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FanFirst Friday: Sacrificing Edition

The Devils have some of the best contracts in all of hockey. Time to stop and appreciate that.

NHL PLAYER MEDIA TOUR
Biggest bargain in the NHL right here. Enjoy him for another seven seaons, Devils fans.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

I’m back to being Covid free this week and while I’m still really tired, I had plenty of time hiding out and isolating, listening to podcasts and binging the entire series of The Wire. Yeah, that’s how long I kept away from my family. Yet my daughter wound up with it and we think my wife might be coming down with it now, a full nine days or so after I first got it. My son has been spared thus far. Fingers crossed.

But one of those podcasts I listened to was 32 Thoughts with Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek and they talked about how hockey was just different than any other sport out there. How its players, whether it’s because they were raised realizing that one superstar in hockey simply can’t win a game by himself that they really do have an appreciation for the word team more than any other sport. They talked about the holdouts in football, the massive paydays in basketball and baseball and how hockey players simply don’t get what the market dictates they should earn. I mean Auston Matthews re-signed with the Leafs this offseason and while he became the highest paid player in the sport, most of the analysis that followed said the guy was still underpaid. Even at roughly 16 percent of what the cap is now (his contract doesn’t technically start until after this year). Course who knows what the cap will be heading into 2024-2025. Maybe it jumps as much as $5-6 million if the revenue is what is expected this year.

This leads me to our beloved New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes, the Devils version of Auston Matthews, has another 7 years at $8 million per season. That’s roughly 60 percent of what Auston Matthews will be pulling down. Do we think Jack is roughly 60 percent of the player Auston Matthews is? Hell no. Matthews had 85 points last year to Jack’s 99. Matthews will be 26 when the season kicks off (his birthday is Sunday) so you are looking at the middle of his prime years right now. Jack Hughes should only be scratching the surface of what he is as he matures. I don’t intend this as a slam against Matthews, who is a player I largely love and respect greatly. I just use it to illustrate at how good Hughes’ contract should look for the foreseeable future. He basically became the new Nathan MacKinnon contract once Nate signed up to receive his bag.

But it isn’t just Hughes, either. Nico Hischier is a bargain at his cap hit. Nico still has four years left on his current deal at $7.25 M. Nico is still only 24. He was a finalist for the Selke Trophy this season and could possibly win his first with that Selke guarantee guy Patrice Bergeron retiring.

Wait, there’s more. There was a lot of media chatter about the Devils and their conundrum in attempting to keep RFAs Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier this offseason. The previously mentioned Friedman expressed his doubts a couple of different times that Tom Fitzgerald would be able to manage it. Sirius XM radio host Boomer Gordon was even more skeptical, basically saying that he felt like one of them would be dealt. It made sense mostly because both could basically force the Devils into a one-year deal, Bratt with arbitration and Meier had a qualifying offer at a whopping $10 million for that one season. Neither of them had to sign anything because Meier could’ve taken the QO, played the year out and waltzed into free agency with the aforementioned higher cap staring him in the face and likely some really eager suitors ready to go to war for his services. I mean there aren’t many traditional power forwards left in the game. The Tkachuks. And Meier. That’s who comes to mind. Maybe I’m missing some, but those are the top of the class. Bratt could’ve likely done something similar. Say what you want about his struggles in the playoffs, he drives offense from the wing better than anyone else on the Devils roster. He’s almost like having another Hughes out there. They are a cap hit of 16,675,000 combined. Not to harp on Matthews more, but that’s only $3,425,000 more than Auston Matthews by himself. Matthews plays a premium position at pivot and you’re talking about two wingers here, but still. Contemplating the Devils cap situation is just crazy. Jared covered this extremely well the other day. But it truly has to be the envy of every other GM in the game except maybe Kevyn Adams in Buffalo (though it’ll be interesting to see where Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power do to the overall picture with the Sabres).

Yet this all comes down to the players having to be willing to see a bigger picture. These players signing these “bargain” deals have to have bought what Tom Fitzgerald has been selling. Not only New Jersey as a “hidden gem” of the league, which has been one of Fitz’s biggest selling points:

But hockey players dream of winning the Stanley Cup more than any other sports players dream of holding their sport’s trophy. The best basketball players of all-time just want titles, which almost sounds like they literally want the title of GOAT rather than team success. Everyone in that sport seems to want to chase Jordan now. Baseball is such an individual endeavor in so many ways. Pitcher is out there on the hump by themselves, one-on-one with a batter. The batter is trying to beat a pitcher. The very nature of the sport screams individualism and all about me. Football, well, that’s very much a team sport based on lineman who kill themselves repeatedly bashing against each other, but the sport evolved into focusing on only the stardom at QB. The success of that team largely is dependent on those faceless warriors in the trenches, yet all the public ever talks about is Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers.

Hockey truly is a team sport pursuing one dream. Lifting the Cup. This sport has a player named McDavid who has been miles ahead of every other player in the game for a few seasons now. And he hasn’t even been to a Stanley Cup Final yet despite possibly having arguably second-best player on the same team with him. Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the greatest player to ever lace up skates (I would argue about this being true, but for the purpose of this, let’s just say this is true) and he won four Cups surrounded by a lot of Hall of Fame talent. That team was a juggernaut who won a Cup even after Gretzky was no longer there. Gretzky only came close to a Cup one other time in his career with the 1993 Los Angeles Kings.

I wrote all this for one purpose. I’m thankful that I follow hockey. I’m so happy that it’s my most beloved sport because I followed baseball closely for many, many years and there just isn’t a mentality that exists like it does in hockey. My favorite team was the Oakland Athletics (not following them to Vegas) and repeatedly players left to chase money elsewhere (even long before the current awful ownership). Yes, there are people who repeatedly whine that hockey players are grossly underpaid. And they do it loudly:

He’s not entirely wrong, especially when hockey is probably the toughest of any sport to play AND stay healthy for a long period of time. Yet, the players and management negotiated a salary cap to keep a lot of the smaller market teams relevant in a sport that isn’t nearly as high revenue as those others (Walsh argues that this isn’t the reason - greed is and he’s probably right here to an extent as well) and we have a wizard working these contracts, selling players on the overall goal (AND New Jersey as a destination). The cap has been an obstacle to building sustained success more than what Tampa Bay has been able to achieve. Here’s hoping Fitz’s plan to sell all of these talent players on taking less leads this franchise where it needs to end up. At the top of the mountain.

So even though we are far from Thanksgiving, I’m just gonna say that I’m thankful. I’m thankful for Tom Fitzgerald. I’m thankful for Jack Hughes. I’m thankful for Nico Hischier. I’m thankful for Timo Meier. I’m thankful for Jesper Bratt. Yes, they aren’t exactly getting paid peanuts and if they’re smart, even if they never signed another contract, they should be set for the rest of their life financially. Still they could’ve chased more and been a lot greedier. The Devils probably overpaid for Ondrej Palat. Dougie Hamilton is probably worth about what he’s making. But man if I just don’t love our hockey players and their dedication to winning. There’s nothing better. Now to just see it on the ice.