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FanFirst Friday: Gravy Train Edition

Tons of decisions loom for Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald once the offseason is here. One I want to advocate for is re-signing Ryan Graves.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins
Re-sign this man. Like, yesterday.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I took my son to Colorado this week to see my New Jersey Devils play his Colorado Avalanche. I will probably do a write-up about this trip next week but since I’m still parked in a hotel room in Denver awaiting a flight, I’m going to go with a topic this week that is top of mind for me. No, not Timo Meier, though I still have to pinch myself repeatedly to believe that he is ACTUALLY a part of the team. I likely won’t believe it until I see him lining up next to Jack and Jesper. And yes, I advocated for Timo with Nico Hischier but only the most insane hockey coach would ever even consider splitting up the Hischier-Mercer-Tatar line right now.

Any way, I’m in Colorado so I spent a lot of time watching the former Avalanche player Ryan Graves in the game last night. And while he had a problem with a bouncing puck that led to a Nathan MacKinnon snipe, for the most part, he was pretty rock solid against a fast and relentless Avs team. The highlight of the night for him though was this beauty goal by Dawson Mercer, which also happened to set a New Jersey Devils record for the most games consecutively with a goal:

I mean look at that drive from Graves. Granted it’s a beautiful play by Tatar to show off his out of the world puck control against Nichuskin, but Graves is holding off a guy nicknamed the Moose, Mikko Rantanen, to place that on a platter for Mercer for a slam dunk.

Graves didn’t have a particularly great season last year. But that can also be said of almost every other Devil on the roster not named Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt. Graves has been stellar this season. Part of it might be the shine of often being next to a guy named John Marino, but regardless, Gravy has held his own.

This is pretty, pretty, pretty good.
The Athletic

This is another of the fantastic defensemen deals that General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has executed over the past two seasons to remake a once terrifyingly bad blueline. Graves was a cap casualty in Colorado, where he was the partner for the NHL noobie Cale Makar. He likely would’ve been lost in the expansion draft for nothing to Seattle so Fitz swooped in and said, “Thank you very much.” Jonas Siegenthaler from the Capitals. John Marino from the Penguins. You noticing a trend here?

Siegenthaler re-signed with the Devils this past offseason. He’s with the team for five seasons through 2027-2028. He signed for a LOT less than he’s worth at $3.4 million a year. He publicly said that he took less because he loves New Jersey and feels like the team is on the precipice of greatness. Why am I bringing this up now? And what does it have to do with Graves?

Well, the season after Ryan Graves left the Avs and wound up suffering through a putrid season in New Jersey, his former team was lifting the best trophy in all of sports. And it pained him. Something fierce. And he’s a mere three months plus away from hitting unrestricted free agency, meaning he can sign wherever he pleases. The news has been that there have been no contract extension talks yet. And I get it. Fitz and company have to prioritize the biggest targets first and that being Jesper Bratt and then likely the newly acquired Timo Meier.

But I’m seriously hoping that re-signing Graves before he reaches UFA status is on his to-do list. Yes, I get that the Devils have LHD Luke Hughes coming. LHD Kevin Bahl has had an up and down season, though he’s finally getting regular playing time and looking more and more like he could be an efficient NHL defenseman. But I honestly feel like Graves has settled in nicely and become someone who is not only steady in his own end, but can also offer the occasional offensive flair, as witness first-hand by myself in Colorado on Wednesday. I do think that someone like Graves isn’t in this for a ginormous payday. Not that I would hold it against him because he toiled in the minor leagues longer than many regular NHL defensemen and deserves his life-altering money.

At the same time, many hockey players just aren’t built for seeking the highest payday possible. At least that’s how they’ve reacted to this salary cap era. And Graves, having JUST left a team that won the Cup last season, is now on a team that very well could win multiple Cups over the next five or six seasons (health and smart Tom Fitzgerald decisions being the main decider on whether this happens or not). Do we really think he’s gonna chase a huge payday over maybe finding himself in a similar situation as when he first joined the Devils? I really doubt it. Yes, his agent and maybe his family and other outside factors might be playing into it, but he’s seen Jack Hughes up close. He’s seen Nico Hischier up close. He’s seen Jesper Bratt up close. He’s watched Dougie Hamilton reach career highs this season. He knows what New Jersey has is special. And I bet his heart is telling him that he needs to be a part of it.

Now whether or not Tom Fitzgerald sees Graves as integral to this moving forward, I couldn’t tell you. It’s possible that Fitz has a plan that involves a left-side defense of Siegenthaler, Luke Hughes and Bahl plus a depth guy or two in there for the foreseeable future. And it would make sense because the team is going to need savings from somewhere to accommodate those likely very large Bratt and Meier extensions. In a salary cap world, tough decisions must be made. Cap casualties happen every offseason and I’m betting Damon Severson will at least be one of the casualties come July 2023. Believe it or not, the Devils prospect pool on the right side is absolutely stacked with Simon Nemec, Seamus Casey and even Reilly Walsh who is taking good steps this year. Not to mention the Devils have Dougie Hamilton and John Marino as the anchors of the right side.

The left side is a bit more troublesome, especially after Russian prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin was a part of the Meier deal. Nikita Okhotiuk, another prominent prospect on the left side defense, was also a part of the Meier deal. So, from my perspective, the left side of the Devils defensive corps is a bit more exposed than the right. Graves gives the Devils a solid presence and yes, people make the joke that Ryan Graves has never met a shot he didn’t like, but I love that mentality, if I’m being honest. John Marino is basically exactly the opposite of that. He avoids shooting at all costs, so it’s kind of a nice balance.

Regardless, put me in camp Gravy Train. I want Ryan to be here when the Devils lift Lord Stanley’s Cup for the fourth time...and possibly fifth...and maybe even sixth. I understand that the decision might already be made in the front office. But if it hasn’t, I’ll just put out a plea here for Gravy. Let him eNJoy the ride here. He’s earned it.