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FanFirst Fridays: Random Thoughts Edition

I was initially going to do a Dougie Hamilton appreciation post, but there was so much happening this week, I’m gonna pivot and go Larry King-style randomized thoughts.

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NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at New Jersey Devils
Dougie doing Dougie things. $9 million worth of things.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

I have a lot of topics this week that I’m feeling passionate about so instead of posting a Dougie Hamilton appreciation post, like was my original thought, I’m going bullet point, random thought-style like Larry King used to do for USA Today.

  • First, I want to start with Dougie Hamilton. I’m writing this before the Dallas Stars game, so it’s possible he winds up having a horrible game and the Devils get blown out, but I’ll just say, Dougie obviously had a rough first season with New Jersey. He wasn’t the offensive driving machine that the team shelled out $9 million a season for and he didn’t have a great impact defensively, either. He was kind of a liability on both ends. It was obvious to anyone who has eyes that he had a broken jaw, but what was underreported by many other national-types was he dealt with a broken toe as well, hindering his skating and movement.

He’s a giant man at 6’6”. but he skates very well, which allows him to be that late option so often on a rush and even pinch and still make it back to break up plays. Clearly the toe hindered him immensely last year. This year, he’s been as advertised and much more. He’s currently 7th in the NHL in defensemen in points and 4th in defensemen goals. He scored overtime winners in back-to-back games at home on the power play and has an absolute bomb of a shot. While some online often bring out the familiar complaints about Hamilton from the past, like he’s too soft, he’s lazy on defense, etc., he’s been exactly who the Devils sought when they signed him to the massive deal. A play-driving, excellent offensive defensemen.

Dougie has been even better than advertised this year. He forms a hell of a Triple-H threat with Hughes and Hischier.

According to Dom’s cards at The Athletic, he’s outperforming his $9 million a year salary right now. And has even been good defensively. Now, it’s likely that Dougie will probably decline somewhere over the life of his 7-year deal given his age and wear and tear on a guy who has been in the league since he was a teenager, but for now? Enjoy the ride. Dougie being Dougie is one of the major reasons the Devils have one of the best records in the NHL in 2022-2023.

  • I simply can’t mention Dougie and his overtime winners this week without mentioning what I think was one of the plays of the year. That Jack Hughes pass that put the puck on a tee for the Hamilton pass. It was one of the most unbelievable hockey plays I’ve seen in a long time. This, right here, is the photo of Jack Hughes state when he perfectly put the backhand pass right to Dougie’s stick for a laser beam top ched:
Yeah, either Jack Hughes has eyes in the back of his helmet, or his hockey IQ is better than nearly anyone else in hockey.

I honestly couldn’t shut up about it when it happened and I’m not going to shut up about it anytime soon. Hughes took the puck hard down the boards, tried to slip by Brayden McNabb, but got boarded, then cross-checked on his knees and somehow slips the puck past the agitator McNabb and through Chandler Stephenson, who was in fairly good position to defend that part of the ice, right on a platter for a hungry Hamilton. It was quite simply, artistry at its best. It was determination, skill, hockey IQ and unbelievable situational awareness. If you want to watch it on repeat, here you go.

And yet, there were a few people saying, as I was gushing non-stop about it on Twitter, that it was a dangerous pass that could’ve led to a dismal result for the Devils. I honestly don’t believe that as Hughes KNEW he had Jesper Bratt following him into the zone and Dougie was well positioned in case Stephenson happened to pick off the pass. Maybe I have too much faith in Jack and his abilities, but I truly think he knew exactly where everyone was on the ice and what he needed to do. It’s what makes him special and one of the best players in the entire NHL right now. All Hail Hughes.

  • Speaking of Hughes, I got into it with a Sirius XM NHL host this week because of this tweet battle:

Now former Duck and Canuck Shane O’Brien is a notorious Devils-hater. He’s often on the Power Play with Steve Kouleas and he drones on and on about how soft and small the Devils are. It took a Ken Daneyko appearance to tell him that the Devils defense is actually one of the bigger ones in the entire league. He then changed his tune to complain about the Devils forward size, something he’s obsessed with as well. I guess it makes sense since O’Brien was reportedly 6’3”, 230 pounds in his playing days and wasn’t exactly speedy or a great skater. He has a natural bias towards pluggers. So the refusal of O’Brien and former Flyer Scottie Upshall dissing on Jack Hughes by not listing him the top three for the Hart Trophy right now isn’t terribly surprising. But then another Sirius XM host got in on it. Peter Berce, the co-host of Under Review with Mick Kern (a truly sensitive guy who has mysteriously blocked me on Twitter for some unknown reason - we all know how aggressive and controversial I am), jumped in to defend O’Brien:

We went back and forth for a while, but basically my argument amounts to this. Hughes has set a franchise record for the fastest to 60 points in a season. If he stays healthy and continues his pace, he will likely become the first New Jersey Devil/Colorado Rockie/Kansas City Scout to eclipse the 100 point mark (and possibly 50 goals too!). He’s done it while having Erik Haula stapled to his wing for the majority of the year and a rotating cast on the other wing. He doesn’t play with Brayden Point or David Krejci or Alex Tuch. I will say that this is McDavid’s award to win and no one will come close to him in the voting. But who else has carried his team like Jack Hughes in 2022-2023? McDavid has Draisaitl riding shotgun with him sometimes. Jack has rarely had Bratt or Hischier lining up next to him. Hughes has had to drive his own offense and is on the cusp of crushing all franchise records. And he’s only 21 years old. McDavid will waltz away with the Hart this season, no doubt, but at the All Star break this year, Jack Hughes is right behind him. Maybe Pasta could be second given how much he carried the Bruins while they had all the injuries earlier in the year, but Hughes is not outside the top three and I won’t hear otherwise.

