clear from the beginning that Matteau has NHL-caliber talent and has a body that is pretty close to ready for the NHL. Matteau might even have the head (eventually) and (one day) view the game in a way that not only fits in the Devils’ system but puts him in position to excel as a part of it. The problem is that when you’re a 19-year-old rookie, that last part is the most important part. You need a calm, cool and collected presence on the ice at all times because this game is rocket-ship fast and it will leave an unprepared kid in the dust real fast.

Now, I’m not saying Matteau looked overwhelmed all the time, because he didn’t. But you can’t tell me he didn’t appear out of his league for most of his time with the Devils. I can count on one hand the amount of shifts where I remember Matteau standing out and making an impact, which is a pretty big problem when you’re a small-market team with money issues and you’re burning the first year of an entry-level contract on your most recent first-round draft pick.

DeBoer talks about great experience and lessons learned during Matteau’s time with the Devils, but was this really the year to give him those lessons? Or was he kept around because he had upside and the spend-thrift Devils decided it was a better financial decision at this point to keep him around rather than sign a veteran free agency? You would never guess that a team fairly conscious about how much, how often and when it spends to eschew long-term gains for short-term answers, but that’s what this situation looks like to me. The Devils, instead of adding a veteran free agent for $2 to $3 million at the start of the season, decided it best to pay the first year of Matteau’s rookie deal, which has a cap hit of $925K according to Cap Geek, and accelerate Matteau’s eventual free agency by a year — a current savings that will lead to an eventual cost.

Was this all financially motivated? That’s a tough thing to prove and of course the Devils will never admit to anything like that. But all you have to do is look back at the days before and after Matteau played his contract-activating sixth NHL game. As soon as Matteau played his fifth game, which was the limit for junior-eligible players in this shortened season, he was a healthy scratch. The Devils kept him around to watch, but it was assumed that was all it was — some more time for him to practice with the team and watch games before eventually returning to his junior club. Except, suddenly, Dainius Zubrus was hurt and the Devils had no real depth at left wing, Matteau’s natural position. Instead of signing a free agent or trading for a veteran (which they later did once it was clear Zubrus would need surgery), the Devils inserted Matteau back into the lineup and activated his ELC. At the time, DeBoer and Lou Lamoriello didn’t connect to the two dots, but it’s pretty clear the two moves were connected. Why not continue to dress Matteau the whole time if you had every intention of keeping him around? Did he suddenly prove himself in a handful of practices and meetings after his fifth game? No, and that showed as he continued to play less than 10 minutes a night, dodging in and out of the lineup and never really fitting into a consistent role — which is my biggest problem with how the Devils handled this.

I’m a firm believer in the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture argument when it comes to prospects. Yes, some kids are bound to burn out or never make it for a variety of reasons, but I believe there are a large number of prospects on the border between NHL player and washout that can be nurtured to former side of that border rather than the latter. Does yanking a kid in and out of the lineup, messing with his confidence as a 19-year old and putting him in a position where it’s incredibly difficult for him to succeed help his development? Of course it doesn’t. So why in the world would the Devils — a franchise that banks on developing its own, cheap replacement players — jack up Matteau’s development path only to send him back to junior when the shit got serious? To save a little cash? No way that was the “right decision,” Pete.