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UFA Preview: Johnny Gaudreau & Erik Gudbranson

Johnny Gaudreau is one of the best left wingers in the NHL. Erik Gudbranson is a big, tough defenseman who would bring a quality the Devils are lacking. Do either player make sense for the Devils to pursue in UFA?

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NHL: Calgary Flames at New Jersey Devils
Could Johnny Hockey become Johnny Jersey? Or Johnny Jersey Hockey?
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The long wait for the NHL business season is nearly over, as the Colorado Avalanche have won the Stanley Cup and we now sit 14 days away from the free agent market opening. After previously highlighting prominent UFAs from Florida, Carolina, New York, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Colorado, we shift our focus north of the border today and look at the #1 free agent expected to hit the market in Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau, as well as a journeyman defenseman in Erik Gudbranson.

Who are these players? What do they do well? Would either one make sense for the Devils, and if so, what type of contract are we looking at? Let’s dive in and answer those important questions.

Who is Johnny Gaudreau and what would he bring to the table?

Johnny Gaudreau is a lefty-shooting winger who was born in Salem, New Jersey. He grew up in Carneys Point Township, which is not too far from Wilmington, Delaware and about a 30 minute drive from the sports complex in South Philadelphia. He was the 4th round draft pick of the Calgary Flames in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Gaudreau, who was committed to play at Boston College, played three seasons in college and signed his ELC the same day he won the Hobey Baker award as the top player in college hockey. He scored a goal on his first and only shot in his only NHL game during the 2013-14 season.

Gaudreau’s first full NHL season came in 2014-15, when he scored 24 goals and 40 assists in 80 games, making the All-Rookie team and finishing 3rd in the Calder Trophy voting behind Aaron Ekblad and Mark Stone. He followed that up with 78 points in 79 games in 2015-16 and finished 4th in the Lady Byng voting. Gaudreau and GM Brad Treliving had a bit of a stalemate on his next contract negotiation, which led to Johnny Hockey missing the following training camp, but he ultimately signed a six year deal worth $6.75M annually on the eve of the 2016-17 season.

Since then, Gaudreau has been remarkably durable, as well as productive. Gaudreau missed 10 games during the 2016-17 season with a broken finger, but has played in 370 out of 372 regular season games since the start of the 2017-18 season. He won the Lady Byng trophy in 2016-17 and finished 4th in voting for the Hart Trophy in 2018-19 when Nikita Kucherov won the award. He established new career highs in points in 2017-18, 2018-19, and again this season. In 2021-22, he played 82 games, scored 40 goals, had 75 assists, added another 3 goals and 11 assists in 12 playoff games including the series-clinching goal in the first round against the Dallas Stars, and finished 4th in the Hart Trophy voting again.

He enters unrestricted free agency this summer with 609 points in 602 career games and has been one of the best scoring wingers in the league since he turned pro. His possession numbers are very good as well.

Credit: Hockey-Reference
Credit: Natural Stat Trick

What may surprise you about Gaudreau is that he played his best defensive hockey this past season in Calgary. Gaudreau bought in to head coach Darryl Sutter’s system and had the best season of his career on both ends of the rink. Khalid Keshavjee from The Win Column dives more into that in this column he wrote back in January. I don’t think anyone will mistake Gaudreau for Patrice Bergeron or Mark Stone defensively, but it goes noted that his percentage of defensive zone starts was the highest it’s been since his rookie season.

So what does Gaudreau do well? A lot.

His skating, vision, hockey-IQ, and passing are insanely good. He’s one of the top puck-handlers in the league. He has been incredibly durable despite his smaller frame (he’s listed at 5’9” and 165 lbs. on the Flames website). You can see from the highlight video above that he can score in a lot of different ways. Simply put, he is an elite offensive talent and players with this kind of talent do not hit the open market very often.

