If there were ever any question about how much real power Ray Shero will wield in the New Jersey Devils front office, it was answered emphatically Thursday afternoon when the Devils announced they would not be renewing the contract of director of scouting David Conte.
Because Conte was far more than just a scout with the Devils. First of all, he’s worked for the team for 31 years. But more than that, he was Lamoriello’s right-hand man and most trusted advisor on hockey matters. With Lamoriello being moved to the presidency and Shero brought in to be GM, there were still those who wondered whether the large presence of Lamoriello would be hovering over Shero and the hockey department.
But that is clearly not the case now. Shero looked at the Devils organization and decided to part ways with Conte and that’s his right. More than anyone, Conte himself understands how Shero would want to have his own person in that job. Conte has been a big part of three Stanley Cup winners in New Jersey, but the last one seems like a long time ago now.
“I don’t have any mud to sling,” Conte said. “I have nothing but appreciation for the past 31 years. Ray has to do what he thinks is right and I accept that. People get fired all the time. Why should I be an exception?”
Conte joined the Devils as a scout in 1984-85, three years before Lamoriello came on board as the Devils GM. He spent eight years as the assistant scouting director before taking over the scouting department in 1993. He was never afraid of taking risks and relying on his scouts in the field. In 1999, he asked Devils European scout Dan Labraaten who the best player in Europe was, which led to the Devils signing Brian Rafalski, who played seven seasons with the Devils and won two Stanley Cups. After drafting Brendan Morrison in 1993, Conte and Lamoriello would go to Michigan to check on his progress, which led them to sign John Madden as a free agent. “The more we saw Brendan Morrison,” Lamoriello once said, “the more we liked John Madden.”
Without a doubt, though, Conte’s crowning achievement was having a large say in the Devils decision to draft Martin Brodeur 20th overall in 1992. Brodeur, as we all know, went on to have a Hall of Fame career, but in that draft alone, the Devils drafted a mind-boggling 10 players who ended up playing at least 100 games in the NHL. Getting Mike Van Ryn and Scott Gomez with the 26th and 27th picks in 1998 was also a coup, as was getting Brian Gionta in the third round of that draft. Two of Conte’s other favorites were Sergei Brylin, who was taken 42nd overall in 1992, and Patrik Elias, who went 51st two years later.
Despite his success, Conte never ascended to a GM’s chair in the NHL, in part because of his loyalty to the Devils and Lamoriello and in part because Lamoriello was such a fixture as the Devils GM. At the age of 66, he’s looking forward to what lies in the future and any future NHL expansion team would be well advised to have him on board to help build its roster. Even though the Devils have fallen on hard times and Conte has not had the same success in the draft he had in the 1980s and ‘90s, there are few people in the game who have the ability to place accurate value on a player than Conte.
“This affords me some opportunities I’ve never had before,” Conte said. “There were times when I thought about exercising my own option to retire and now I don’t have to do that. Maybe I’ll go to Europe and coach Division III and ski in the Alps. I speak Italian, so it wouldn’t be that hard for me to do it.”
Conte said that conversations between him and Shero after the draft made it clear to him that Shero wanted to make changes to the Devils scouting department. He turns 67 next month, but has no plans of getting out of hockey. But he would like to do something that doesn’t involve as much travel. He estimates he has two million Marriott points and as many Delta air miles, so he has some options.
“I’ll miss it tomorrow,” Conte said, “but I won’t miss it in February in Saskatchewan.”