Asked ahead of the season to grade the off-season handiwork of the NHL’s 31 GMs, chances are New Jersey Devils architect Ray Shero would have finished at the head of the class.
For no other organization was the summer so seemingly transformative, as not only did Shero’s Devils have the lottery balls bounce their way and end up with the first-overall pick and top prospect Jack Hughes, the New Jersey GM went out and executed a swap that brought one-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman P.K. Subban to the Devils, inked veteran forward Wayne Simmonds to a low-risk deal that had potential for high reward and then leveraged a pair of draft picks into promising winger Nikita Gusev. Add to it that Shero’s roster already included Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Sami Vatanen, among others, and there were some who were ready to call the Devils a post-season caliber club.
But as has been said, the Stanley Cup isn’t won in the off-season and it sure as heck isn’t won on paper, and New Jersey’s on-ice performance couldn’t have done much more to contradict what most saw as a brilliant bit of off-season team building by Shero. Through six games, the Devils suffered six losses, and at no point since has New Jersey been able to reattach the wheels to a bus that has spent much of the season careening uncontrollably. First, that resulted in Hall’s departure. Then it was coach John Hynes, since hired by the Nashville Predators, who got the axe. But Sunday came a decision few expected, at least in the midst of the campaign: Shero has been handed his walking papers.
In a release Sunday evening, Devils managing partner and chairman Josh Harris announced Shero and the team have “agreed to part ways,” adding that both he and the organization believe “the Devils need to move in a new direction and that this change is in the best interest of the team.” Hired by New Jersey less than one year after being let go by the Pittsburgh Penguins in May 2014, the change in the GM chair comes little more than four and a half years after Shero’s hiring. New Jersey assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald has been tabbed as interim GM, while legendary Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, who was serving in a business development role with the franchise, will take on advisory duties.
To be sure, a change in direction is warranted in New Jersey, and Shero’s successes have been few and far between since he stepped into the GM role in May 2015. Mired in a steady decline at the time of Shero’s hiring, the Devils have taken very few strides in the past four-plus seasons, and of those they have taken, few have been meaningful. Only once under Shero did New Jersey earn a playoff berth, and that berth was a by-the-skin-of-their-teeth entry on the strength of Hall’s play, which earned the now-Arizona Coyote the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Shero’s tenure is frankly best summed up thusly: since he took over ahead of the 2015-16 season, only five teams have a lower points percentage than Devils.
Given that’s the case, the autopsy of Shero’s tenure will yield plenty of reasons for his demise as Devils GM. But possibly the most indefensible, and what has surely hindered any opportunity for growth New Jersey has had over the past four-plus seasons, has been Shero’s record on draft day.
Some will excuse the Devils’ draft haul in 2015 as it came mere months into Shero’s term. That said, with the gift of hindsight, New Jersey positively bungled the sixth-overall selection that draft. Despite playing a steady role for the Devils, Pavel Zacha has not blossomed into the player the Devils had hoped, and New Jersey could undoubtedly use either of the rearguards, Ivan Provorov or Zach Werenski, who were drafted with the seventh- and eighth-overall selections that followed. But even if the performance of Shero and Co. at the 2015 draft is forgiven, it’s difficult to do the same for the drafts that have followed.
In fact, aside from the can’t-miss picks that were the first-overall selections of Hughes (2019) and Hischier (2017), the Devils have had more than their fair share of whiffs. Despite having four selections in the first 80 picks of the 2016 draft, only Jesper Bratt, a diamond in the rough selected 162nd overall, can be counted among the 30 players to have played 35 or more NHL games since that draft weekend. Other than Hischier, not one of the Devils’ 2017 picks has played more than 30 big-league games. The jury remains out on the rest, but the forecast isn’t all that promising right now. In The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019 issue, a panel of scouts ranked defenseman Ty Smith as the only top-20 non-NHL prospect in the Devils’ system.
None of this is to say Shero didn’t also have his managerial successes. The acquisition of Kyle Palmieri early in Shero’s time as Devils GM and the addition of Hall in a stunning one-for-one swap in June 2016 were among his best. However, Shero wasn’t able to address the Devils’ greatest issues in recent years. For the second season running, the Devils are in line to post some of the worst goaltending numbers in the NHL. New Jersey’s blueline, even after the acquisition of Subban, is a concern. Despite adding Palmieri and the since-traded Hall – dealt away for picks and prospects less than one month ago – Shero failed to surround them with a proper supporting cast. The Devils are operating with the fourth-lowest goals per game total at the time of Shero’s firing. The lack of offensive depth, and frankly depth at all positions, falls on Shero’s shoulders. There are really no two ways about that.
And it’s all of these flaws, be it the goaltending or the blueline or the offensive ineptitude, that Shero’s successor will be tasked with addressing, not one of which will be an overnight repair. This will take seasons, multiple, to fix, and it’s going to be an arduous process that will almost assuredly see the Devils remain a league bottom feeder for years to come while whoever steps into the GM chair attempts to build around the pieces that do exist. When you’re at the top, change is never easy. When you’re at the bottom, it likely means there are more years at the bottom to come. And that’s where the Devils are right now, starting somewhat anew more than four and a half years after they believed they were about to get the fresh start that they needed.
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