Of course, if you’re not a Gaudreau fan, the first thing you’ll point to is his size. You may even note how the Devils already have a couple smaller top six forwards in Jack Hughes (5’11”, 175) and Jesper Bratt (5’10”, 175) and how the Devils would essentially be doubling down on what they already have with smaller, skill forwards. I’ll also add that I don’t think these critiques are entirely without merit. I do agree that the Devils need more size at wing. I do agree that the Devils need to be “tougher to play against” and play with more physicality. I do agree that those specific qualities do not describe Gaudreau or what he does well.

The problem with this argument is two-fold. First, the idea the Devils have enough skill and talent already in place is ridiculous. This is a hockey team that has missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons, and nine of the last ten since they made the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. This is a hockey team that has drafted 1st, 17th, 1st, 7th, and 4th the last five years. This is a hockey team that earned the 2nd overall pick this year due to their inconsistent play. This is a hockey team that for all the talk this past season about career-best seasons for Hughes, Bratt, Nico Hischier, Yegor Sharangovich, and Dawson Mercer, they still finished 19th in the league in goals per game. Yes, the Devils and their poor goaltending has a lot to do with that, but they could stand to improve in other areas as well. They were so inept on the power play (another area where Gaudreau shines that I didn’t mention earlier) for a second consecutive season that Mark Recchi was fired after the season. Collectively, the Devils are an average offensive team WITH their top players having big individual seasons. Players like Alex Holtz, Luke Hughes, and the #2 pick in this year’s draft may help them at some point, but they’re far from locks to help next season. Nobody ever said that a team has “too much skill” or is “too talented”. That’s not a thing.

Second, this isn’t an either or proposition when it comes to building a hockey team. Signing Gaudreau doesn’t prevent the Devils from drafting Juraj Slafkovsky (if available), nor does it keep them from pursuing a winger with size in free agency such as Mason Marchment or Nick Paul, who I have profiled recently. The Devils can not only do both, they should do both. Its also a lot easier to acquire things like size, grit, a “net front presence” and energy than it is to acquire a top-tier playmaker.

I’ll dive into it more in the next section, but a better argument against signing Johnny Gaudreau is his age (turns 29 in August) and how adding another big money long-term contract will impact how the Devils will build out the rest of the roster.

What type of contract will Gaudreau get and should the Devils have interest?

Gaudreau will draw interest from most teams around the NHL, but I believe its a three-horse race between the Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers, and New Jersey Devils to sign him. Pierre LeBrun has specifically mentioned the Devils as a possible destination, as has Flames beat writer Hailey Salvian who went as far as to say the Devils are the “most realistic option” if he leaves Calgary. There’s enough smoke out there from credible reporters that it needs to be mentioned as a possibility.

Calgary is the incumbent, they want to resign him, and they have the advantage of being the only team that can offer him an eight-year deal. That advantage should not be overlooked. The Flames also have the advantage of being the best team between the three right now. Gaudreau has gone on record saying he loves Calgary and all the usual stuff pending free agents say. Treliving has said how keeping Gaudreau in a Flames sweater is a top priority. That said, as of today, Gaudreau has yet to put pen to paper on a new deal with the Flames. That’s not to say he won’t between now and July 13th, but the closer he gets to the open market, the more likely it is he’ll test the market.

Do not underestimate the allure of Gaudreau playing for the Flyers. While he is from New Jersey, he grew up a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers. Gaudreau’s father Guy is a skills coach for the Flyers elite youth club and has been involved in the local youth sports scene in Philadelphia for years. If Gaudreau’s heart is set on playing for his “hometown team” no matter what, the Devils will likely come up short as they have with past free agent pursuits such as Kevin Shattenkirk and James van Riemsdyk. The Flyers clearly still think they’re better than they are (they’re not). They hired John Tortorella as the head coach and he said this is not going to be a rebuild or retool. An all-out pursuit of Gaudreau or any top free agent is a possibility, if not a foregone conclusion. Philadelphia has work to do with the cap to make a competitive offer, as they only have $5.1M in cap space at the moment and that won’t be enough to get this deal done.

