It was Herb Brooks who once said, “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m lookin’ for the right ones.”
During his end-of-season media availability, New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald made it clear that his plan this summer would be to build up his roster and add diversity to his lineup.
“I have a wish list of characteristics of players that I really think we need to add to support the young offensive talent that we have,” he said. “We have a lot of the same upfront. We have a lot of nice players, talented players. But I think we have a lot of the same. I don’t want a lot of the same. It’s time to start mixing and matching and building a team, especially up front to be harder to play against, heavier skill…I’m looking to build out a roster that can play any type of game. I’m looking to build out a roster that not only becomes a playoff team but can handle the wear and tear and heaviness of a playoff series.”
Knowing Fitzgerald was open for business coupled with the Devils’ cap space and possession of the second-overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft, fans knew this would be a paramount summer for the club. Considering the circumstances, they have been linked to virtually every player available including Johnny Gaudreau and Alex DeBrincat. Fans eventually saw both aforementioned players go in different directions after hockey insiders stated New Jersey was the heavily favored destination.
While some were irritated Fitzgerald could not work out a deal for either forward, the organization is in fact better off in the long run without either superstar on their roster. Before I jump into the Gaudreau situation, let’s first discuss a player that some fans believed was worth the second-overall pick.
The Alex DeBrincat Trade
Rumors swirled that DeBrincat would be moved via trade during the draft, and ultimately he was when the Chicago Blackhawks moved him to the Ottawa Senators. Fans were upset their team missed out on the two-time 40-goal scorer because the 5-foot-7 winger seemed to be the perfect complement to center Jack Hughes. For the past two seasons, he has been a point-a-game player and last season led the Blackhawks with 41 goals.
The biggest downside with DeBrincat is that he is only under contract for one more season, and will then become a restricted free agent (RFA). The 24-year-old will be in line for a big pay increase and a long-term deal. It was not overly surprising that Fitzgerald was not interested in giving up too many assets for a player who needs a new contract this spring. The Calgary Flames can be used as a cautionary tale, as they are dealing with their own issues when it comes to their star RFA, Matthew Tkachuk.
The Johnny Gaudreau Sweepstakes
The 5-foot-9 winger is coming off an impressive 115-point campaign and opted to test free agency for the first time in his career. The Gaudreau situation is a little different than DeBrincat’s because at one point Fitzgerald believed the Devils would land the top free agent.
“Yes, we were in on Johnny Gaudreau, and he chose to go in a different direction,” Fitzgerald said. “We wish him nothing, but the best.”
Gaudreau ultimately decided to sign a seven-year, $68.25 million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The superstar winger will be 29 in August and is now under contract until he is 35 years old. He has reached the 60-point mark six times in his career and clearly would have improved the Devils’ top six. According to the Salem, New Jersey native, he was trying to get a deal done with the Devils, but when Columbus called he told his agent that he wanted to go there instead.
The Devils Are in a Better Situation Without Gaudreau & DeBrincat
When I look at the Devils’ current situation, I can easily come up with three reasons why the organization is better off without Gaudreau and DeBrincat and it all goes back to what Fitzgerald said during his press availability.
New Jersey Does Not Want to Invest in More of the Same
DeBrincat is listed at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds while Gaudreau is 5-foot-9, 165 pounds. They both have a similar stature to Hughes and Jesper Bratt, which falls into the category of “more of the same”. While a line of Gaudreau/DeBrincat-Hughes-Bratt would have been entertaining to watch in the offensive zone, it leads to the question of how well they would play in their own zone away from the puck. Was it in the Devils’ best interest to commit long-term to a player who could be considered a carbon copy of what they already have?
In addition to being more of the same, Gaudreau will be 29 years old at the start of the 2022-23 season, which is the same age as Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller. Devils fans have been vocal about not wanting to trade for him due to his age but were willing to give seven years to Gaudreau. The Canucks forward had 16 points less than the New Jersey native and is coming off of his own career season. The problem with both of them is that long-term contracts at their age never pan out and paying a 35-year-old $9.75 million is a big risk that the Devils did not necessarily need to take.
The Importance of the Depth
Once a team establishes their core, like New Jersey has, it is crucial to find the proper supporting cast. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche won in part because of their depth at every position. Over the past three seasons, fans have seen players like Blake Coleman, Pat Maroon, and Corey Perry serve a very important purpose during the postseason. On the other hand, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers have had difficulties in the past due to their team’s lack of depth. Even a top line that consists of two of the game’s best in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl hasn’t been enough to get to the Stanley Cup Final.
If there was one lesson learned from 2021-22, it was that the Devils had difficulties scoring when their top players were out of the lineup. Several fans stated that they relied too much on Hughes and Bratt, and it would have been highly likely that Gaudreau or DeBrincat would have played with Hughes. That is a lot of money invested in the team’s top line, and fans know that head coach Lindy Ruff looks to roll all four lines during the game.
On July 13, Fitzgerald addressed his middle-six and traded for veteran Erik Haula. It is projected that he will slide into the third-line center position giving the coaching staff stability after utilizing multiple players there last season. The next day the team announced they signed veteran forward Ondrej Palat to a five-year contract. The 31-year-old provides some much-needed sandpaper to the team’s lineup in addition to his scoring touch. Those moves confirm Fitzgerald is sticking to his plan of signing players who can bring something different to his club.
Not Landing Gaudreau and DeBrincat Opens the Door to Another Versatile Player
If I am being honest with my readers, this section was going to be dedicated to a possible Matthew Tkachuk trade, but as it was being scheduled, the news broke that he had been moved to the Florida Panthers in a blockbuster deal. While the physical forward is no longer an option, there are still plenty of other players out there that New Jersey can pursue if Fitzgerald feels it is necessary.
As it stands right now, the Devils have $9.6 million in cap space and still have a few players they need to sign including Bratt. This summer has been wildly unpredictable with players being moved that no one would have suspected a few months ago. It is not completely out of the realm of possibility that Fitzgerald makes a move in the next few weeks to find another versatile power forward to complement his young core.
ESPN released some offseason grades for all 32 NHL teams and New Jersey received an A- and that is without locking in some of the biggest names available. Fitzgerald has been successfully adding depth to each position and has shown he is not shy about going after a superstar who he feels can help his team. He is filling out the Devils’ roster and that does not necessarily mean signing the best players, it’s finding the right ones to help strengthen what his team already has.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.