GM Tom Fitzgerald believed Devils were a ‘destination’ for Johnny Gaudreau

General manager Tom Fitzgerald was convinced coveted free agent Johnny Gaudreau was going to sign with the New Jersey Devils.

Gaudreau, who grew up in Carney’s Point, N.J., was reportedly looking to sign somewhere closer to home — meaning either the Devils or the Philadelphia Flyers would be the likely front-runners to land the former Calgary Flames star.

Plot twist: Gaudreau shocked the hockey world on the opening day of free agency on Wednesday by signing a seven-year, $68.25-million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Fitzgerald still landed one of the top forwards available on the market — locking up Ondrej Palat to a five-year deal worth $30 million — but was asked during a media availability Friday if there was a point where he believed Gaudreau would join the Devils.

“Yeah, I would say I thought because of the conversation that I had with him and his wife Meredith that we really connected,” Fitzgerald said. “I know Johnny Gaudreau. I mean, my older boy (Ryan) played with him at Boston College and that same son was his brother Matty’s roommate for all four years. I know his mom and dad well.

“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. We put our best foot forward. … He chose to go to Columbus for the reasons he chose. He could have gone anywhere. We wish him all the best.”

Signing Palat wasn’t a consolation prize for losing the Gaudreau sweepstakes, however. The two-time Stanley Cup champion has 52 points in 71 playoff games over the past three seasons, helping the Tampa Bay Lightning win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2020 and 2021 and reaching the Final again this year.

“We targeted Ondrej right from the get-go because of the characteristics we valued in a player like that,” Fitzgerald said. “What he could bring to the table and help us really have our young players realize what it takes to not only get in the playoffs but what it takes to battle through round by round by round.

“Trust me, he was at the top, right at the top of the list, because of the things we wanted to bring in.”

The Devils aren’t done this off-season with Fitzgerald looking to add depth as well as lock up forward Jesper Bratt, who is a restricted free agent after leading the team in scoring with 73 points this past season.

“We want Jesper here long-term. We really do,” Fitzgerald said. “We want him here as long as we possibly can on a contract that we’re allowed to give him. … Make no doubt, Jesper Bratt is a player we want to grow with here into that next phase and beyond.”

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