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Why NHL Teams Are Betting on Potential and Locking Up Young Stars Long Term

Abbey MastraccoDecember 3, 2021

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Just 119 games into his NHL career, Jack Hughes got paid. 

The first overall pick in the 2019 draft, the New Jersey Devils signed Hughes to an eight-year, $64 million extension Tuesday in Newark, shortly before he played only his 120th NHL game. The $8 million AAV left many fans wondering why the 20-year-old center will be making only $500,000 a year less than Leon Draisaitl, an established NHL star. 

Draisaitl, a 26-year-old center for the Edmonton Oilers, is six years older, has played in more than twice as many games as Hughes, scored 199 more goals than him and won a Hart Trophy.

The questions were legitimate. Just two years ago, some were wondering whether he was worth that top pick. He was moved to the wing for a few games late in his first season and even saw third-line time, as two different Devils head coaches tried to tap into his potential and get the former U.S. National Team Development Program product acclimated to hockey's highest league. 

CapFriendly @CapFriendly

Jack Hughes<br>New Jersey Devils<br>8 year extension<br><br>22-22: $7M + $2M Signing Bonus<br>23-24: $8.5M<br>24-25: $8.5M<br>25-26: $8.5M<br>26-27: $8M (M-NTC)<br>27-28: $7.5M (M-NTC)<br>28-29: $7M (M-NTC)<br>29-30: $7M (M-NTC)<br><br>M-NTC: 10 team no trade list<a href="https://t.co/Wdevbo6OUw">https://t.co/Wdevbo6OUw</a>

This season, he's missed significant time with a shoulder injury. He doesn't yet know the rigors of a full NHL season. His rookie season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while his sophomore season was another abbreviated campaign with teams only playing games within their realigned divisions until the playoffs.

Hughes hasn't come close to playing in the postseason, though that certainly isn't by any fault of his own. 

So, why did a rebuilding team commit Draisaitl money to an unproven player?

It's not about what Hughes has proven so far—it's about what the Devils think he can prove based on the underlying numbers. 

"We're an analytic team, and we believe that where there's smoke, there's fire," general manager Tom Fitzgerald said after the club announced the contract. "And with Jack, he's just starting to heat up." 

The Devils think Hughes can be a Draisaitl-like player, and if they are correct in this assessment, he will be a bargain at $8 million by the time he hits his peak. The club believes that Hughes, center Nico Hischier, defenseman Dougie Hamilton and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood are the cornerstones for the future of this franchise and the players that can help get them out of this extended rebuilding phase. 

Hughes is signed through 2029-30, Hamilton through 2027-28 and Hischier through 2026-27. Blackwood will be a restricted free agent following next season. 

Locking up young players to be able to retain their services when they hit their primes is not a new concept in the NHL. Over the offseason, Montreal Canadiens forward and playoff sensation Nick Suzuki was extended for eight years at $7.875 AAV. Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk signed for seven years at $8.2 million per year in October. 

Still, the difference between those players and Hughes is that they had put up numbers by the time they signed on the dotted lines. Age and development play a factor, but the Habs and the Sens had seen Suzuki put up 23 points in 32 postseason games and Tkachuk blossom into a captain, respectively. 

"This is a very risky bet, and yet, I think this is a good one," an industry source told Bleacher Report. "Jack's underlying numbers are fantastic—his scoring chance creation, passes to the slot. For the last few years, he's been shooting under what he was expected to and I think that's because he was adjusting to the league and seeing what works and what doesn't work. But I think Jack will end up being worth about $9 million [per year]."

Looking at the numbers Hughes has already put up (55 points in 120 games), he would seem like a prime candidate for a bridge deal, which is when a restricted free agent signs a short-term contract that ends while the player is still a restricted free agent. A bridge deal might mean taking less money at the start of the career but more money later, so long as they play well enough to earn it. These deals are sometimes helpful for contending teams that need to get high-priced veteran contracts under the salary cap.

But the Devils don't have cap issues, and they aren't a contending team yet. A long-term contract means guaranteed money now but playing for below market value later. Therefore, banking on Hughes is a risk worth taking because the money is there, and the analytics indicate that Hughes could soon become an elite, point-per-game player, which is about the minimum production level expected from an $8 million-per-year player.

As Fitzgerald said, the Devils are a team that puts a high value on advanced analytics. The New Jersey front office has two very highly-respected analysts on staff in Tyler Dellow and Matt Caine. What they're probably seeing is that the playmaking center creates for teammates, that the Devils are typically playing in the offensive zone when he's on the ice and what his expected goals are like (xG), meaning how likely one of his shots is to become a goal. 

Last season, Hughes' recorded an xG of 54.2 percent, a total scoring chances percentage of 56.5 percent and a Corsi of 55.1 percent, per NaturalStatTrick.com. His shooting percentage rose by two points and it's expected to increase even more as he finds his NHL scoring touch. 

They might be small sample sizes given the shortened seasons and the injuries, but they trust that all of the information they have is enough for the club to be able to say Hughes will be elite and will be a key piece of a team that will soon compete for Stanley Cups. 

Will other teams look to do the same? You could make the case that the Anaheim Ducks should lock up Jamie Drysdale and Hughes' good friend Trevor Zegras with similar contracts sooner rather than later. Sometimes all it takes is one player to set the market, and Hughes might have just set it. 

Eric Stephens @icemancometh

With three assists last night and numerous other plays made, Trevor Zegras played like a future No. 1 center. Makes you wonder how much he and <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NHLDucks?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NHLDucks</a> took note of Jack Hughes's huge new contract. <a href="https://t.co/Vphd7B22X1">https://t.co/Vphd7B22X1</a>

There is always an inherent risk when committing that much money to someone who can't even grow a beard or legally drink alcohol. Development is not a linear process. 

But when Draisaitl signed his eight-year, $68 million extension in the summer of 2017, people in hockey had similar reactions. It sure has paid off for the Oilers. 

"With the Draisaitl contract, you can use that to say, 'Hey, this is what people were saying about Draisaitl then," the source said. "If Hughes gets even 80 percent of (Draisaitl's) production, then he'll be worth his contract. He'll be close to a $9 million player. He'll be a bargain."

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