After the Devils made the long-awaited choice of Luke Hughes at #4, GM Tom Fitzgerald had to wait another three hours to make his second first-round selection at #29. Despite all the speculation of a possible trade up or trade back (both later confirmed by the GM as possibilities), the Devils chose instead to stay pat and pick winger Chase Stillman, son of former NHL player Cory, brother of a Blackhawks player and grandson of another former NHL player. Like the Hughes brothers, family bloodlines pretty much give you a guarantee of a rink rat who is a hard worker, and the Devils certainly got two kids who fit that description last night.
Whether Stillman was a reach is a matter of opinion, since most of the so-called experts had him more in the mid-2nd round range. Of course we have no second-rounder this year due to the Nikita Gusev trade. If there’s one draft I could care less about consensus ranks though, it’s this one. It’s not Stillman’s fault he couldn’t goose his draft ranking in the OHL this year (they suspended play) and had to go to the Danish league. He certainly seems to have the skillset to be a solid middle six player and power forward, which we don’t have enough of at either the NHL or prospect levels right now. Say this for Fitz, he’s prioritizing size and physicality in a way previous GM Ray Shero didn’t, and I’m all for this. It’s not like he’s automatically bouncing every ‘small, skill player’ out of the system, he just recognizes you need guys to complement each other in any orchestra…sorry couldn’t help but using a Lou Lamoriello saying there.
Fitz is a lot more Lou-like than Shero was, which probably makes a certain segment of our fanbase uneasy. I never really thought the problem with Lou was as much Lou in the later years, as it was the scouting and development. Of course Lou was ultimately responsible for keeping David Conte on in a lifetime role even after it became obvious the Devils’ drafting had fallen behind the times post-lockout, as well as keeping up the win-now pretense for far too long. Not to mention ownership skimping on things like scouts and draft infrastructure didn’t help on that end either. At least that shouldn’t be an issue under current owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer. Hopefully neither will the drafting and development under long-time scouting director Paul Castron and the new player development manager Meghan Duggan.
Getting back to the Stillman pick, the cynics are calling it a reach with no upside. First of all this is a weak draft to begin with, how many guys with so-called upside do you really think are gonna slip without a good reason? Second of all, we as fans never seem to learn that NHL teams’ internal draft lists are vastly different than the consensus rankings from pundits once you get past the 10-20 range. Fans think they know better than GM’s, sometimes that’s even true (as with the oft-cited Matt Barzal drop a few years ago in the first round) though usually the GM becomes a fan in short order when that’s the case anyway.
As much as I was aghast at the Shakir Mukhamadullin pick last year, this is the point in the draft – and beyond – where GM’s get paid to prove their worth. A trained monkey could have mocked Luke to the Devils at #4 but it’s a little harder to say anything with certainty after the first several picks – which weren’t even that certain in terms of order. Fitz deserves the chance to see if his plan will work. Nobody bats an eye anymore when Steve Yzerman makes an ‘off-board’ pick because his track record shows a lot of them have panned out over the years. Hopefully we’ll be able to say that someday about Fitz. If I have a criticism of the pick it’s because of the PTSD I still have over Lou and Conte picking guys like Stefan Matteau and John Quenneville (both from hockey families) with late first-rounders in the last decade. This is a new scouting and player development department to be sure, but the similarities of the Stillman pick to those initially made me cringe. Ideally, he’ll turn into a far better NHL player than either of those two.
As far as the rest of the draft, without a second rounder the Devils will have to wait a while to pick again at #68, barring a trade up or in. There’s some possible scuttlebutt about the Devils potentially using a day two pick to trade for the UFA rights of a pending FA. The first name on any wishlist is Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton. Maybe Fitz will differ from both Shero and Lou in this case and pay the best FA on the market. God knows any defensive help we can get is still welcome and I’m tired of sitting on cap space when you can just dump any contract to Arizona for a second-rounder or two anyway. Hamilton in particular can be a difference maker that changes our trajectory, probably not quite a Zdeno Chara to Boston type impact but ideally the next best thing. If you improve the defense appreciably and the young forwards mature, then you can sell me on a turnaround sooner rather than later.
Going away from the draft for a second, the NHL schedule also came out in the last few days with the NHL doing the right thing and giving Seattle geographical rival Vancouver for its first-ever home game. Ironically my first thought when the Devils’ schedule came out was that the pressure was now on for the team to get a good start with their first five games being at home and most of them winnable games.
Apparently there is a catch though, as this schedule contains an Olympic break which as of now still isn’t signed, sealed and delivered. Supposedly there’s a backup schedule under lock and key in case the Olympic negotiations fall through. So guess I can’t write in pen that my return to the Prudential Center will be the Chicago home opener just yet. We have fourteen back-to-backs with this listed schedule which doesn’t seem terrible considering the built-in Olympic break. Having only three games against the Flyers and Capitals is weird but when you have to schedule games against 31 other teams, sacrifices have to be made I suppose. It will be nice to see a variety of opponents again after the division-only season of 2021 culminating in a 2022 division matchup for the Cup (Tampa-Montreal).