Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the New Jersey Devils may have gone off the board a bit with their second, first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. But they ended the two-day odyssey with seven more prospects in their pipeline and one happy big brother. Their two first-round picks, Luke Hughes at fourth overall and Chase Stillman at 29th overall, were both NHL legacy picks. Luke, obviously is the youngest brother of Devils center Jack and defenseman Quinn (Vancouver), and Chase is the son of two-time Stanley Cup winner Cory Stillman and brother of Riley (Chicago).
Stillman was ranked by most puck pundits lower, but the Devils saw a player they liked and believed in, and drafted him. Time will tell. With their third pick of the draft, they took a player in the fourth round (Samu Salminen) that was ranked higher by most. So in the end what does it matter?
On day two the Devils made a total of five selections and all five players played overseas (at home) during last season. They added two centers, two defensemen, and one goaltender. Keep in mind that they used their own second-round pick in this draft to acquire Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights, and they recently traded the New York Islanders’ second-round pick (acquired in a deal for Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri) to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Ryan Graves.
The New Jersey Devils 2021 Draft Class (Highlighted names linked to THW’s Prospect Profile):
Luke Hughes, defenseman (4th overall)
Chase Stillman, right wing (29)
Samu Salminen, center (68)
Jakub Malek, goalie (100)
Topias Vilen, defenseman (129)
Viktor Hurtig, defenseman (164)
Zakhar Bardakov, center (203)
When the Devils announced their pick of Hughes, many wondered who was more excited – Jack or Luke? We all saw Jack jumping up and down like a madman. “I’m super excited to be a Devil, and I think Jack’s even more excited. That might be the happiest I’ve ever seen him. It’s crazy, it’s crazy,” Luke said during his first media availability with New Jersey. “It’s a dream come true, to play in the NHL, and it’s also a dream come true to play with your brother. Both of those things are happening tonight so I’m so excited to be a Devil and to play with Jack someday.”
Did he think the possibility of joining his brother in New Jersey was greater after the NHL Draft Lottery when it was confirmed that the Devils had the fourth overall pick? “It’s in the back of your head all day, for the last week – where are you going. You’re anxious for it to happen. I’m so glad to be a Devil.”
“I dunno. Watching my brothers go through this, seeing what happened with Quinn and where we thought he was going to go, and where he went – you never know until your name is called,” said Hughes. “That’s the beauty of the draft. I was hopeful that I’d get picked by the Devils and it’s awesome that I did. But I never knew until my name was called. I had no indication, no idea.”
So what’s next for the youngest Hughes brother (also the youngest player in the draft) and the newest Devils’ first-rounder? First up is trying to make Team USA’s World Juniors roster. Then it’s off to the University of Michigan for at least one season, maybe two. “I think that’s a year-by-year thing and depends on me, how my season goes, and how I develop as a player. We’re trying to win a National Championship.”
That would be the best-case scenario for the Devils. Hughes has a great year at Michigan, possibly winning a gold medal and an NCAA title. And then he makes his way to New Jersey, possibly for the end of the upcoming season. “I’m trying to improve on everything. Get stronger, get faster. One area I really wanna work on is my scoring ability and trying to score every chance I can or have. There’s room to grow on everything,” added Hughes.
“Watching my brothers in the gym, on the ice, in the summers is huge for me because I know how hard you have to work and what you have to do to play in the NHL. I’m 184 (lbs) right now and I wanna start the season at Michigan at 188 or 190. I’m a late bloomer and I still have room to grow, maybe even a couple of inches left in me.”
Hughes was asked what number he’d like to wear in New Jersey and said he’d prefer six or 43 but also added that decision isn’t up to him. Some draft pundits used his big brother Quinn as a comparable for his game, but who does Luke see his game patterned after?
“Two guys I compare myself to are Shea Theodore (Vegas) and Miro Heiskanen (Dallas). The way they can skate, play the left side or the right side. If you guys wanna compare me to my brother Quinn, that’s great too,” he added with a laugh. “It’s a little weird but he’s a great player.”
GM Tom Fitzgerald has gotten rid of nearly every link to the Lou Lamoriello-era Devils. Not by choice necessarily, but that’s just how things unfolded. Since taking over for Lamoriello’s successor, Ray Shero, in January 2020, Fitzgerald has really put his fingerprints all over the roster with his decisions and drafts. This off-season saw the departure of forwards Mikhail Maltsev (part of the trade for Graves) and Nathan Bastian (Seattle’s expansion pick), but over the past two drafts, Fitzgerald has added three forwards drafted in the first-round: Stillman, Alexander Holtz, and Dawson Mercer.
