‘These Guys Chose Us’ I FEATURE

There are a lot of factors that a player must consider when entering the unrestricted free agent market. Of course, there is the contract details: money and term. But deciding with which team to sign goes much further than just a dollar value or the length of a deal.

Players, and their agents, must weigh the quality of the team and how things are projected to go in the future, the management in charge of running said team, the city and lifestyle, and lastly, the willingness of ownership to invest in creating a winning product.

The Devils and general manager Tom Fitzgerald understood those factors when they sent e-mails to free agents prior to the start of free agency promoting New Jersey as an attractive landing spot.

“Slap Shots has learned that the team has sent an email to agents extolling the virtues of playing for the organization in New Jersey,” wrote Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “The email includes a link to a dedicated site meant to be shared with prospective free agents that features ownership, the organization (‘FIRST CLASS ORGANIZATION’), the staff, the fans and the community.” 

Defenseman Dougie Hamilton received that e-mail. And after weighing all of his options, the 6-foot-6 blueliner decided that the New Jersey Devils were the right fit for him and his family, agreeing to a seven-year, $63-million deal with the club on July 28 – the opening day of free agency.

“I’m excited to be a part of this team, and the growth of this team and the franchise,” Hamilton told the media. “It’s an exciting time to be a Devil and a Devils fan. I’m happy to be a part of it now.”

Video: Dougie Hamilton Media Availability

When someone like Hamilton, the most talented player on the market, chooses to sign in New Jersey, the rest of the hockey world takes notice. And they certainly have. 

As Steve Politi of NJ.com stated: “Hamilton’s decision should send a message to other top players that New Jersey can be a preferred destination again. The Devils did something splashy on Wednesday, and despite the shaky track record, fans should celebrate.” 

But it wasn’t just Hamilton that was won over by what’s being built in the Garden State, as goaltender Jonathan Bernier and forward Tomas Tatar also signed with the club. The Devils, who also acquired defenseman Ryan Graves via trade, were so successful this summer that USA Today had them ranked as the No. 1 “WINNER” of the 2021 offseason.

“They landed the top free agent in Dougie Hamilton, which instantly make the defense and offense better,” USA Today‘s Mike Brehm wrote. “They’ll also have newcomer Ryan Graves, and P.K. Subban won’t need to be relied upon as much. Jonathan Bernier is a good pickup. He helped keep the Detroit Red Wings in games last season.”

The additions of Hamilton, Bernier, Tatar and Graves will make an already talented, yet raw, Devils club better next year.

“I think a lot of people look at New Jersey and say the Devils are the most improved team year over year,” said Ian Mendes on The Athletic Hockey Show podcast. “I think a lot of people look at the signing of Dougie Hamilton as the reason for that.” 

The Devils wanted those players to join the club. But, most importantly, those players wanted to become New Jersey Devils.

“These guys chose us. We did our job by promoting New Jersey, the future of the organization, the players that we have, great place to live,” Fitzgerald told NHL Tonight. “They chose us, and I think that says a lot for New Jersey. Not to mention the pushing of Josh and David – Josh Harris and David Blitzer – our ownership, and really giving us the resources to do this.”

Video: New Jersey Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald joins NHL Tonight

Devils ownership, HBSE, showed its commitment to icing a winning hockey team, investing over $80-million dollars in free agency, including $63 million alone to Hamilton. The club had an exorbitant amount of cap space, and Harris and Blitzer gave Fitzgerald the green light to spend whatever he could to improve the team.

“(Fitzgerald) had plenty of salary-cap space and a pair of owners in Josh Harris and David Blitzer with deep pockets,” Politi wrote. “He also had to know that another year with the Devils’ young core out of contention months before the season ends would be detrimental to their growth. That’s the most important part of this transaction. Fitzgerald, wisely, has focused on building this team through the NHL Draft. Hamilton is the kind of player who makes everyone around him better, and that’s a boost this collection of players who are barely old enough to legally buy booze desperately needs.”

The Devils are loaded with young, burgeoning talent that will only improve over time. The team added high-caliber players over the summer. The organization’s owners are committed to doing whatever it takes to become a winner. And Fitzgerald has built a family culture inside the locker room.

Suddenly, the Devils have become a hot destination for players in the NHL.

“I think players are looking for a home, they’re not looking for a workplace, they’re looking for a home,” Fitzgerald said. “I just wanted to make sure that players who have come into Jersey know that this is a family-oriented organization that really, really puts family first.

“We’ve got resources, and our great managing partners and ownership, that is allowing me and everybody else on my staff to put forth the best product we can possibly do. But we care about people. I think that’s the most important thing. They’re not just players, they’re people and we care about them.”

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