The Future Five: The Jack Hughes Effect
Welcome to the Future Five, a column featuring five thoughts on the future of the New Jersey Devils franchise.
This week, we’re looking at how the 2019 draft, and recent trades and signings, impact or inform our view of the Devils moving forward.
1. The Jack Hughes Effect
It’s been only 12 days since the first round of the 2019 NHL draft, but it feels like an eternity. Because of that, it is easy to take Jack Hughes and the impact he will have on the Devils roster for granted, especially during a relatively quiet start to free agency. As a quick reminder:
Jack Hughes is the best prospect, for any team, not currently in the NHL
That feels good to write.
So what does this mean for the Devils? Let’s take a look at a rough outline of the forward options for next season:
I’m not sold on the placement of certain players, but setting up this rough draft accomplishes two things:
A) It shows the immediate impact that Jack Hughes has on the centre core. A 1-2-3 punch of Hischier, Hughes, and Zajac is strong, and allows Hughes to have the greatest opportunity to succeed. We’ve seen the Devils use caution when acclimatising Pavel Zacha to the centre position, even when he was the nominal 2C, by giving Zajac’s line equal or greater minutes at even-strength. I’d expect the same in 2019/20, with Hughes receiving sheltered minutes at even-strength, Zajac and Coleman shouldering the role of a shut-down line, and the Devils placing Hughes on his position on the right-hand boards to dominate on the powerplay.
One thing to consider is that while faceoffs aren’t everything, rookie centres generally struggle to win them. The Devils used Taylor Hall (48.6 FO%) to take faceoffs during Hischier’s (42.9 FO%) rookie season to increase that line’s faceoff percentage. If we put Hughes with Bratt and Simmonds - a trio that I think makes sense stylistically - that line wouldn’t have anyone to take faceoffs. Simmonds is credited with only 38 faceoffs during the past two seasons, while Bratt only took 18.
B) There are many question marks surrounding the team’s young prospects, but I am especially perplexed about Pavel Zacha’s role. I like him with Coleman and Zajac, but if Simmonds sticks in a top-6 role, that removes the possibility of giving Jesper Boqvist or Mikhail Maltsev top-9 minutes. Both have European assignment clauses that would allow them to go back overseas for the year if they didn’t make the NHL roster. Perhaps they’re not ready, but I suspect that Boqvist is. The way the roster is currently constructed leaves little room for him.
Competition in camp is good - you need to earn your spot, not have it gifted to you - but it’s tough seeing prospects pushed back overseas for the year if they would otherwise fit in that NHL/AHL betweener category. The European assignment clause means that not making the NHL roster really limits the team’s ability to dictate that player’s development during the season. The clauses are often the cost of getting these players to sign in the first place, and I don’t blame them for seeking control over their future.
Similarly, I feel that McLeod and Bastian will get more consistent time during stretches of the season, but in bottom-6 roles. I’m still a believer in McLeod, but this is an important reset year for him to prove he can play the way management wants him to - consistency, defensive responsibility, and grit.
Seney, Anderson, and others will be pushed further down, and likely play in the AHL full-time barring the occasional injury call-up.
What Jack Hughes does is solidify the centre core (barring some faceoff questions) for the next few seasons (is Zacha acting as Zajac’s heir apparent?), and creates fiercer competition throughout the roster. All of this is good, but it almost creates more questions than answers.
I will take Rooney in New Jersey in a bottom-6 role any day of the week.
2. PK Subban and Cap Space
It is well-reported that the Devils were the only team, among the four that were courting PK Subban, that could or would take the entire $9 million cap hit. The best part was that even after the trade, the Devils were still beneath the 2019/20 salary floor.
The Devils were ready for a trade like this for several reasons:
Being shrewd and discerning in free agency for the past two to three seasons, and holding back from committing too much cap and term to second tier players. It isn’t the exciting option, but it is the most prudent one.
Being willing to acquire and subsequently trade secondary players that hold value for other teams (Boyle, Johansson, Lovejoy) to build a stock of draft capital, but also replenish the team’s cap space each offseason. The Devils have very few long term commitments, and it’s been several seasons since the team had significant term commitments throughout the lineup.
More than acquiring tradeable assets, patience and prudence were the biggest factors in landing PK Subban. What could the future hold if we take the hindsight we’re discussing here to analyze the Devils’ current situation? What contracts, other than future earnings for Hischier, Hall, Hughes, and Smith, are we planning and preparing for?
