Last offseason, the New Jersey Devils went all in on signing Johnny Gaudreau in free agency. They lost, but who really ended up regretting their decision?
It was almost one year ago when New Jersey Devils social media was on fire, hoping that for the second year in a row, the team would come away with the top free agent. Tom Fitzgerald talked Dougie Hamilton into signing a deal with the Devils. Now, Johnny Gaudreau was rumored to be the number-one target for a franchise hoping to turn things around.
We all know what happened next. Johnny Gaudreau’s agent made it clear he didn’t want to come to New Jersey. The second the Columbus Blue Jackets came calling, Gaudreau signed on the dotted line for less than most expected him to get. He was supposed to be a slam dunk eight-figure player.
Some thought Gaudreau would sign a contract similar to Artemi Panarin’s (seven years, $81.5 million). Instead, Gaudreau chose a contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets worth $68.25 million. He came in at a $9.75 million average annual value.
The Devils pivoted, using the money they had saved for Gaudreau to give Ondrej Palat his deal. Palat signed for five years and $30 million. We’re unsure if the Devils are thrilled with that deal after one year. Palat had a rough first season, tearing his groin and failing to make a major impact offensively. Yet, it was the future deals where the Devils are happier than ever.
With the extra $4ish million he saved between the Palat and Gaudreau deals, Fitzgerald made a call to his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and brokered a deal for John Marino. Marino was at times the best Devils defenseman, and he is signed for four more seasons at $4.4 million per year.
So, let’s assess what happens if the Devils signed Gaudreau. For an easy reference point, let’s assume the Devils signed Gaudreau at the same contract that he signed with Columbus. That puts the Devils in a bind since they can no longer afford to make the Marino trade. They obviously wouldn’t sign Palat either. So, those two players do not exist on this roster.
How would the Devils replace Marino? There are a few options, but there’s one real solution here. We’ll get to that in a second. The short-term solutions are likely nothing anyone would celebrate. The first is a returning P.K. Subban. He was much better in his role as a third-pairing defenseman after the Devils signed Hamilton. Taking a lot of the pressure off of him made it easier for him to excel.
There were some cheaper options. Jan Rutta or Justin Schultz could have made sense, but there’s no world where this defense is better without John Marino. That’s especially true if they also kept Ty Smith, who took some serious steps back in his second season. He couldn’t even break into the NHL for the Penguins this past season. The Devils could not afford to keep him on the roster.
Where this really impacts the Devils is the future of Damon Severson. The Devils longest-tenured player is probably gone this offseason. The Devils can’t afford him, and he largely played a third-line role. However, if the Devils signed Gaudreau and didn’t add Marino, the Devils couldn’t afford to lose him. Even with Simon Nemec signed to an entry-level contract, the Devils couldn’t rely on him being the second option in his first season.
Even with those changes, could the Devils expect the upgrade on offense to counteract the downgrade on defense? It’s pretty clear the Devils would still be a playoff team. Jack Hughes might not have been the scoring machine he was earlier in the season, but he could easily break the Devils franchise points record with Gaudreau at his side. Nico Hischier’s line would have been just as good.
Gaudreau himself probably has a much better season. After a 40-goal, 115-point season with the Calgary Flames, he scored nearly half the goals and just 74 points with the Blue Jackets. Columbus was one of the worst teams in the league, pushing for Connor Bedard all season. They didn’t get him, finishing with the third-overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft.
Now, things are looking bleak for Gaudreau. The Blue Jackets are reportedly going after Mike Babcock to be their next head coach. Maybe he learned from his exile after the Toronto Maple Leafs fired him, but what came out after showed he might not be the right coach for today’s NHL. He reportedly messed with Mitch Marner, and he was a terror to deal with. Maybe he wasn’t so bad that he should never get another NHL job, but do players really want to play for him?
Star players aren’t getting the respect they get in the Devils organization. The Devils front office listens to players like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton, and others. Gaudreau would have been part of that quadrant. He was probably promised something similar in Columbus, but he isn’t getting that with Mike Babcock.
There has to be some semblance of regret for Gaudreau now. Not only is he playing for a bottom feeder, but the team is now picking third in a historic draft with two amazing players. For those wondering what that could look like; the 2015 draft had Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel go 1-2. Dylan Strome went three (although, to be fair, Mitch Marner went four).
As for the Devils, at least one year out, the team is happy Gaudreau said no. They made the best with the money. Not only did they add Marino on top of Palat, but they eventually traded for Timo Meier. There was no chance they make that trade if Gaudreau is on the roster. The Devils are in better shape with a 6’1, 220 lb. power forward who can score 40 goals at 26 years old than they are with a 5’9, 165 lb. finesse forward who is about to turn 30. The Devils look like they could be Stanley Cup contenders as soon as next year. Gaudreau’s decision to join the Blue Jackets may have cost himself a chance to ever get there.