Newark, NJ – Former New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson has been on the radar of the Columbus Blue Jackets for some time now.
Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has been rather aggressive this spring. So much so, he’s made two major additions to his blue line before July and while the Stanley Cup Final is still being played. First, it was left defenseman Ivan Provorov, now it’s Severson.
The Blue Jackets GM has planned ahead. Kekalainen stated that Severson was going to be his No.1 target if he hit the open market. Lucky for him, he was able to pull the trigger on a deal that allowed him to swoop in early.
“Damon Severson was our number one target of the UFA market for defenseman,” Kekalainen admitted. “We got him. We’re very happy about it. We’ve been watching him all year (via) multiple people, multiple members of our pro scouting staff, including myself. We watched him live and watched him on video, doing all the analytics of how he plays on both ends of the ice. We’ve also been finding out about his character and how he is in the room. What kind of leader he is and what kind of person he is. All those things are very important to us. ”
What made Kekalainen so aggressive? He wanted to ensure he is ahead of the game as when July 1st approaches, the competition to reel in the big fish becomes stiff. Columbus’ GM started with Provorov in order to ensure he secured one top-four defenseman and lucky for Kekalainen, he comes with term. The Blue Jackets applied that same logic when they acquired Severson in the second-ever sign-and-trade in NHL history.
“We did the (Ivan) Provorov trade so that we don’t go to open market and all of a sudden on July 2nd or July 3rd we’re empty-handed,” Kekalainen said. “Using similar logic, we got aggressive with Severson. We didn’t want him to get to July 1st. So, we approached New Jersey about talking to him and getting the rights to talk to him and negotiate with him. We were able to do the sign-and-trade and got him locked up before he walked into the UFA market.”
Kekalainen’s persistence didn’t go unnoticed by Severson. As a player that was pursued pretty aggressively, the former Devils defenseman said it made him feel wanted and welcomed.
“Jarmo mentioned a few times (Columbus) wanted to be aggressive and they have a list of their guys” Severson admitted. “Fortunately, I was on the top of their list. They made that very clear. It makes you feel wanted, makes you feel good. They obviously had their pitch talking about the team on and off the ice.”
Severson continued: “Columbus reached out to (Fitzgerald) and then we kind of took it from there. It was a crazy process, but getting it done before July 1st when the rush would have happened is great. I couldn’t be happier to go to Columbus.”
The Rick Nash Influence
Severson spent his nine-season career thus far all in New Jersey. He definitely felt out of his comfort zone heading into unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.
He felt a sense of relief settling his future for himself and his family well before July. Part of what made his decision easier is his familiarity with Rick Nash. Nash is now in Columbus’ front office as a Director of Player Development. In 2022, Nash also served as the Assistant General Manager for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships, a team that Severson played on. A familiar face during negotiations made Severson’s commitment to the Blue Jackets a little easier.
“The only thing I’ve ever known is New Jersey,” Severson admitted. “I came into the Zoom call with management. The only person that I have any familiarity with that was on the call was Rick Nash just from being on Team Canada a few years ago. He was in the management group. It was cool seeing a familiar face. He obviously had a lot of good things to say about me and he was fully on board and he was a deciding factor for sure. He was a huge piece of me wanting to go to Columbus when he started to speak and he started to talk about his experiences.”
Nash played both sides of the coin. He was certainly a factor in convincing Severson to sign in Columbus. However, he was also a factor in Kekalainen making Severson his top priority this summer.
“A year ago, (Rick) raved about (Severson’s) character, leadership, all those things,” Kekalainen said. “As much as we look at the players and what they can do on the ice, we put a lot of emphasis on what kind of people they are, what kind of teammates they are, and the leadership they could bring into our locker room.”
Priced out of New Jersey
According to Severson, his former teammates are happy for him. They all congratulated him on his new $50 million deal, something that’s certainly well deserved. The young group in New Jersey did poke a bit of fun at Severson who is now a division rival, however. Severson admits there were some friendly chirps after they sent him their good wishes.
The 28-year-old defenseman knew from exit meetings his time in New Jersey was likely up. He and Fitzgerald sat down and had a very honest conversation at exit meetings.
“We didn’t have any dialogue about an (extension),” Severson admitted. “To be honest, I had my year-end exit meeting with Fitzy in New Jersey. He was really just smiling when I came in there and he said, ‘Well, pal, it sucks for me to say, but I can’t afford you.’
The conversation was genuine between Severson and Fitzgerald. The Devils have a lot of contracts expiring and with some big names that need new deals and the blue line a position of strength, it made sense for Fitzgerald to make this move.
“He was honest with me right off the bat,” Severson stated. “Fitz said ‘You’ve done a great job for this team. We appreciate everything you’ve brought to this organization over your tenure here. It’s a good thing for you. It sucks for us that we’re gonna have to probably move on. If something changes we’ll be in contact.’ That was really how the conversation went. I said I appreciated everything on his end as well. I brought everything I could to the Devils organization for a long time. It’s crazy to be leaving, but that’s kind of how the conversation went.”
Severson’s $6.25 million average annual value was always going to be too rich for the Devils. The emergence of Kevin Bahl, the arrival of Luke Hughes, and Simon Nemec waiting in the wings shows a clear path forward for the Devils blueline without Severson. Now, Fitzgerald can worry about allocating that money towards Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier, among 10 other contracts he’ll need to get in order.
As for Severson, his saga in New Jersey comes to an end. He’ll miss his friends but he’s looking forward to his time in Columbus with his new team. From red to blue, but remaining in the Metropolitan Division, Severson turns from friend to foe, something he talked when he sees New Jersey next.
“I’ll miss a lot of the guys in New Jersey,” Severson explained. “I’m tight with a lot of them too. At least I’m in the same division so I’ll be able to see them lots and I’m sure there’ll be some dinners and whatnot, you know away from the rink but once we’re playing against each other there’ll be no friends on the ice and it’ll be a lot of fun. It’ll be a weird scene from the other side.”
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