New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero and his New York Rangers’ counterpart, Jeff Gorton, were on the same flight out of Newark to Toronto for the NHL draft lottery Tuesday morning. It was a turbulent trip with a dicey landing, which is entirely fitting considering the bumpy rides both they and their teams have endured this season.
With their feet firmly planted on the ground hours later, they both found themselves walking on air by the end of the evening, with Shero’s Devils winning the lottery for the second time in three years and getting the opportunity to select American phenom Jack Hughes, while Gorton’s Rangers jumped up four spots to get their first top-two draft pick since they took Hall of Famer Brad Park second overall in 1966. The Chicago Blackhawks moved nine spots into third overall, which will likely make their scouts’ trips to the World Under-18 Championship a lot more meaningful.
It was a rare moment of triumph for both in a season that has been devoid of them. For Shero, getting the first overall pick dulled much of the pain of a season which saw his team besieged by injuries and sub-par goaltending. But Shero, who stood in the same spot as the lottery winner in 2017 before taking Nico Hischier, said the two situations could not be more different.
“It’s a different pain than it was when we were here two years ago,” Shero said. “I don’t think we were in a good spot then. It just is a way different feeling. It’s still a disappointing season, but not like it was two years ago because I really feel and see the upside and the culture that has been created.”
The Devils are living proof that rebuilds are rarely linear. They take all kinds of twists and turns and if you make the right moves and get lucky enough, they culminate in a Stanley Cup parade. Clearly, Shero has mastered the lucky part. So has Taylor Hall, who has been part of an organization that has had six No. 1 overall picks (including himself) since 2010.
Now comes the difficult part, one that was even more challenging as the Devils stumbled through this past season, losing 20 more games than they won allowing 53 more goals than they scored en route to a tire fire of an NHL season. After making the playoffs and having the first Hart Trophy winner in franchise history in Hall – a player acquisition for which Shero should be arrested – all of it came crashing down in a season in which they watched their point total by 25.
Did the Devils tank the season? Not a chance. First, tanking is not in a player’s or coach’s DNA. A tank always has to be orchestrated at the management level. Second, the Devils were so besieged by injuries that they were putting out an American League lineup many nights. There’s a very good reason why Shero did not try to save the Devils’ season with impetuous, short-term moves that would have compromised the long-term future of the franchise. Shero knew as well as anyone that the 2017-18 season was the outlier for the Devils and that this was a team that was growing with its coach.
“We had 97 points (in 2017-18) while we transitioned to a younger team,” Shero said. “We had this plan and I don’t think we were there. We weren’t ready.”
It turns out the only thing that changed as a result of that season were expectations, mostly from the fan base, which is understandable. But as the losses mounted and the Devils watched their season go down the drain, they stayed the course. Instead of firing coach John Hynes, Shero gave him a two-year contract extension to quell any speculation regarding his future. And the Devils ownership group did the same with Shero, signing him to a multi-year extension the day before the lottery.
Shero would not commit in the moments after the draft to taking Hughes, but with his background with USA Hockey and Hughes’ skill level, it would be a shock if the Devils didn’t take Hughes. With Hischier and Travis Zajac down the middle, the Devils will have the luxury of breaking Hughes into the NHL on a team that has depth down the middle, which means Hynes will be able to get him into favorable matchups. The Devils have 10 draft picks, including three second-rounders, in the draft this spring and are methodically restocking their system with prospects.
“I’m glad we stuck with what we’re doing,” Shero said. “And I think we’re set up well moving forward.”
It will take some time, but the Devils will be back among the NHL’s contenders within a couple of seasons. That’s the way these things work. It starts at the top with solid ownership and competent management and the Devils have both. Not only is Ray Shero lucky, but he’s also very, very good at what he does.