NEW YORK — When the New Jersey Devils fired GM Ray Shero on Jan. 12, 2020, the team was in last place (17-21-7) in the Metropolitan Division and had qualified for the playoffs just once in his tenure. Despite the offseason acquisitions of PK Subban and Wayne Simmonds, the Devils couldn’t replicate the formula that had led to a surprising 44-29-9 record and the end of a five-year playoff drought in 2017-18.
“We don’t do these things lightly,” Devils managing partner Josh Harris told reporters after replacing Shero with assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald. “We take a long-term approach, but the reality is [Shero] is in [his] fifth season and made the Stanley Cup playoffs once and it was just time for change.”
That was the superficial view of the situation; perhaps even the obtuse view.
The reality was that Shero wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs early in his tenure. As the Coyotes are right now, the Devils were rebuilding. After 27 years as president and general manager, Lou Lamoriello had stepped down and handed the reins to Shero. The roster that Shero inherited was one of the oldest in the league, the team’s on-ice performance was already in decline, the cupboard was short on prospects and Shero’s main objectives were to get young, acquire assets and look to the future.
Shero accomplished all of his goals, but he can only admire the fruits of his labor from a distance. As the Coyotes took on the Devils at Prudential Center on Saturday, however, his blueprint was worth studying.
Entering play on Saturday, the Devils (11-3) had the league’s third-best record, they led the Metro with 22 points and they had won eight straight games. It’s a long season, but the Devils are proving something that every GM already knows. Progress isn’t always linear so it’s important, when a team takes one step forward, not to allow that short-term success to cloud the long-term goals with unrealistic expectations.
“I’m proud of the people there, I’m proud of the players we brought in, I’m happy for the coaching staff and I’m happy for the training staff,” said Shero, now a senior advisor for the Wild. “From afar, it looks like they’ve got a really good mix going. There’s a lot of good people there and Devils fans are a really loyal group. You can see the excitement now. You can sense it coming together, so good for them.”
Shero’s fingerprints are all over the Devils’ current surge.
At this point, the only pre-Shero draft picks on the roster are defenseman Damon Severson and forward Miles Wood. Shero tore down the roster and amassed a total of 37 picks between 2016 and 2019. In 2016, his staff found forward Jesper Bratt, the team’s leading scorer, in the sixth round, and in 2017, they drafted center Nico Hischier first overall.
They got forward Yegor Sharangovich in the fifth round in 2018, center Jack Hughes first overall in 2019 and Shero also made trades that turned into more good assets. When he traded Taylor Hall to the Coyotes in December 2019, one pick that he acquired led to center Dawson Mercer (first round, 2020) while the other, a 2021 third-rounder, was used to acquire defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler from the Capitals.
“Shero drafted the three best players on the team and the starting goalie, plus he stocked the cupboard with draft picks and prospects for Fitzgerald to make some key moves,” said The Athletic’s Corey Masisak, who covered the Devils at the time. “He added Mercer, Siegenthaler, [John] Marino and [Erik] Haula all by trading away Shero picks or players.
“I think one low-key thing Shero should also get credit for is finding a way to appease an ownership group that didn’t want to be patient (see the summer of PK Subban and Wayne Simmonds) without screwing the next guy on the cap sheet. Ray tried to end the rebuild faster than they should have, mostly at owners’ orders, but he didn’t sign guys to long contracts that crippled Fitzgerald’s chances of really ending the rebuild.”
Time will tell if the Devils can sustain this level of play, but with top defensive prospects Luke Hughes, Šimon Nemec and Seamus Casey in the pipeline, Ondřej Palát added to the mix via free agency, and the second youngest roster in the league, New Jersey’s future is once again looking bright.
The Coyotes will need some semblance of the luck that the Devils have enjoyed if they are going to come out of this rebuild in good shape. New Jersey has picked in the top two in three of the past six drafts, but they have also found the aforementioned later-round gems around whom they can build, they have managed the cap well and they have acquired players via trades or free agency (such as Palát, Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves) to supplement the core. Good players are obviously the building blocks of Cup contenders, but patience is the environment that younger ones need in order to develop properly.
“When they hire you to do your job, part and parcel of that is to have the confidence to make the moves that you believe are right and operate on the timing that you think is right,” Shero said. “I didn’t need more money. I wanted to get younger. I wanted to get more assets but then in a few years when it was time to spend, I wasn’t there, but they had the wherewithal to do it.
“Assets and draft picks are great, but at some point when you go for it you need the money to do that. That’s the real balancing act is figuring out the time to do it. If ownership puts pressure on a GM faster, it’s the GM’s job to either push back or, knowing that the owners own the team, to do what they want. It’s hard because from an owners’ standpoint they get frustrated like anybody else. I’m just happy for the Devils with how it has worked out. You always want the fans and the people that work for the Devils to be proud of their team. We had that the first few years and I’m glad they got it back. Now they’re really onto something and a lot of things are in place.”
Top photo of the Devils via Getty Images