Tom Fitzgerald talks Ondrej Palat, Johnny Gaudreau

NEWARK — Friday marked the end of the Devils’ annual development camp, but when speaking to the media for the first time since the start of free agency, Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald indicated that his work in the offseason was not yet complete.

“My phone is going to ring constantly and I’m going to keep making phone calls, seeing what’s going on, and keep adding if possible,” Fitzgerald said.

On Friday, Fitzgerald talked about the new players coming to New Jersey while addressing the big players he couldn’t get. The biggest of those names was winger Johnny Gaudreau, who seemed destined to wear a Devils jersey earlier in the week until he opted for Columbus in a surprising turn of events.

Fitzgerald confirmed the evidence that the Devils are interested in Gaudreau, the first player to enter unrestricted free agency after a 100-point season in about a decade. Gaudreau was looking for a new home arena and the best fit on paper and the deepest pockets existed in Newark. However, Gaudreau opted out of coming to New Jersey, dismantling the best-case scenario for the Devils this offseason.

“In the simplest way, yeah, we were on Johnny Gaudreau and he chose to go a different direction,” Fitzgerald said. “We wish him nothing but the best.”

Fitzgerald said the team was not given a reason why Gaudreau chose to sign in Columbus instead of his home state of New Jersey.

“A Hidden Gem”

For the second straight offseason, the Devils have been involved with some of the most sought-after free agents in the league. Last summer, Dougie Hamilton chose New Jersey, but this year Gaudreau decided not to come to the Garden State to play hockey. Fitzgerald again made it clear Friday that he believes New Jersey and the Devils are an underrated destination for free agents, as the past two summers have proven.

“I think New Jersey is a hidden gem,” Fitzgerald said. “People don’t know much, players. They come in, they play, they leave. Some teams stay in New York and go through. They have no idea what it’s like to live here. The big suburbs and what they can offer you, the great school system, city life in Jersey City and Hoboken and easy access to New York I tell people you can’t see New York if you live in New York. York, but across the river it’s a fantastic view.”

Fitzgerald did more than name great landmarks that make New Jersey a desirable place to play. Cultivating the young talent the Devils also have has made the veterans excited to play with the Devils and try to develop a strong, youthful base at the Prudential Center.

“I think where our young players are and people look inside and say, ‘Hmm, Jack, Nico, Bratt, they’ve got Dougie, now [Ondrej] Palat, a winner picked us,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day, winning hockey games will also help recruit players.”

“Having adults around children”

FILE - Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Ondrej Palat (18) controls a puck during the first period of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals of NHL hockey against the Colorado Avalanche on June 22, 2022 , in Tampa, Florida.  person with knowledge of the situation tells The Associated Press on Thursday, July 14, 2022 that the New Jersey Devils have agreed Palat to a five-year, $30 million contract.  (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

The Devils sported the youngest roster in the league last season, rejuvenated only when injuries and illness forced the veterans to retire in favor of some of the Utica squad’s prospects. Perhaps more important than just adding talent this week through free agency and trades was the Devils’ ability to bring in needed veteran experience.

Tom Fitzgerald joked that a few seasons ago he said it was important “to have adults around the kids.” Signings that include Palat and Brendan Smith have helped the Devils be taken more seriously as a contender and try to shed the identity of a rebuilding team filled with young players.

“And now our kids are maturing and understanding the next steps in their careers,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just a super exciting time for the New Jersey Devils.”

A message to the cloakroom

There was a major prize up for grabs in free agency in Gaudreau, which the Devils couldn’t get. Unable to know it at the time, the commercial frenzy that preceded the start of free agency saw many talented players change their jerseys. The Devils also participated in many of these discussions, but did not want to part with some of the team’s many strengths.

While big names like Alex DeBrincat and Kevin Fiala were handed out to other teams ahead of the draft, the Devils were contenders but weren’t involved despite some of the league’s most sought-after assets. So why not offer more to do the trick? Fitzgerald spoke of sending a message to the current roster, suggesting the team’s willingness to turn the corner and trust the young stalwarts that make up the team’s identity.

“I think there’s a message you’re sending to your team if you’re continually selling,” Fitzgerald said. “I knew it was a concern or a thought of some of our players because of where we were going… I have to run my business, but there’s also something in the dressing room and making sure our players believe we’re going in the right direction and we’re trying to win hockey games and put the best team on the ice.”

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