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FanFirst Friday: What If? Edition

Sometimes I like to play the game “what if” in my head. Today I’m gonna write about it as the Devils seek to go further into the playoffs.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets
What if Johnny Gaudreau had signed in New Jersey instead of Columbus? Would this incredible season have happened?
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Friday!! Could it literally be any better after beating the Rangers? I mean I’m sure there are ways it could be better, like if the Devils hadn’t laid an absolute egg in game one against the Carolina Hurricanes, but it was probably to be expected after coming off an emotional Game 7 victory against your biggest rivals. But still, I can’t stop smiling having taken down the Rangers. 2012 and 2023>1994...and Devils fans don’t have to be in their late 30s or older to remember these victories.

I find hypothetical situations very fascinating to discuss. Not sure if lots of people are like this, but it’s a quirk of mine, probably because my Dad passed away when I was merely 18 years old. Sometimes I wonder how different my life would’ve been had he not had a heart attack on August 13, 1990. I wound up moving West from the East Coast because of it. I wound up in a different college, probably surrounded by very different people. It makes me wonder how different I could’ve been just based on environmental influence.

The same goes for hockey. Obviously the biggest hypothetical in Devils history is the Scott Stevens scenario. Yep, September 3, 1991, Scott Stevens was awarded to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the St. Louis Blues signing Brendan Shanahan away from the Devils. The two teams couldn’t agree on compensation for the signing, with the Blues offering goalie Curtis Joseph and forward Rod Brind’Amour plus two draft picks. Instead, arbitrator Edward Houston sided with the Devils and sent future captain to the Devils. If Devils fans remember correctly, Stevens wasn’t even sure that he wanted to go.

So many things needed to align properly for this to happen. And maybe had the arbitrator sided with the Blues and the Devils had to “settle” for Joseph and Brind’Amour, who knows where the future would go? Maybe the current Canes coach who is gameplanning to beat those same New Jersey Devils he might’ve been a part of, would be someplace else. Maybe even behind the Devils bench right now? And maybe the team from New Jersey wouldn’t have won any Cups had Scott Stevens decided he didn’t want to go the the Garden State and held out for a trade or something? It’s fun to think about if utterly futile to assess.

More recently (and relevant to hockey right now), a couple of years ago, both Linus Ullmark and Brandon Montour were both UFAs, meaning anyone could’ve signed them. Boston threw a lot of cash at the unknown goalie and most were wondering what the hell they were thinking. Montour was someone I saw a lot of in Anaheim and thought he had so much raw potential that I really liked him. I openly asked the Devils to consider signing both of them, and some mocked me online for it.

Ullmark is now the likely winner of the Vezina trophy, leading the Bruins to a historic season. Granted they flamed out in the first round to Brandon Montour’s Panthers, but if you believe the reports, Ullmark was injured and being run out there any way.

Montour was a Bruin killer and became Florida’s number one defenseman this year, possibly due to Aaron Ekblad’s injury woes over the years. But still Montour is an offensive force. He plays the body VERY effectively and is generally a pest to play against.

Now Ullmark got $5 million a season and when I saw that number, I balked because I didn’t think the Devils would’ve done that. So it’s likely a moot point now. And Montour might’ve not been interested in the Devils over the sunshine state Panthers, either.

But still it’s fun to speculate what could’ve been had those two signed. The Devils weren’t likely ready for them at the time any way. Ullmark benefitted greatly from being behind that historic team. And who knows if Montour would’ve become the Montour we’ve seen this season?

The point is that so many decisions that happen over the course of a franchise building (or rebuilding for a decade as the Devils have) can have such a crazy impact moving forward.

I didn’t use the Ullmark and Montour examples to prove how smart I am, because I’ve also been wrong as hell many, many times. One of them was the Taylor Hall trade. I really didn’t want the Devils very first Hart Trophy winner dealt, especially for a package that, at the time, looked like the Hope diamond for a dumpster full of spare parts. I usually get into trouble when my emotions run my fandom and I don’t look at the bigger picture. The Devils were terrible even with Hall on the roster. And while luck may have played a part, the Devils wound up with Jonas Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl and Dawson Mercer out of that deal. I’d say all three of those players played a major role in the “young and inexperienced” Devils toppling the vaunted fantasy-hockey roster New York Rangers. They will all likely be a big part of the Devils team success moving forward from here and while Hall has been a mixed bag since leaving New Jersey, he’s never rediscovered that Hart Trophy form and likely will not. Had the team re-signed Hall to a long-term deal, he would’ve hamstrung the team in terms of the percentage of salary cap he would’ve eaten up and not produced at the rate that matched said percentage. That was a HUGE bullet dodged.

While there are literally thousands of these moments in a franchise, where a signing or a deal could’ve gone on way or another, the other one I want to discuss is how the Devils were allegedly on the verge of signing Johnny Gaudreau when he became an unrestricted free agent last summer. At least until the Columbus Blue Jackets swooped in and nabbed him at the 11th hour. I was destroyed over it because, at the time, I felt like the Devils absolutely needed an elite winger on Jack Hughes’s wing, and to me Johnny Gaudreau would’ve clicked beautifully with Hughes. I felt like the Devils were still missing a huge part of potential future success without that elite winger for Jack.

