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Day 1 of Free Agency Reviewed: New Jersey Devils Made Some Good Moves Marred by a Massive Opportunity Cost Loss

The New Jersey Devils had a mostly low key first day of Free Agency Frenzy today. They did some good work to trade Pavel Zacha and sign Andrew Brunette and Brendan Smith. The problem is that Tom Fitzgerald focused most of his efforts to get Johnny Gaudreau - and he did not get him. This post is a lament over the massive opportunity cost lost today.

San Jose Sharks v New Jersey Devils
Fitzgerald went all in on Johnny Gaudreau today. He did not get him.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils were having themselves a low key but productive first day of free agency. Here are their moves so far today:

  • Before noon, word came out that the New Jersey Devils traded the enigmatic and inconsistent Pavel Zacha to Boston for the more experienced and reliable Erik Haula. While that may not be good news for Jesper Boqvist or Michael McLeod, Haula is an upgrade for the bottom six. He can take faceoffs and chip in more than just being on the ice. For those who have been frustrated and/or gnashed their teeth over Zacha turning a corner and proceeding to turn back around, it was great news. For the Devils as a whole, they got a little better.
  • Kevin Weekes reported backstage at a TV studio that the Devils signed Andrew Brunette to a three year deal to join the coaching staff. As I believe coaching has held the Devils back, getting Brunette is a big deal. He was more than just a Jack Adams Finalist. Brunette took over for the disgraced Quenneville to lead Florida to their best record in franchise history, a President’s Trophy, and Florida’s first playoff series win in over two decades. He’s experienced, he’s proven to me that he can be a head coach, and if (or when) Lindy Ruff falters, the Devils have a ready-made replacement. This could end up being the best move the Devils make this offseason.
  • Shortly after noon, the news came out that the Devils signed defenseman Brendan Smith for two years for $2.2 million. He is an experienced, defensive defenseman who was good depth for Carolina last season. He can be good depth for the Devils blueline without needing to throw Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, or Reilly Walsh into regular duty right away. It is not an exciting move, but it is a fine one.
  • The Devils brought back Mason Geertsen to a two-way NHL contract. If you like slow, non-intimidating skaters who do not play hockey anywhere close to a NHL level, then what’s the matter with you? If he stays in Utica, then fine. He should not see a game in New Jersey again.
  • The Devils also made some minor moves also primarily for Utica. Per CapFriendly, forward Brian Pinho, forward Jack Dugan, and defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon. It is common for teams to sign AHL/fringe players to NHL deals to convince them to play for the AHL affiliate. This is the 2022 round of such signings for the Devils.

All told, combined with acquiring Vitek Vanecek before the second day of the 2022 NHL Draft began, the Devils honestly improved their team. They addressed the goaltending position without needing to throw heaps of money at Jack Campbell and Darcy Kuemper or begin to pray that Martin Jones or Charles Lindgren will be decent. The Devils needed to add to their coaching staff and arguably added a head-coaching caliber talent in Brunette. The team needed a depth defenseman signing after letting P.K. Subban and Colton White go to market and they got a good one for not much money or term. They turned Zacha into Haula. This was not bad business at all from General Manager Tom Fitzgerald.

However, these moves were not his main focus today. And we now have to address the elephant in the room.

Massive Opportunity Cost Loss

Fitzgerald was gunning for the biggest free agent on the market this Summer again. The Salem, New Jersey born winger Johnny Gaudreau. He turned down over $80 million from Calgary. He turned down an 8 year extension from the Flames. He was hitting the market and it was thought he wanted to be more local. Gaudreau is not just from southern New Jersey. His family is there. He has multiple charity functions and ties in the larger Philly area. Gaudreau turned down the most lucrative contract he could have received - no other team could have offered him 8 years.