The Devils have $25.3M in cap space, so they have plenty of room to make Gaudreau a competitive offer without trading anyone away, but as I mentioned a few weeks back when I wrote about Jesper Bratt, it becomes a lot tougher to build a winning team when you add another big contract on top of Hughes, Hamilton, and Dougie Hamilton. Where does Jesper Bratt fit into all of this, as he is also unsigned as of today? Do the Devils have the space to pay both Bratt and Gaudreau? Is it an either or situation where they pick one over the other? Bratt is younger and you’re getting all of his best years, but Gaudreau is the better player overall and he’s the better player right now. Damon Severson is a year away from UFA and is almost assuredly a lock to get a new deal. Yegor Sharangovich and Jonas Siegenthaler will need new deals after next season. And none of this addresses the glaring hole the Devils have in net, which must be addressed for any of this to work.

The last time a free agent winger of this caliber hit the market, Artemi Panarin signed a 7 year deal with the Rangers worth $11.6M annually. I don’t think Gaudreau, who will be a year older when he hits the open market, reaches those levels. That said, this is unrestricted free agency and it only takes one desperate team looking to make a splash to become relevant (looking at you Philly and Seattle) or stay relevant (Pittsburgh?).

I think Gaudreau is in the discussion for being the best left winger in the NHL, so its reasonable to slot his salary in somewhere around where the other best left wingers are. Alex Ovechkin is getting $9.5M a year, Kirill Kaprizov is at $9M, and Brady Tkachuk is at $8.2M on his second contract (I’m not including Brad Marchand, who is vastly underpaid, or Jonathan Huberdeau, who is due a new deal himself, here). I think anything between $8.5M and $9.5M a year is a reasonable ask. For what its worth, Alex Maclean of Dobber Hockey has him at a hair over $10.5M while Evolving Hockey puts him at just under $11M on a seven-year deal.

If the Gaudreau bidding gets to the $10M plus, then yes, the Devils should consider alternatives at that point. There isn’t a shortage of top line forwards available this offseason with Filip Forsberg and Ondrej Palat hitting free agency and J.T. Miller, Kevin Fiala, Alex Debrincat being available via trade. Gaudreau might be the best of all of those players, but the gap isn’t that big where the Devils should pursue him over the others by any means necessary.

Make no mistake though, if Gaudreau is open to coming to New Jersey, the Devils should try to sign him (within reason). Players of his skillset.....40 goal scorers.....they don’t come along very often and if one who grew up in your backyard is open to playing for you, you should absolutely listen. I believe there’s an avenue for the Devils to sign Gaudreau (let’s say $9.5), Bratt ($7-ish M) and address their goaltending while still having enough flexibility to take care of Severson and the RFAs who need new deals when the time comes. To me, talent trumps size, and the Devils can do other things to add size, grit, toughness, energy, or whatever other buzzword you want to use. Yes, there is some risk he regresses both offensively and defensively as we get into the age 34 and age 35 seasons. That’s part of the deal with free agency. The pros outweigh the cons though, as he’ll likely remain an elite winger for the first half of that deal.

The Devils paid Dougie Hamilton $9M last year in part because they wanted to accelerate this rebuilding process. Signing Gaudreau would be a big move to double down on that idea that the Devils want to be a playoff team now as opposed to later. I expect the Devils to be aggressive in general this offseason to upgrade this roster. Otherwise, what’s the point of paying Hamilton a year ago? It just so happens to be that this year’s top free agency prize is a top-line winger that they happen to need to address their average offensive output.

Who is Erik Gudbranson and what would he bring to the table?

Erik Gudbranson is a 6’5”, 222 lb. right-handed defenseman who has bounced around the league since he was drafted third overall by the Florida Panthers way back in 2010. He played five seasons in Florida before the Panthers traded him and a 5th round pick to Vancouver for Jared McCann and two draft picks. He lasted in Vancouver for two and a half seasons before being moved at the trade deadline in 2019 to the Penguins for Tanner Pearson. All in all, he’s played 641 NHL games for seven franchises and has typically been traded for late draft picks and non-prospects the last couple years before he signed a one year deal this past season with the Flames for $1.95M.