  • One of the arguments that actually could hurt me with regards to Jack for Hart is his dismal faceoffs, which is a big part of the reason he’s been stuck with Haula on his wing all year. Say what you want about Haula, but he is REALLY good at faceoffs and the key with someone like Hughes is having possession of the puck as quickly as possible. So Haula getting him the puck by winning the draw makes a ton of sense. But here’s where people could poke holes in my Hart discussion. If Hughes truly wants to elevate to top three player in the NHL, it can’t just be about play driving and offense. He needs to learn defense and while many of the stats have him as being much better defensively this season, a big part of that for a center is learning how to win faceoffs regularly. I don’t doubt Jack’s inner drive or desire to be the best in the NHL. It’s who he is, despite the hilariously almost Spicoli-esque demeanor in interviews, he is an absolute beast who wants to win hockey games in the worst way. Sidney Crosby entered the league and one of the biggest knocks on him was his inability to win faceoffs. So what did he do? He learned it. Much like Jack spent the summer working on his shot to great impact. He’s now a 30-goal scorer and the fastest in Devils history to hit that mark. I don’t doubt that because of his desire to be one of the very best, he’s going to figure it out. I don’t think it’ll happen this year because it’s tough to work on a particular skill through the grind of an 82-game schedule, but it wouldn’t surprise me if over the summer and into next season, we suddenly see a Jack Hughes that can win a good percentage of draws where he will become infinitely more valuable and allow himself to have true wingers capable of putting the puck in the net more than Erik Haula can.
  • One final thing about Jack Hughes that I’ve noticed. Earlier this season, Jack Hughes had the longest recorded shift in NHL history. It was a mad, crazy, furious attempt to comeback against the New York Islanders and the Devils very nearly tied it with the aforementioned snakebit Erik Haula ringing a shot off the crossbar with three minutes to go. Hughes played more than 12 minutes of 20 that third period and while he didn’t exactly do the same thing against the Golden Knights on Tuesday, he had two shifts in an overtime that lasted three minutes and nine seconds out of the three minutes and 54 seconds the overtime lasted. One of his shifts was two minutes and 12 seconds. And it isn’t like he’s the kind of player to stand still. He’s constantly moving his legs, constantly trying to create offense and just typically a whirling, twisting offensive machine out there. These aren’t lazy minutes. Just watch that drive on the boards that got him nailed multiple times that led to the game winner. He’s obviously gifted with the ability to defy hockey convention about short shifts and somehow seems to perform better the longer he’s on the ice. That shift against the Isles he was creating offense and opportunities the ENTIRE six minutes he was out there. He’s special. Just so damned special.
  • Finally, I want to finish with the big topic that’s on top of everyone’s mind this week and that’s Timo Meier. Apparently the Devils are really pushing hard to add the big Swiss winger to the team for at least the stretch run to the playoffs.

And I kind of love it. I literally tweeted about Timo after the Devils lost their second game of the season. I’ve been all in on the Timo Time in Devils Red train for a long time. Hell, I even dreamed about it this summer when he suited up next to Nico Hischier for the Swiss National Team in the World Championships. Clearly, it’s the absolute focus of much of Devils fandom right now, just evidenced by my colleagues here at AAtJ writing about it not only once, but twice. Maybe people are getting Timo fatigue and I understand that, but when you firmly believe that your team is only missing one or two pieces, then it’s understandable why a fanbase gets fixated. I remember when the Colorado Avalanche traded for Patrick Roy on December 6, 1995 that I immediately said, hand them the Cup now. It rare that it works out that way so perfectly, but that team was seemingly a goalie away and they solved it. Now do I think the Devils are merely one big, fast, play-driving and bruising forward away? Probably not. I’d like to see our defense get a little tougher and meaner, especially in the bottom two. Brendan Smith kind of brings that, but he also brings boneheaded turnovers and bad penalties. Also, while I love Vitek and think he could be the answer to all our prayers, I just need to see it for a longer period of time first to be convinced he’s the Devils’ final answer in net. But boy does Timo Meier get this team much closer to being a powerhouse for years to come. Meier would allow the Devils to put together a Meier-Hischier-Bratt line that could utterly obliterate any line in the NHL. And allow Jack Hughes to have Ondrej Palat on his wing instead of Haula. Or maybe you get Meier in there on the Hughes line? Regardless, he’s someone who instantly makes this lineup a LOT scarier than it already is. And he’s only 26. I will just add one thing:

Corey is great. Corey covered the Devils so well and remains in a warm place in my heart. But please, ffs, if the Sharks demand Dawson Mercer as a part of this deal, I’m walking away. Mercer can, and should, potentially wind up as the third center behind Hischier and Hughes and give the Devils ample scoring from that spot. He’s played every single game since he’s entered the league as well, meaning he’s also extremely durable for a guy who isn’t exactly huge. Yes, he’s 6 feet tall but he’s listed at 180 pounds. He should get bigger and more muscular as he develops and also become even stronger on pucks (he’s already an absolute beast in the corner working for loose pucks). Regardless, I would rather give up Nemec than Mercer and I really don’t want to give up Nemec.

So that’s my thoughts for the week. It’s been a fascinating one heading into the Devils All Star break. I looked at the schedule last night and realized that while the Devils break starts Friday, some teams still have games through Wednesday of next week. Hopefully the games against former bench bosses John Hynes and Peter DeBoer go the Devils way and we can fully sit back, relax and enjoy a week plus thinking about how the Devils have performed better than our wildest imagination this season. Let’s. Go. Devils.