What’s more is that Philly did their best to ensure they would not be involved with Gaudreau. GM Chuck Fletcher’s sense of direction for the Second Rate Rivals ensured that “Johnny Hockey” would not come to his childhood and hometown team. In addition to Philly’s bad signings in recent years, Fletcher traded for and signed Anthony DeAngelo to a significant deal, bought out cancer survivor Oskar Lindblom, would not move James van Reimsdyk’s expiring contract along with a first, and apparently decided the best course of action was to bring back Justin Braun for a season and give 31-year old grinder Nicolas Deslauriers a four-season contract. The one team that Gaudreau would logically take a hometown

This was a big stroke of luck for Mr. Fitzgerald. The Devils were one of the few teams in the NHL that could offer Gaudreau big money and a more local connection to his home than from Calgary, Alberta. The Devils needed upgrades at wing and, well, Gaudreau was the best winger available on the market. No, he is not big. No, he is not likely going to repeat his 115-point campaign that he had last season. Yes, he was a consistent producer like no other available on the market. Yes, his skillset combined with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, and others would make the Devils a fearsome team to match up with at forward. Would I personally like Gaudreau on a seven season contract at over a $9 million cap hit? No. Would I get why the Devils would want to do it? Yeah. To massively improve their team and also to show the People Who Matter, the media, and the hockey world that the Devils are not content to just be a near-bottom team with loads of unused cap space.

Moreover, for Fitzgerald, this would be the biggest contract he ever offered, More than Dougie Hamilton; the primary competition for his signature was a Carolina team that lowballed him. Fitzgerald won that relatively easy battle. With Philly not in the picture and the only other team offering a big deal is a New York Islanders team without much direction of their own, all signs pointed to Gaudreau becoming a Devil.

And as the day went on, the pressure mounted that Gaudreau would have to become a Devil. As Fitzgerald focused on Gaudreau, a lot of other talented wingers that could have helped New Jersey signed elsewhere. Andre Burakovsky? To Seattle for a deal that I think NJ could have beaten. David Perron? Experienced, but would have been good value - he went to Detroit. Want a beefy, younger winger in Mason Marchment? Dallas swooped in and took him. Vincent Trocheck? Signed for 7 seasons with Our Hated Rivals right as the clock struck noon. Claude Giroux, although he is a center but he is quite talented? Ottawa got his signature. Las Vegas had to sacrifice a big deal to make much needed cap space. Carolina, who did not have a heap of space like, say, New Jersey, got Max Pacioretty for just future considerations. Rickard Rakell did not hit the open market as Pittsburgh gave him a big deal and then gave another one to Evgeni Malkin on the eve of free agency. Evander Kane was also retained by Edmonton too. While not all of the top or middle six wingers that could help the Devils were gone, a lot of them were. Fitzgerald clearly went all-in on his focus to bring Johnny Gaudreau to the Devils. He could not turn around and make a deal for someone else. That would have ended the pursuit of Gaudreau. Fitzgerald was swinging big and just needed to hit it. He did not spend a lot of real money, but he was paying a massive opportunity cost.

Once again, the Devils offered Gaudreau a massive contract, they had the local angle, and they did not have to worry about the hometown factor. Fitzgerald did what he could. The decision is ultimately Gaudreau’s. Yet, Fitzgerald needed to close the deal to make up for the opportunity cost he paid to focus on Gaudreau.

Then Gaudreau signed with Columbus. For seven seasons with a $9.75 million cap hit per season, all apparently in salary without bonuses. The Devils offered a similarly large contract and had an angle to sell Gaudreau on that Columbus certainly did not have. And they did not come through. To sum it up, here’s Mike Stephens from The Hockey News:

That is an excellent question. I can tell you that it is absolutely not a good answer.

By the way, Pierre LeBrun tweeted that the Devils’ offer was 7 years with a cap hit north of $9 million. So if the Devils did not offer the most money after all - meaning LeBrun is right and Stephens is wrong on the number - that’s even worse. They should have been on Plan B or C the moment the agent said “no” to that and/or sought out Columbus late this afternoon.

On its own, I can be pleased that the Devils did not actually get Gaudreau for that amount of money and term. He is going to turn 29 next month, he just had likely the best season he’ll ever have in the NHL, and while I do not think he will decline massively, he will absolutely decline. Paying him more than Hughes, Hischier, Bratt (pending contract), Hamilton, and others could cause issues down the line if and when they need new deals or when others are brought in for potential deals. Personally, I would not have gone after Gaudreau at all if the asking price was above $9 million. I would have done the other moves save for the nonsensical Geertsen signing, offered Burakovsky $30 million over five seasons, see if I could swing Marchment or Palat, and then call it a day. On its own, I am OK with Gaudreau spending a long time in Ohio. Annoyed he is now in the division, but otherwise OK.

