The New Jersey Devils won game three to cut the Carolina Hurricanes lead in their second-round playoff matchup to 2-1 before losing game four. In game two, a 6-1 Carolina blowout, defenseman Ryan Graves left injured for New Jersey. The upper body injury kept Graves out of practice Saturday and out of the Devils’ victory on Sunday.
Graves’s absence opened up a roster spot for Luke Hughes to make his long-anticipated NHL playoff debut. Depth defenseman, and former Hurricane, Brendan Smith also entered New Jersey’s lineup as Lindy Ruff went with a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
The younger Hughes had a great playoff debut with two assists, giving New Jersey a much-needed offensive punch.
The Devils might have replacements if Graves leaves in free agency.
New Jersey may be getting a bit of a look at life after Graves in this series. Graves is a pending unrestricted free agent. So far, all indications point to New Jersey wanting a reunion and having the cap space to do so.
The emergence of Hughes, along with last year’s second overall pick, Simon Nemec, though, have made players like Graves somewhat expendable in New Jersey’s future plans.
If a team wants to overpay and offer a longer term than what the Devils are offering to Graves, don’t expect New Jersey to do anything but wish him happy trails and good luck.
Last week, Emily Kaplan wrote an interesting piece that touched on Hughes and the rest of the Devils defense. Prior to Hughes making his game three debut, Kaplan wrote that the team saw him as a depth option as he continued to work with New Jersey’s coaches.
Kaplan also mentioned that having Hughes play any of the round-one games on the road at Madison Square Garden was out of the question.
The more interesting tidbits came from Kaplan’s reporting on Kevin Bahl. The Devils attribute Bahl’s growth as a player to him “playing to his size”. Kaplan ended with the thought that Bahl would be considered New Jersey’s “in-house replacement” if it loses Graves to free agency.
For Sunday’s game, Bahl was moved up to Graves’ spot on the second pairing with John Marino. Luke Hughes slotted in on the third pairing with Damon Severson, which is usually Bahl’s spot.
You would think Bahl would take the bigger role in Sunday’s game, yet he was held to only 5:50 of ice time, a far cry from the 13:38 he has been averaging so far this postseason. Meanwhile, Hughes has 14:28 of ice time in Sunday’s win.
So why the sudden shift into giving Hughes a much larger role than Bahl, who had already been steadily in the lineup? Hughes has more offensive upside, but that’s not to say that Bahl doesn’t have offensive potential of his own. New Jersey needed all the offense it could get after only getting two goals in its first two games.
Bahl was never expected to be a top-pairing defenseman, but could this ice time (even if it’s just one game) suggest Hughes has passed him on the defensive depth chart? Was calling Bahl the heir apparent, as Kaplan suggested, to Ryan Graves giving him too much credit?
Devils fans were surprised at Bahl’s diminished role in game three. Then again, when it ended with a win, those critiques were few and far between.
This is the real question at hand: which defenseman do the Devils really see as more of a “work in progress”? The Devils mentioned Bahl’s positive growth showing how far he has come.
Hughes, while it’s well known needed defensive work in his NHL game, did play two years on one of the NCAA’s top teams. That might have negated a trip to the minors for Hughes and made him a bit of a more polished product.
Bahl has something that Hughes doesn’t have in his size. Bahl has four inches and 40 pounds on the younger Hughes on a New Jersey Devils defense that is seemingly lacking on the Ken Daneyko-types of teams past.
Bahl’s bruising nature made the initial comparison to Graves raise my eyebrows a bit even if they are similarly sized (Graves comes in at 6’5” and 220 pounds).
Both will likely have a role on the Devils in seasons going forward, though Bahl might have a few more question marks. You know what you want to get out of Luke Hughes, as he’s billed as an undersized, offensive defenseman.
Do the Devils want Bahl’s main claim to fame to be his size, his defense, or his offense? Most likely a mix of the three, but you can’t teach size, and Bahl has a lot of it.