Devils’ Tuesday was more productive off-ice than on it

For one day and one day only it feels irrelevant that the Devils put up another stinker at home, this time losing 5-2 to the Sharks in a game where they were down four after two periods and despite a third period where they showed some life, a game they were never truly within striking distance. It probably helped my mood that I was at a trivia night with friends as opposed to wasting my time watching last night’s dud, even if I wasn’t able to sell my tickets at all. At least I didn’t have to waste the $7 on parking – though Sunday night I was able to park on the street and save the minimal fare then as well. It’s certainly concerning that the team’s only won two of its last seven games with a tricky back-to-back in Minnesota and Winnipeg coming up this weekend but I’ll harp on this team’s level of play more in my next blog if things don’t improve.

To be fair, last night the story for the Devils was off ice, and it was two-fold though both parts involving the same individual. First, word came out in the morning that franchise center Jack Hughes was indeed returning to the lineup last night after missing the previous seventeen games with a shoulder injury.

With Hughes’ return, the Devils are finally as close as they’re going to be to having a full lineup this season, given the hip injury with Miles Wood is rumored to be a season-ender. There are no excuses left up front for what so far has been an inconsistent offense, and a poor power play. Hughes himself recognizes this with a leader-like quote after last night’s debacle:

Nice to see some accountability from within and without after a poor performance on the ice, it looks as if Lindy Ruff did his best Herb Brooks impression at practice today, saying (among other things) that if they don’t work hard during the game they’ll practice hard. More practice is all well and good but sometimes better schemes would help too, specifically on the power play. Even the line management was questionable last night with the staff wanting to lighten the load on Hughes by starting him at wing in his first game back.

Anyway, back to the better news – as if Hughes’ return wasn’t enough excitement for player, team and fans for one afternoon, word came down late in the day that the Devils had reached an agreement with their 20-year old center on a long-term extension for eight years and $64 million (an $8 million AAV).

It’s kind of ironic that the Devils managed to couple news of an extension with Hughes’ return to the lineup just several months after Nico Hischier’s own return to the lineup off a long injury was linked to the announcement of him being named captain that same day. Also ironic that the team lost both games with dud performances, so maybe it’s a good thing we have the captaincy settled with both players signed until close to the end of the decade, since the good news days off the ice tend to lead to letdowns on the ice.

There isn’t really much to critique about this extension, obviously you would have liked to have seen some more production from Hughes on the ice first but last season’s COVID-riddled disaster and this season’s early shoulder injury made that near impossible. So basically, GM Tom Fitzgerald had to take a leap of faith and hope the team’s most recent #1 overall developed into the top-line center many believe he will be. There was no world where signing a bridge deal would have worked for the Devils – either he would have way outperformed the bridge deal and cost us even more down the road (assuming we’d be able to keep him once he got closer to FA), or if he didn’t outperform the bridge deal it would be bad news for the franchise long-term regardless.

Like it or not, when you have two #1 overalls that are 22 and 20 years old respectively, the future of your franchise is pretty much tied to their success whether they’re on bridge deals or long-term contracts. You can’t really argue with the order of the Devils’ biggest money contracts with their best player Dougie Hamilton having the highest AAV with $9 million, then Hughes at $8, then Nico at $7. Plus as any Devil fan who’s been burned by the Scott Niedermayer defection would know, you also have to consider the Hughes brother factor since the paranoia would have been off the charts if Jack got to UFA before brother Quinn.

All signing Hughes did was push even more chips to the middle of the table in banking the next several years on the development of Jack and Nico. Sure, Dawson Mercer looks like a keeper who may well get his own mega extension in a couple of years, and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood’s certainly important to this team’s future as well but by the same token goalies are almost never a sure thing (though Blackwood’s been more consistent this year). Plus as awesome as Mercer’s been, he’s been helped by not needing to be the #1 guy at the start of his career the way Nico and Jack both had to be right off the hop. If Hughes and Nico both develop into the players we need them to be, this team’s future is certainly bright. If they don’t, we’ll have bigger problems than the combined $15 million per year on their contracts.

As if Fitzy didn’t have a busy enough week already with the Hughes signing, came word today that recent first rounder Shakir Mukhamadullin signed an entry-level deal with the understanding he’ll stay in the KHL the rest of this season on a loan deal. You always worry about Russian players eventually deciding to stay in the KHL so it’s always good when they take the next step toward playing in the NHL, and given he won’t even turn 20 until next month he still has plenty of time to develop in the team’s system.

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