If anyone doubted Ray Shero and the owners when they said that they’d be willing to pay up when the time came, the Subban trade should be proof of those claims. While he has no signing bonus this year, he’s making $10 million in real dollars this year, and the devils will pay out $12 million in signing bonuses over the next two seasons.
3. PK Subban and Drafting
While cap space formed the basis of the Subban trade, the Devils sent futures back to the Predators via young defensemen (Santini, Davies) and two 2nd round draft picks. The 34th pick in the 2019 NHL draft was likely the highest value traded, but LD Jeremy Davies was likely the second-biggest piece of the deal.
Davies, a 7th round pick in 2016, demonstrates the value of good drafting. He played at a point-per-game pace during the last two seasons in the NCAA, and is now a positive example of one of the Devils’ draft tenets - choosing players with the raw tools, that will be able to grow into a larger role on their individual teams. Davies joins players like Jesper Bratt as success stories from the later rounds. While he has yet to play a game at the NHL level, I believe he’ll make the show within the next season or two.
Ian and I recently talked through each of the Devils’ 11 picks in the 2019 NHL draft, and while a player’s chances at making it decrease throughout the draft, these picks matter. Bratt is a key player on the Devils roster. Davies was one of the main pieces in the Subban trade. Someone in the later rounds of the 2019 draft will make an impact, whether for the Devils or another team.
4. The Timeline
One small anecdote - the road towards the Devils in the Details podcast started the day of the Taylor Hall trade. I decided to reach out to a particular reddit user whose work I admired. I wanted to talk with him about how Taylor Hall’s age told us something about the timeline in which Ray Shero wanted to compete. Ian and I started talking, and we quickly became co-conspirators in a new blog. A year later, we decided to do a one-off podcast to talk about the draft, and we haven’t stopped since.
I believe that the PK Subban trade gives us some further clarity on our upcoming competition window. Subban is on a $9 million dollar contract for the next three years, after which he’ll be 33 years old. The Devils have the option to run with PK for the next three seasons and move on to clear cap space for younger players if they choose. In an ideal situation, the following players will have received, or will be about to receive, a potentially big raise:
Taylor Hall (UFA 2020)
Nico Hischier (RFA 2020)
Jesper Bratt (RFA 2020)
Mackenzie Blackwood (RFA 2020)
Jack Hughes (RFA 2022)
Ty Smith (RFA 2022)
Other players, such as Andy Greene ($5 million until 2020) and Cory Schneider ($6 million until 2022) will have contracts expire throughout this window, helping the Devils’ cap. However, if Jack Hughes is the player we hope and think he is, the window throughout his entry level contract, which overlaps with Subban’s $9 million contract, is our best guess at an immediate window for competition.
That’s not a guarantee, but the acquisition of Subban shows that the team’s mindset is shifting. Shero is more motivated to make moves to capitalize on players like Hughes, Hischier, Smith, and others playing above their contract values, to win during this window.
The rebuild is coming to a close.
5. Making Good Bets in the Later Rounds
On the last episode of the podcast, Ian described 2019 7th rounder Nikola Pasic as a prospect with raw tools and talent, but no clear identity as a player. This description should sound familiar, as it also applied to prospects like Jesper Bratt, Aarne Talvitie, Jeremy Davies, and others.
Rasid Becirovic on twitter confirms that this is a trend that the Devils look for in the later rounds:
This approach to drafting is significant because it helps you identify players that are often buried farther down a lineup, but who have the skills and potential to grow into a larger role. It helps you find players that aren’t the “full package”, but who have a solid foundation that can be built upon by working on one or more skills. It helps you look past players that are currently having good on-ice success, and finds players that have a decent chance of succeeding if x improves and they earn a larger role.
Every player in the draft has flaws to their game. As you get into the later rounds, players have more and greater areas for improvement. This draft philosophy, along with targeting depth players with good skills that will earn a larger role in the coming seasons (often, these are the same players anyways), helps you make better bets. Drafting in the later rounds is about chance, and identifying players that have skills and opportunities that increase the likelihood that they develop.
Nikola Pasic is only one example of the organization making bets like this. While some, even most of them won’t pan out, one (Jeremy Davies) was just traded to Nashville in a package for PK Subban. Another (Jesper Bratt) will open up the 2019/20 season playing alongside either Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes.
The second day of the draft matters.