But I am not the one that decided to swing big for Gaudreau. Fitzgerald did. And he missed big time on him. Yes, Gaudreau made his choice for Columbus - I wonder if he has a close relationship with Calgary teammate Erik Gudbranson, whom the Blue Jackets also signed for a laughable contract today? - but Fitzgerald still failed to close the deal to justify his narrow focus on Johnny Hockey. He had no Plan B ready to go if and when he learned of Gaudreau’s decision. (As I am typing this, one of those Plan B’s - Ryan Strome - signed with Anaheim this evening. Not good.) When you go all in for one free agent and you do not get him, then that is seen as a failure even if you think the money, term, or player is not worth it. No, Fitzgerald could not force Gaudreau’s hand. But he clearly did not make a good enough pitch and ultimately close the deal. Which he needed to do to justify not being in on any of the other UFA wingers all day. To reference a famous movie, coffee is for closers and Fitzgerald’s cup is empty.

This is also a poorer reflection on Fitzgerald’s overall goal of making the Devils better. Over the last two weeks or so, we saw Kevin Fiala and Alex DeBrincat traded, several good wingers signed contracts today, Max Pacioretty getting dealt away for literally nothing (hey, I thought the Devils had all this cap space to weaponize, why weren’t the Devils calling Las Vegas for days about it?), and Gaudreau choosing Ohio over New Jersey. In a vacuum, you can rationalize each of these players not becoming Devils. The problem is that Fitzgerald either tried and failed to get them (Fiala, Gaudreau) or did not try (DeBrincat, Pacioretty, the other UFA wingers). For the risks or issues they may have, any would have absolutely improved the Devils at a position where they could use some real help. At some point, some risks have to be taken since the Devils were shut out of all of these possible players that would have helped the Devils a lot. Fitzgerald got none of this. This is a lot of missed opportunities in just the past few weeks. Even if he gets Dylan Strome or makes a big trade soon, you have to question Fitzgerald’s abilities to make deals happen to seriously improve the team. I fear he put himself in a position where he is a losing streak in November away from becoming a free agent himself.

I know those last two statements will ruffle some feathers. So will this question: How many more opportunities should Fitzgerald get to miss before thinking that he should not be the GM for this team? Remember, this is a team that has made the playoffs once in the last decade and the two teams under Fitzgerald as GM missed the playoffs by a whole lot (30+ points last season, or much more than Just A Goalie). That is the current view of the Devils. Not the glory days of the 1990s or 2000s. A team that continues to stumble their way into high lottery picks in nearly every year for a decade. A team that continues to lean on youth, development, relatively cheap rosters, and has yet to take a big step forward from bottom ten in the standings. This may shock some of you, but this has and will continue to turn fans, personnel, and players off from wanting to join the Devils.

Sure, there are some quality free agent wingers still available. Plan B could end up being pretty good. Ondrej Palat, Nino Neiderreiter, and Dylan Strome are nothing to sneeze at. They could also roll the dice and offer a potentially stupid amount of money to Nazem Kadri too. The Devils could still to improve their team some more. But they really need to. This is not 2016. The Devils are not in a position to spend another season and waste another prime year of Hischier, Bratt, Hughes, etc. to keep acquiring picks, prospects, and having cap space to leverage but not fully utilize. The perception is that the Devils are a lackluster franchise without much of a direction going forward. They may not be cheap, but they are certainly not aggressive or creative about being a better hockey team sooner rather than later. Fitzgerald getting Gaudreau - winning his bet, hitting on that swing, getting that coffee for closers, etc. - would have helped improve the Devils’ image. Again, as Stephens wrote, the Devils offered Gaudreau $63-$70 million, had the local angle in New Jersey’s favor, did not need to worry about Philly, and Gaudreau chose a non-local team instead. That speaks to a larger problem, magnifying this perception I do not want the Devils to have. All the while Fitzgerald has nothing to show for his major effort today. I cannot even argue against that image. You might, but I cannot.

Other than that miss, I liked what the Devils have done so far. Are they better today than they were yesterday? Yes. Yet, the Devils took a massive opportunity cost loss on July 13. No wonder Fitzgerald did not want to speak to the media. I would not want to answer any questions about it for a while if I were in his shoes.

That’s my take on the first day of free agency for the Devils. What’s yours? Is it positive? Go for it. Is it defending (or coping) Fitzgerald? Have at it. Is it negative? Go for it. Is it critical of (or seething of) Fitzgerald? By all means. Have your say as you usually do. Thank you to those who spent part or most of the day at All About the Jersey, thanks to Jared and Chris for helping out with post, and thank you for reading.