If you’re looking for offense from the blueline, you might want to look elsewhere.

Credit: Hockey-Reference
Credit: Natural Stat Trick

If you’re looking for a defense-first defenseman, he’s also probably not your guy.

You may look at those stats and see the numbers this season actually look quite decent and be surprised by that, and I wouldn’t blame you. Gudbranson has never been regarded as a good offensive defenseman who drives possession. So what gives?

His offensive output of 17 points (which, not great, but still a career high) might simply be a product of Sutter’s system and him playing with good players. That’s not to say that Gudbranson didn’t have his moments here and there, but Calgary has a lot of players with good advanced stats. His defensive partner was primarily Nikita Zadorov, who also hasn’t had great advanced stats in the past. Without going back and rewatching 82 Flames games, I’d guess the forwards did a lot of the heavy lifting here and Gudbranson also happened to get an ‘A’ on the group project. I don’t write that to pick on him, but there’s a long-history of Gudbranson getting caved in defensively at 5-on-5 and being a defensive sieve. There’s a reason why he’s been on six teams the last four seasons.

Gudbranson is big and rugged. He hits a lot of guys, blocks shots and drops the gloves when necessary. He’s a tough guy and a good guy in the room, literally. He was voted the Peter Maher Good Guy award winner by the local media in Calgary for the player who “best exemplifies Maher’s values in their dealings with others: sincerity, integrity, dedication, and respect”. And he’s coming off arguably the best season of his career.

What type of contract will Gudbranson get and what should the Devils do?

I think it would make a lot of sense for Gudbranson professionally to stay in Calgary if possible. That might not be possible if the Flames find a way to retain Gaudreau, extend Matthew Tkachuk, and give Andrew Mangiapane a well-deserved raise, but a Sean Monahan buyout would free up approximately $4M in cap space. I think other teams will acknowledge that Gudbranson was better this past season, but will want to see him do it again before thinking he’s not the same old Erik Gudbranson he has always been. If the Flames don’t bring him back, I wouldn’t be surprised if another team looks at his size and determines he’s worth taking a chance on at a minimal cost ($2M or below).

I’d be fine if the Devils sat this one out. I know Tom Fitzgerald has a desire to get bigger and tougher on the blueline, but I think there are better veteran defensemen available that are worth pursuing who can check the same boxes. Gerard wrote about Ilya Lyubushkin a few weeks ago and while he’s a little smaller than Gudbranson, he’s not a slouch at 6’2” and 201 lbs. and he’s been consistently better in his own end. I’d much rather take a chance on him, Josh Manson, or Justin Braun than gamble that this past season for Gudbranson wasn’t a fluke.

Final Thoughts

Johnny Gaudreau is the top free agent on the market and he would make any hockey team he’s on better. Detractors will point to his size, but his size hasn’t prevented him from being one of the very best players at his position in this league for over 600 NHL games, and its unlikely to start now. The Devils make a ton of sense as a potential landing spot for Johnny Hockey. They do need to be careful both with the salary cap in general and how they build the rest of the roster around Gaudreau if they sign him. I won’t go as far as to say the Devils should pursue him at any cost as I personally wouldn’t top $10M with other options available, but if Gaudreau wants to be closer to his South Jersey roots, they should find a way to accommodate and get him signed, sealed, and playing on a line with Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes this fall.

Erik Gudbranson is the opposite side of the coin. Yes, he had a decent year last year, and yes, he brings some things to the table the Devils could use a little more of, but he’s also the epitome of “size isn’t everything” and I have no interest in gambling on a player with a long-track record of poor play prior to this past season when there are better options available.

What do you think of these two unrestricted free agents? Do you agree with me that Gaudreau is worth pursuing or are you concerned about his size and cost? What do you think about Erik Gudbranson and do you agree with me that he’s a clear stay away? Please feel free to leave a comment below on these two players and thank you for reading!