It didn’t take long for me to turn my attention after that to Johnny’s former linemate in Calgary, Matthew Tkachuk, and I convinced myself that Tkachuk would’ve been an even better fit on Jack’s wing. Rumors spread that he was about to be dealt. People were thinking St. Louis, mostly. And then Florida came in and swept Calgary GM Brad Trevling off his feet with an offer of Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar and a first round pick. Again, I left wondering “what if” Tkachuk wound up being that missing piece that the Devils missed out on once again. I’d felt like the Devils had been left at the altar not once, but twice (later we found out that Tkachuk had a list of teams he’d accept a trade to and the Devils were not on it).

So I headed into the season with mediocre hopes that the team would fight for a playoff spot and I thought they would cap out at around 89 points and miss the playoffs by a few points. Yet they would still be on the right track. We all know what happened. They absolutely shattered even the most optimistic fan’s expectations, blew away the best season to season point improvement in the modern NHL and set franchise records for wins and points. Yet all of it was done without having signed Johnny Gaudreau or bringing in Matthew Tkachuk via trade. Instead it allowed the Devils to trade for John Marino to improve the defense dramatically and sign Ondrej Palat to a lucrative contract (after missing out on Johnny Gaudreau) that led to this:

I honestly don’t care that Palat didn’t have a good year. I don’t care (at least right now) that the contract for Palat likely won’t age particularly well and that he will probably be an albatross on the cap eventually. That goal will forever live in my favorite Devils memories (Henrique, MacLean, Elias to Arnott, Niedermayer end to end against Detroit, so many great ones). To outwork two Rangers pillars like Chris Kreider and Adam Fox and make them look like they would rather be anywhere else other than dealing with a furious forechecking maniac like Palat was just the absolute icing on the cake. And I’m thoroughly convinced that someone like Gaudreau would’ve never pulled anything like that off.

But here’s the other aspect to losing out on Gaudreau and Tkachuk. It allowed the Devils to pursue Timo Meier at the trade deadline. And while Meier was point-less in the series against the Rangers, his impact was felt all over the series. He was public enemy number one when it came to former Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin. Guy punched Timo. Guy shot a puck at Timo. Guy just basically hated Timo. And that’s a good thing.

Now Meier got blown up by a head-hunting Jacob Trouba late in Game 7 when the outcome was basically already decided. Hey, you know how you Ranger fans always compare Stevens to Trouba? Two things. First, Stevens played in an era where a lot of the lingering impact of shots to the head were either unknown to general public or hidden from the general public. Stevens also didn’t have the robocop-like armor that today’s shoulder pads are. We maybe should evolve past brutal, targeted head shots at this point (I felt the same way seeing Joe Pavelski’s head targeted by Matt Dumba). Second, Scott Stevens hits impacted games because he didn’t decide to do it in the waning seconds of a game that was already lost. Hit on Lindros? Early Game 7. Hit on Kozlov? Second period of a 1-1 game in Game 2. Trouba was looking for a deliberate and purposeful pound of flesh at that point and it makes you kinda pathetic. Plus, you really aren’t good at hockey like Scott Stevens was. Stevens possessed the Devils single season point record for scoring by a defensemen up until this season when Dougie Hamilton broke it. You are a third pairing defenseman, at best. You will be an albatross on the Rangers salary cap moving forward for the next three seasons. $8 million a season for a third pairing defenseman who struggles against teams with speed and pace? Not great, Bob. Let’s check in on how other NHLer’s feel about Jacob Trouba:

Figured that was pretty appropriate for the hit on Timo Meier. Any way, back to our regularly scheduled programming. Meier is a 40-goal scorer and he should eventually put a few pucks in the net in this playoffs if he can get healthy from the head hunting hit. The Devils definitely looked a bit out of sorts without him in the lineup against the Canes in Game 1. Meier basically gives the Devils incredible depth in the lineup, either riding shotgun with Nico Hischier or driving a third line on his own. They will need him back if they want to advance past the Carolina Hurricanes. And it’s up to each Devils fan to wonder if the team would’ve been better off had then been able to sign Gaudreau to ride shotgun with Hughes all season. Or if Tkachuk would’ve been open to a deal to the Devils.

Or you’re content having another Swiss man ride with Nico, Jonas and Akira onto bigger and better things. Sometimes those things you miss out on lead to something even better. To me, Tkachuk is a monster of a player who is willing his team to success in the playoffs, but he never wanted New Jersey so that’s easier to overlook. I think the Devils would’ve been an easier team to beat in the playoffs with the smaller Gaudreau out there rather than Meier. And that’s partially what makes taking hypothetical so fun. Unless we somehow all warp into the Marvel series “What if?”, we shall never know. I’m glad that it all worked out like it did. People can say that Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald was playing 4D chess...but I just think he was playing poker and dealing with the hand he was dealt. We shall see if it turns into a royal flush or not. Time will tell.