Some highlights from New Jersey’s GM during his press conferences:
* On Luke Hughes: “He loves the game, he’s a rink rat. We’re just so excited that we had the opportunity to do this. The ceiling for Luke Hughes is unlimited and he has the potential to be a very good puck-moving, offensive-minded defenseman; and we’re going to help him get there.”
*On Jack Hughes: “He actually told (Head Coach) Lindy (Ruff) he was more excited about this draft than his own.”
*On Chase Stillman: “Our scouts were extremely passionate about Chase. He has very good skill, but his motor just runs, and runs, and runs. You can’t teach that. There are players out there with skill and ability but sometimes you have to kick them in the behind. With Chase, sometimes maybe you have to pull him back a little bit. We’re excited and it’s a great opportunity for him. His development starts right now with the New Jersey Devils.”
*On NJ’s Draft Overall: “It’s very exciting. We trust our scouts and the process that we go through and that we’re picking players that really have a chance to go play in the NHL.”
*On not making any trades: “There were a couple of opportunities to move back if player A, B, or C weren’t there, and when those players were available it felt right to take them. I do think I have a handle on what will come here and the value on some of our players should we choose to move because they help fill greater needs. I can tell you that discussions I’ve had with certain GMs for certain players we felt we were really in on, and had opportunities to strike, just didn’t work out. They chose to do something different that fit better for them.”
On having Meghan Duggan in the organization: “She’s been a fantastic add. The value she brings, her opinions, and her experience really lend to making good decisions and helping players get better. We feel really fortunate that we were able to add her to our staff and how much value she brings to it. The relationships she’ll form with our players and our staff is key. She’s here with us and she just dove right in. She’s been great.”
On defenseman Ryan Murray, who will be a UFA: “I’ve had initial conversations with his agent, and will follow up to see where Ryan is at, what he’s looking to do and what our plans are.”
Other items of note from Fitzgerald’s post-draft media availability: the Devils won’t be holding their annual summer Development Camp, but their prospects will be heading to Buffalo to compete in their annual Prospect Tournament with the Sabres and Boston Bruins. Pittsburgh has withdrawn from it for the moment. He also added that he expects to qualify most, if not all, of his restricted free agents by Monday’s deadline.
On his agenda for free agency, which starts July 28 (Wednesday), he revealed a small insight into his game plan. “Free agency is an opportunity to add pieces to your organization that you feel can help you move in the direction you want to move in,” said Fitzgerald. “I will be trying. But I will be very smart with my decisions. It doesn’t end after free agency opens up. You still talk to teams about potential trades, needs. Maybe teams still have to shed some cash; that doesn’t have to be done in the next few days. Those are things that my team is exploring.”
“A top-six forward,” he replied when asked about his off-season wish list. “We added a top-four defenseman (Graves), if I could add another quality defenseman I think that would be very helpful in improving our team. I wish I didn’t have to fill a 1B role in goal, was hoping Corey Crawford would be here in his second year. So I wanna fill that and put a tandem on the ice that we feel comfortable with.”
Big Week Ahead
There have been multiple reports that the Devils are hot for Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton. If they can land him it will likely come at a price. Are they willing to invest $9 million in him next season while also paying PK Subban $9 million? Probably yes because this will be the last year of Suban’s deal, and when his contract comes off the books perhaps that’s where Luke Hughes slides into the Devils defense corps alongside Hamilton, Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Ty Smith.
There was talk of the Devils and San Jose Sharks engaging in trade talks leading up to the draft. You have to believe these talks centered around a swap of forwards who could benefit from a change of scenery. Could Fitzgerald be eyeing a player like Timo Meier or Kevin Labanc? What would the cost be and have to go the other way? Pavel Zacha? Jesper Bratt?
Aside from Hamilton (if he makes it to free agency), who else could the Devils target? Gabriel Landeskog would be at the top of the list for me. Followed closely by Jaden Schwartz and Brandon Saad. One interesting name could be Casey Cizikas if he makes it to free agency. In goal, most of the available names are from the scrap heap, but perhaps Jaroslav Halak is the answer unless a netminder comes via trade. Regardless, make sure your phones are charged for Wednesday!
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.