As you may have heard, this past year’s Hobey Baker Award winner for the top player in college hockey, defenseman Will Butcher, elected not to sign with his initial draft team, Colorado, but instead pursue free agency. Like Jimmy Vesey last year, this is an option for some college players who play long enough in the amateur ranks before turning pro that they can skate around their initial draft team and test the waters. Last year, there was potential buzz that Vesey could end up with the New Jersey Devils; however, as any fan knows, New Jersey has almost never been a destination that most free agents who command a market would actually choose. So, as you would expect, he signed up to play his home games in Manhattan instead. You know, because it’s so far away and so much more prestigious.
This year, as of August 15th, Will Butcher can sign with whatever team he desires. Interestingly enough, for the second year in a row, the Devils have been mentioned as a potential landing spot for a player going down this path. According to SBNation NHL, Butcher met with the Devils on his first day of free agency, one of five teams he met with. Just like when I heard about Vesey last year, I was somewhat surprised. You know as well as I do that New Jersey has basically never been a truly desirable destination for free agents looking for quality employment in the NHL. The team does land its share of guys, but it ends up being mostly guys who think of it as the “right fit,” not the top name guys. Michael Cammalleri was an exception several years ago, and while his tenure here did not pan out as we all wished it did, it was refreshing nonetheless to see someone actually choose to come play here.
Hearing that Butcher could actually sign up to play in NJ made me question my initial thought process. While NJ has not historically been a top FA destination, could it become one in the near future? While I would never say it could be the top landing spot amongst all 31 teams, I think there is actually a decent chance it could become one of the better ones. Let me explain why. First, let’s dispense with the idea that it could never be a top landing spot because it is not one of the major markets. Yes, you could probably make the claim that Toronto will always have an inside track at being a top destination, as will Montreal and even New York, but just the location alone will no longer give them that title. Stars are not made and they do not gain endorsements and ad revenue simply by being in larger markets anymore. Case in point is LeBron James. Cleveland is certainly not one of those major cities that instantly attract players. Madison Square Garden could do that, Los Angeles could do that, and probably Boston given the team’s history, but not the Cavaliers. But he went there, and just by him being there, Cleveland became a major destination for free agents wanting the chance to win a title. There is so much coverage anywhere you go that if stars want to be noticed and gain notoriety, they can do that basically anywhere. That includes Newark, New Jersey.
I think the LeBron point also brings up another key idea here: top landing spots for potential free agents are no longer really determined by physical location, but other factors. These could be the other players on the team, the coach, the system or style of hockey played, etc. In the case of the Devils, they most likely were never a major focal point for free agents because of some of these reasons. The Devils don’t have flair like other teams. They don’t have the following, the media coverage, the long history. And for most of its existence, it was run by Lou Lamoriello, who did things in a very unique way. From keeping things very tight lipped to the conservative way players had to dress and keep their facial hair, etc., there is no doubt that this all deterred players.
Of course, not all stars want to be in the limelight either. The case in point for this one is Martin Brodeur. He loved being out of the heavy spotlight, and mentioned that he preferred it in New Jersey where he was not bombarded with media all of the time, as opposed to his hometown of Montreal where he would not have been able to walk around in public. So while a small town feel like New Jersey (I saw small town feel because it is technically in the NY market, but we all know it might as well be a small market team given the coverage) might not work for most high profile free agents, it actually could work for a few.
Now, why could the Devils actually become one of the better destinations in the NHL? I think the answer lies in what could potentially be developing here. A few years ago, everyone decried that the Devils had one of the worst farm systems in hockey. And frankly, it did. Over the last couple years, however, the team has really worked to replenish that system. While there may still be a dearth of strong defensive prospects, the prospect pool at forward has greatly improved, and there are a few goalies who have potential as well. The hope of course is that this leads the team out of the rebuilding mode and into contention. If this happens sooner than later, like say in the next couple of years, then you all of a sudden have a contending team where the main core of players is incredibly young. In two years, Nico Hischier still cannot drink alcohol, Pavel Zacha would just be able to, and guys like John Quenneville and Michael McLeod would all be of a similar age. On defense, Steven Santini would still be under 25, and Damon Severson would just be 25. Yes Taylor Hall would be over that age, and maybe Kyle Palmieri would be considered a core guy and he would be over it too, but both would still be under 30.
Of course, there are some assumptions in all of that. It assumes that many of those young kids actually break out and perform really well. That is the major question mark at this point in the team’s development, but for the sake of my argument, let’s assume that at least a couple of those players turn into top 6 guys. The other major assumption is that Taylor Hall, the obvious star player of the team and the one that my hopes really rest around, actually signs a long term deal to make New Jersey the place he wants to retire in. If he just plays out his current contract here and signs a major deal somewhere else, my whole argument is moot. He, more than anyone else, really needs to show the rest of the NHL players that a top talent would actually want to choose to stay here. If he does, and if the young core can develop and make this team into something that is playoff-caliber, then in my opinion, you have the makings of a place that free agents could want to sign up to play in. That is exciting to think about.
However, that is my thought process on that. Do you think I am a lunatic for actually thinking that New Jersey could become a quality destination for top free agents, or do you think I make some valid points? What would it take, in your mind, for New Jersey to become one of the better destinations in the NHL for free agents? Is it possible to happen soon? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.