Predictably after a UFA day for the Devils that saw their biggest acquisitions be a third-line center (Erik Haula) and a seventh defenseman (Brendan Smith), there was no end-of-the day presser from GM Tom Fitzgerald about what can only be termed as a letdown, if not a total disappointment yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the organization finally shed the dead weight that is Pavel Zacha, I’d prefer a short-term patch in Haula over the likely third-round pick that we would have gotten – at best – if we were just looking for the best future asset possible. Smith was a fine add as a depth/back-pairing defenseman and hiring Jack Adams finalist Andrew Brunette as an assistant coach is arguably the best assistant hire the Devils have had since Larry Robinson’s twentieth or so tenure here.
So maybe it’s not 100% accurate to say the Devils got nothing out of today, but man it sure felt like it after going through the ringer with the Johnny Gaudreau nonsense. If you had told me before today that A) the Flyers would be no factor at all in the bidding, B) the Devils would reportedly have the highest bid and C) the best winger on the market would sign for under $10 million AAV, I would have found a FanDuel or whatever to put money on the Devils signing him at that point, and I’m not a betting man. Nor am I an optimist when it comes to this franchise. Right now I’m even less prepared to be an optimist than I was a few hours ago after every Devils fan – or at least the ones who aren’t so in love with the ‘process’ or afraid of the cap that they’re afraid to spend money at all – got phantom-punched Ali style by Columbus apparently swooping in the last hour or so and swiping Johnny Hockey from under everyone’s noses.
Honestly before today I wasn’t exactly counting on signing Gaudreau, if only cause I – like most of the dopey media – was convinced he would find a way to get to his boyhood team in Philly a la John Tavares with the Leafs. And maybe he would have if dopey GM Chuck Fletcher hadn’t needlessly capped himself out signing and trading for so much junk the last couple years. Fletcher is sort of like the anti-Devils in that he’s stupidly aggressive while we’re ridiculously passive, always waiting for the perfect move to fall into our laps. Too often, aside from the Taylor Hall trade and the Dougie Hamilton signing (where we had no real competition) we get left holding the bag.
Yes there may be valid excuses for this although I’m quite frankly tired of it. Whether it’s Kevin Fiala only signing with the Kings, Alex DeBrincat not signing an extension at all or whatever the heck happened in this case. Gaudreau publicly said goodbye to Calgary and their reported 8 year, $80 plus million offer citing ‘family reasons’. Which most everyone took to mean that he wanted to go home. Perhaps his first choice wasn’t available but it was presumed that the Devils and Islanders were the main competitors for his services, at least until a wild rumor surfaced that the Blue Jackets of all teams were offering a 7 year, $84 million deal:
An agent making it up to drive up other team’s prices, or an actual crazy GM? Either was plausible to me and we’d find out the answer in short order, but in any case I didn’t think Columbus would be his first choice ‘unless’ the crazy offer rumor was true. Even then it would have been hard to square him leaving Calgary over family concerns to signing for a random outpost of a team, unless he just got an insane contract. So imagine my surprise when I found out that not only did Gaudreau in fact, sign with Columbus but that he did so for $9.75 million a year!
I’m not sure we’ll ever really know what happened unless the player gives some kind of honest explanation in his first presser as a Blue Jacket, which is probably unlikely but who knows. The way this all played out makes my head spin. From assuming he’d be a Flyer to thinking it was a two-horse race between us and the Islanders with most of the ‘experts’ thinking we had the better offer to the wild Columbus rumor that turned out to only be half-wild. You don’t often see ‘mystery teams’ sign big-name players in hockey like will sometimes happen in MLB, but this one was a doozy.
What makes this whole thing even more bizarre is the Devils are in the middle of having prospect development camp this week, including pretty much all of this year’s draft picks, as well as other guys who’ve already seen NHL action without even being part of a development camp yet (another pandemic consequence of the last two years) like Nico Daws and Alexander Holtz.
In fact if tonight wasn’t the crucible of UFA day, I’d probably have gone to watch the 3-on-3 prospect tournament and autograph session afterward. I just couldn’t see myself going and paying any sort of attention to it at all with my attention focused on the Gaudreau saga. I wonder how the reaction went through the crowd when the news broke at some point – I know how I felt and it wasn’t peachy aw shucks, we’ll get it next time! I still don’t even know what to believe over how much we supposedly offered since all the actual rumors about this mess proved to be wrong. Some people like Todd Cordell swear our offer was in the $10.2 range, others like Pierre LeBrun only say our offer was north of $9 million. Whatever the case, the fact remains someone the Devils were clearly in on not only didn’t come here, but went to a division rival on top of it. There’s no way of spinning that, even if you didn’t necessarily believe Gaudreau was the total perfect fit here.
So, where does that leave the Devils now as we close day one of UFA? For now, in limbo. They’ve been rumored to be in on UFA forward Ondrej Palat, but who the heck knows anything anymore? I still think it’ll probably be the Islanders to sign him, and not just cause it would fit the whole Metro division bulking up theme that’s kicked us in the teeth over and over the last few years. We all know Lou likes his older players, and guys with championship experience – watch him give out insane term to Palat. Which would leave us fighting for the secondary options like Nino Niederreiter or hoping for a trade to fall into our laps, with limited assets to trade. At least among assets you would want to trade. I’m not sure I’d be trading our 2023 1st right now unless it’s lottery-protected maybe…why would I when it looks like everyone else in the division is getting better, or at least will still be better than us?
It’s easy for me to say Fitz needs to do more this offseason than Vanecek, Haula, Smith and (hopefully) signing Jesper Bratt long-term, I can’t say I rightly know what the heck Fitz should do now but I ain’t the one on the hot seat, or the one responsible for ending a nearly decade long spell of losing. Puck’s in your end Fitzy, let’s see something happen here.
And literally JUST as I’m finishing this article, a Weekesbomb if you will…Palat to NJ on a five-year deal – well what a twist in the tale this is!
I was actually worried it would wind up being a six-year term. Five seems fine…I almost don’t care about the cap hit at this point, considering it’s been hard to actually find stuff to spend it on. Fact is this team needed another top six winger, and a guy with experience in the playoffs and found both with Palat. So maybe a bit of a happy ending after all.