NEWARK, N.J. — While thrilled to have signed two-time Stanley Cup champion Ondrej Palat in free agency, Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald briefly felt star attraction Johnny Gaudreau would be returning to New Jersey.
It didn’t work out that way. “Johnny Hockey” chose the Columbus Blue Jackets over his home state, and the Devils gobbled up clutch and steady Palat hours later with a five-year, $30 million contract.
Fitzgerald had no regrets Friday in discussing opening days of free agency and a couple of trades. Besides Palat, the Devils signed veteran defenseman Brandan Smith and acquired center Erik Haula from Boston and goaltender Vitek Vanecek from Washington, adding to a young team led by Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.
According to several reports, New Jersey offered Gaudreau a seven-year contract worth more than $9 million annually. He accepted a $68.5 deal with the Blue Jackets — which averaged out to $9.75 million a season.
Fitzgerald admitted to having visions of Gaudreau skating in the team’s red, white and blacks colors. And he had good reason. He knew the player and his wife. His son played with Gaudreau at Boston College and roomed with Matty Gaudreau, Johnny’s brother. They hit it off in negotiations.
“I felt that we were going to be a destination for him, but I’m guessing so were other teams that were in on him,” Fitzgerald said. “We put our best foot forward.”
When Gaudreau said yes to Columbus, the Devils quickly inked Palat, who spent his first 10 seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Palat had sensed all season the Lightning were not going to re-sign him because of their salary cap restrictions, so he prepared himself and his family for that eventuality.
The Czech forward said the Lightning never made him a new contract offer, although the team spoke with his agent about possible terms and money.
“It just wouldn’t work,” Palat said of the numbers.
While sad to be leaving Tampa, Palat said coming to New Jersey, which had not made the postseason since 2018, reminds him of his early days in with the Lightning. It was a young team, down in the standings with a lot of talent. They evolved into a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and ’21 and went to the final this past season before losing to Colorado in six games.
“When you win the Stanley Cup, once you want to win again,” Palat said. “So it’s not like I don’t want to win. I just really like the team. And I believe in this New Jersey team that they’re young and they can do something special.”
Over the past few seasons, Fitzgerald has brought experienced, tough players who know how to win to New Jersey to round out the club. Last year, he signed defenseman Dougie Hamilton and brought in veteran Tomas Tatar, one of the players Palat knows well as a fellow countryman.
New Jersey’s young core took major steps last season, with Hughes, Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer and Yegor Sharangovich making significant strides.
Vanecek should stabilize an injury-riddled goaltending corps. New Jersey used seven goalies last season in a year without Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier for much of the season.
Fitzgerald also strengthened his coaching staff, adding Andrew Brunette as an associate coach Friday. A former teammate in Nashville, the 48-year-old became the interim coach with the Panthers last season and led them to the Presidents’ Trophy with 58 wins — the most in franchise history. He finished second in the voting for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach.
Brunette should help the Devils dreadful power play, which was fifth-worst in the league last season.
“I think this is a team that is is ready to to take that next step,” Fitzgerald said.