“Johnny: first time, long time.”
“Hi Johnny, it’s Jack.”
“Johnny, HBSE would like to connect you with Joel Embiid.”
Whatever the salutation may be, there will be one extended when the clock strikes 12 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday. Players who score 115 points, let alone coming off a115-point season, don’t make it to unrestricted free agency. Players who’ve scored over a point-per-game, players who’ve netted 113 goals in their last 290 games, who’ve scored the sixth-most even-strength goals in the last four seasons trailing the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Kyle Connor, Patrick Kane and Brad Marchand–they don’t make it to July unsigned.
Yes, Ilya Kovalchuk made it to market at 27 after a 41-goal campaign, Brad Richards, never a 100-point scorer, was a prized center to hit market after his 31st birthday. John Tavares was far-and-away the best we had seen when his pajamas took him home to Toronto in 2018, but we rarely see elite talent, let alone gifted goal-scoring make it to this point. That makes Wednesday more than just a free agent frenzy for the eligible suitors. It makes it a potentially franchise-altering day that could help make a major impact on the ongoing shift of power teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, more specifically, the Metropolitan Division.
There’s been battles before. The ’95 and 2000 Eastern Conference Finals. There’s been Eric Lindros versus Scott Stevens and more recently, Claude Giroux versus Dainius Zubrus. There’s been Daniel Carcilo and Chris Pronger; Patrik Elias, Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer. But, in this moment, on Wednesday, there is another battle worth witnessing.
Johnny Gaudreau is this free agent prize–and we’ve rarely seen anything like him get to this point.
Salem, New Jersey–New Jersey in name, but Philly in heart. The Gaudreau family still remains there and would love to see their son’s return to the East be just miles away after spending his first eight seasons of pro hockey in Alberta. And, the Flyers could prove to be a tempting enough proposition. His boyhood team, the hiring of John Tortorella, who for all his faults has shown a strong ability to reach a quick turnaround in almost every spot he’s been and a reunion with Kevin Hayes, his Boston College teammate for three seasons. They will be among the aggressive pitches made to Gaudreau on Wednesday at noon.
The math of course isn’t inspiring for GM, Chuck Fletcher–the Flyers have limited cap flexibility with just under $3.5 million in space, according to CapFriendly. But of course, it may just take one phone call to Arizona or Chicago to make James van Riemsdyk’s $7 million hit ($4 million in actual dollars) go away–he has no trade protection and some intrigue after a 24-goal season. They could also move out Ivan Provorov and his $6.75 million tag to a team that is uninspired by the free agent defense offerings–perhaps a team willing to send back a young and inexpensive center to the Flyers. Is Ottawa a potential fit? If you have to settle for a bottom-six center but bring in Gaudreau on a seven-year, $10.5 million AAV deal, I think the Philly faithful would survive. But something like that has to work and shipping out money when the League knows you want to, that’s a tough place to be.
And then there’s up the Turnpike to New Jersey. No, they aren’t the team he grew up rooting for. In fact, he and his family were likely actively rooting against the Devils in ’95, 2000 and 2012. If he is a Devil, it will likely be the first Devils jersey Guy Gaudreau, Johnny’s dad, has ever owned. But, for the oddity and hour-plus trip cross-state, it’s not Alberta. But, if he’s to marry a hockey decision with geography, he’ll look at Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier down the middle and Jesper Bratt, likely to be on the wing opposite of his. He’ll see a team that plays with speed and likes to play a bit riskier than the Tortorella system. And that’s just the hockey part of it. There undoubtedly will be a heavy push by the hockey people–GM, Tom Fitzgerald and Martin Brodeur, but HBSE’s Josh Harris and David Blitzer will also pitch the brand to Gaudreau. They might also share their story, which includes a venture to New Jersey after long ties to Philadelphia. This is the way major pro sports is heading it seems and these sort of pitches from outside-hockey types haven’t been uncommon, but this may be among the more aggressive attempts we will have seen.
But, when someone who has been called, and rightly so, ‘Johnny Hockey’ for the last six-seven years, you have to come with everything. New Jersey did well with selling Kyle Palmieri for being not only a good player, but a Garden State native–never mind his Rangers fanhood in an earlier age. But you’re also selling the reality that this may be the optimal time to hop on a New Jersey train that’s finally leaving the station. Long gone are the days when free agents walked on them–Scott Niedermayer, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, Zach Parise, David Clarkson–long gone are the days of Kovalchuk and Taylor Hall, who watched their popularity rise and fall in brief stays. Even in their best years, the Devils were a type of farm team to the free agent spending Rangers, Red Wings and Maple Leafs.
That too could make Wednesday franchise-altering. A year after winning the Dougie Hamilton sweepstakes, the Devils are in position again to strike. The faulty rebuild, which has fumbled on itself at various points in the last decade, would be worth it if it was to get the kind of shot in the arm that only Gaudreau could bring. This is a strong UFA class, perhaps the best we’ve seen in the last decade and a half, but there’s no denying there is but one real prize on the market.
Of course, there may be other suitors battling out with some geographic connections, too. Lou Lamoriello and the Islanders will likely make a pitch of playing with Mat Barzal. They appear to be going a more offensive-minded route with the departure of Barry Trotz and Lou won’t be scared-off by the market ask–after all, he did the Kovalchuk deal. The obvious sales pitch though? We’ve won four of six playoff rounds in the last three seasons. Carolina is a true contender with just under $20 million in cap space. Don’t see Tom Dundon liking the bidding war or double-digit market value AAV, but that may be the best Eastern Conference team that is suddenly flushed with cap space and who wouldn’t love to see a line of Gaudreau – Sebastian Aho – Andrei Svechnikov?
But, if the reported eight-year, north of $10 million contract wasn’t enough to stay in Calgary, the emphasis wasn’t simply to sign with the best contender. Other factors were at work, Flames GM, Brad Treliving, who called Tuesday a “disappointing day to say the least,” confirmed.
More Treliving on Gaudreau: "I don’t want to speak for John and I won’t speak for John, but it’s my strong belief that this was a family decision, and I respect that."
— Tracey Myers (@Tramyers_NHL) July 13, 2022
The stage is set though, and not unlike a Flyers-Devils, Battle Down the Turnpike, Circa 1995-2012 meeting, this may prove to be a consequential contest with different players than usual, aggressive ownership and management pitches, calls from old teammates and young, elite American talents. A guy named Johnny Hockey is decidedly worth it. He has to be. He can be, should be franchise-altering. For two franchises that have tirelessly spinning their wheels for the better part of the last decade, his ability to end that cycle may have an unprecedented value.