The word from on high at the time the New Jersey Devils canned now-former GM Ray Shero and installed Tom Fitzgerald in the post on an interim basis was that the hunt for the franchise’s next architect was on the horizon. The formal search was supposed to begin in the “coming weeks and months,” with New Jersey looking high and low for a GM who could propel the franchise forward.
But maybe the search can end before it truly starts. Maybe New Jersey’s next GM is right under the Devils front office’s collective noses. And maybe that GM is Fitzgerald.
In the post for little more than one month – he officially stepped into the role in mid-January – Fitzgerald had been relatively quiet through the past few weeks. Though it was clear the Devils were not post-season bound and far more likely to win the draft lottery for a third time in four seasons than make an unexpected playoff push, Fitzgerald stood pat, his movements limited to a recall here and a demotion there. That is until Sunday, when Fitzgerald made two pre-trade deadline splashes in one evening that netted New Jersey a return far larger than anyone would have predicted.
First, in a move that sent captain and longtime Devils defenseman Andy Greene to the division-rival New York Islanders, New Jersey acquired a 2021 second-round pick and minor-league defender David Quenneville. To be sure, that’s more than a decent haul for a 37-year-old rearguard whose best days are beyond him and undoubtedly far more than most would have believed New Jersey would have received for the blueliner ahead of the season.
But that was the trade equivalent of an amuse-bouche, a mere taste of what was to come, as the Devils pulled off a whopper with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the hours that followed. With versatile, speedy winger Blake Coleman in the midst of a career-best season, Fitzgerald executed a deal with the Bolts that sent Coleman on his way to the Sunshine State in exchange for 2019 first-round pick and 2020 World Junior Championship standout Nolan Foote and a conditional 2020 first-round selection. The pick will become a 2021 first-round pick if the Vancouver Canucks, the original owners of the twice-traded draft choice, miss the playoffs.
As Fitzgerald himself noted, the Coleman trade return is more than anyone could have predicted ahead of the campaign, even if he was one of the more intriguing deadline trade chips available. The same goes for the return for Greene. And while true that the price tags for both players increased exponentially as a result of the timing of the deals – the deadline has a tendency to do that – that doesn’t make Fitzgerald’s overall acquisitions, which include a blue-chip prospect, first- and second-round picks and a minor-league asset, any less impressive. The returns are all the more impressive when considering Fitzgerald has been able to turn Greene and Coleman into assets that are equal to, if not greater than, what Shero was able to receive in the swap that sent Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes.
What Fitzgerald has added to the Devils’ coffers over the weekend is only part of the reason he’s beginning to make his case to remain in the GM chair, however. It’s him walking the walk. But he’s talking the talk, too.
In speaking with media Sunday, Fitzgerald said repeatedly that this was never the plan, that the Devils only find themselves in a situation where career-Devil Greene and fan-favorite Coleman are being shipped out because this season has gone sideways. But in spite of that and the pre-season perception of the organization, Fitzgerald added that he’s not looking for quick fixes. He’s dead-set on doing what’s best for this organization in the long run. He’s doing that by adding valuable futures who can supplement the pieces already in place, assets that can one day – even one day soon – surround Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier and insulate goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood, who Fitzgerald made clear was part of the foundation in New Jersey. It’s the right approach and a necessary one for a Devils team that has far more holes than a few significant off-season moves were able to mask.
What has potential to ultimately decide Fitzgerald’s fate, however, is what he does over the next week. According to NHL.com’s Mike Morreale, Fitzgerald said he’s continuing to field “a lot of calls” and that the Devils have some unrestricted free agents that they will “probably look to move if it makes sense for us.” That’s a group that includes wingers Wayne Simmonds and Kevin Rooney, defenseman Sami Vatanen and backup goaltender Louis Domingue, with Simmonds and Vatanen sure to fetch the largest returns if they’re moved along. Both players are honest-to-goodness commodities and have already been already been the subject of trade chatter ahead of the deadline. In all likelihood, they, along with a select few others, are on the move.
And if Fitzgerald can continue to get larger-than-expected returns for his rental players, and perhaps even find a way to swing an additional deal or two that has potential to improve the Devils’ long-term fortunes, it’s going to be awfully difficult for the New Jersey brass to justify anything other than removing the interim tag.
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