When the news came out late Wednesday that the New Jersey Devils had not landed Johnny Gaudreau, there was much confusion all around. Gaudreau wanted to play closer to home, Philadelphia could not compete, and the Devils, being the second closest for him in terms of distance to South Jersey, had what seemed to be a lot going for it. The team had a ton of cap space to play with, a big need for a top line winger, and a young, exciting core of forwards that you would think others would want to play with, as the potential for long-term success seems pretty evident.
Yet Gaudreau, from what it seems like, never really considered NJ. From what I read (I honestly cannot find where I read it to link to it), Gaudreau’s agent never responded to Tom Fitzgerald’s offer. That makes you think that coming to NJ was never on the table for Johnny, despite Fitzgerald offering at least $9+ million. Now, that being said, this could all be a case of Gaudreau simply choosing the better offer. If Fitzgerald was outbid by Jarmo Kekäläinen, then much of what I am writing about here might be moot, although even then I am not so sure. But honestly, that would be the best-case scenario for the franchise as a whole, even if it would be the worst for Fitz’s job security. You might be mad that Fitz wasn’t willing to offer $10 million a season, and you might want him replaced, but it doesn’t leave some really negative undertones about the state and image of the franchise, only about the GM of it, and GMs can be replaced.
But if the Devils’ offer to Gaudreau was, more or less, irrelevant, and he wasn’t coming here notwithstanding some outlandish offer, then those undertones really come into play, and they are almost frightening to think about. As Devils fans, it’s not something we see or really think about, at least from my perspective anyway. I’m a fan, and I know a bunch of Devils fans, and there’s been no discussion about a poor image of the franchise elsewhere. We just considered it a small market franchise that most likely is not going to attract big names intrinsically, as it isn’t some flashy destination. However, we still figured it was one that could still get talent with the right offer, one that has a strong history of winning that gives the NJ logo on the front some level of respect. Now, that has to be questioned a little bit. What do other players think of this franchise? What is the view of NJ outside of the fanbase? And what does it mean for the future of this team?
If those answers are generally negative, then the consequences of this 10-year slump for the New Jersey Devils are direr than we might have initially imagined. Not only are the dominant decades from, approximately, 1992-2012, now completely out of memory, but the image of the team has turned a complete 180 degrees. Now, others seem to see the team as a joke, as an afterthought, and as somewhere they would rather avoid playing if other options are on the table. And this is with a very strong, young, and exciting core of players in Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer, Jesper Bratt, and others, a core that you would think would make others excited to play here. That is the core of what could be a very good team for years to come. But if that is outshined by a negative image and aura surrounding the franchise, then problems abound indeed.
The major problem with that, of course, is that it creates a self-fulfilling cycle. The way to change a negative image is to be good, play good hockey, and compete in the playoffs. Do that for a few years, and now the perception of the team changes. The Devils were seen as a joke for most of the 1980s, a Mickey Mouse Organization if you will, but then they started winning, and soon enough, they were seen as a legit contender and franchise that was here to compete and win. But now, after a decade of losing, if players don’t want to come here because of the perception that this franchise is a loser and an afterthought, then the team won’t be able to recruit the talent it needs to truly compete, and it won’t be able to retain some of the good talent it drafts. That, then, leads to more losing, which only perpetuates the negative image that the franchise has.
Right now, the Devils have a lot of potential. They have a young group of players that have a chance to be really good, with more in the pipeline that could add to that group very soon. Throw in Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, and Alexander Holtz to the already solid foundation of talent in New Jersey, and we could really be talking here. You will see analysts who are excited about the future direction of this team. But outside of fans and some analytics guys, what is the real image of this franchise? What do people think about New Jersey? If it is a place they would rather avoid, regardless of the talent and potential the team currently has, then we’re in trouble. It isn’t like Columbus is some destination location either, and it’s 8 hours from Jersey. But if it’s more preferable, to the point of not even responding to Fitz’s offer, then we could be in trouble folks.
But again, maybe this is all overthinking it. Maybe he just went with the best offer outside of Calgary. Maybe it has nothing to do with the image of the franchise and who they could recruit to help make this team a perennial winner again. Maybe New Jersey really is just a small market team that has to play its cards perfectly to succeed, but most importantly, it is a franchise that has that chance. Because if the image problem is a real thing, then I am not sure if they really have that chance. But if any group can turn the image and fortunes of this team around, it could definitely be the young group it currently has. Let’s just hope that the role players around them are enough, in a very tough division and conference, to succeed.
Now, am I overthinking this? Do you think there isn’t any underlying image issue surrounding the Devils, even after what happened with Gaudreau? Do you just place all the blame on Fitz, or on Johnny’s Philly leanings taking him away from Newark? Or did this whole ordeal also leave a bad taste in your mouth? Do you also now have a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach? Only time will tell what the right answer is, but I do hope it’s nothing!