It was nothing short of shocking when the New Jersey Devils announced Ray Shero was no longer their general manager on Sunday evening. While he did good things for the team, they’re no closer to being a playoff team five years after he took over for Lou Lamoriello. And that was enough for Josh Harris and the rest of ownership to decide to move in a different direction.
There may be plenty of uncertainty as to what comes next for the Devils. But there are specific qualities ownership should look for during their search for the next GM. Some of those candidates are already within the organization, while a few from the outside should garner interest, too. Here are the top targets.
Fitzgerald was immediately named the interim GM in the wake of Shero’s ousting, and that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He’s interviewed for GM vacancies in the past and was a finalist for the Minnesota Wild’s opening before they hired Bill Guerin this summer.
It may not be how he envisioned becoming a GM, but Fitzgerald will be a top candidate to land the job permanently. He’s been the Devils’ assistant GM (AGM) since 2015 when Shero was hired and has had a big say in hockey decisions. The timing of his promotion to interim GM serves as an audition of sorts. The NHL Trade Deadline is almost a month away, and how he handles that significant date will serve as a blueprint for how he may run the ship. If all goes well, that could make him the favorite among ownership.
If the Devils want to stay in-house, MacKinnon is another candidate who’ll get consideration. He joined the organization’s front office in 2016 after spending the previous 10 years with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He served as the Devils’ Director of Player Personnel for three years and received a promotion to AGM and Senior Vice President this past summer.
MacKinnon’s promotion wasn’t just a bump in title, either. Part of his new role included integrating the Devils’ new analytics department, and that isn’t insignificant. Why? TSN’s Darren Dreger hinted at possible tension between Shero and the Devils’ analytics team on a recent podcast episode (fast forward to 20:12). If true, that could be one reason the owners decided to go in a new direction. And if MacKinnon is willing to use analytics as a GM, he’d be an ideal fit.
Gillis has been out of the limelight for a while. He was let go by the Vancouver Canucks in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he stayed away from hockey. In his time away from NHL management, he’s expanded his view of what it takes to run an NHL organization in modern times. And he had some interesting things to say in an interview last summer.
“As a general manager of a team, you’re really myopic. You’re really focused on your team performance, on your individual player performance, on your coaching performance. I like that part of the job, but right now I’m more interested in how you build an organization, how you see results, how you measure results,” Gillis said to Sportnet’s Luke Fox. “I’m really interested in analytics, sports science, human performance, and how to blend those things into a high-culture organization.”
Gillis may not be interested in returning as a GM, but things can change. He thinks the way a modern NHL executive should, and he has quite the résumé. He was the NHL GM of the Year in 2011 and built a Stanley Cup contender with the Canucks. Maybe the title of President of Hockey Operations would better suit Gillis, but he’d be a valuable part of the Devils’ front office one way or another.
Gilman was a part of the Canucks’ front office during their run to the 2011 Stanley Cup. He was Gillis’ right-hand man and helped build the roster that got them within one win of a championship. He was let go by the Canucks in 2015 and was out of an NHL front office for a few years. But when the Toronto Maple Leafs had an opening for their AGM position in 2018, he found himself back at the forefront of management.
Like the other candidates mentioned here, Gilman has an open mind to analytics. And that shouldn’t be a surprise, given the Maple Leafs use of such data. Considering Gilman’s track record with the Canucks, and his current success with the Maple Leafs, he should be high on the Devils’ list. Because he seems to have the progressive mindset their owners are looking for to succeed Shero.
Like Fitzgerald, Zito’s time to become an NHL GM will happen sooner than later. He’s been the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AGM since 2013, and he was a candidate for the Seattle expansion franchise’s GM opening but withdrew his name after his wife, Julie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was also named Team USA’s GM for the 2018 IIHF World Championships.
When it comes to analytics, Zito has shown an openness to using them. At the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he sat down with a panel that included Tyler Dellow, the current head of the Devils’ analytics department. Among the things he said he was excited about is player tracking and the data that should come from it. The Devils have an analytics team ready to use that data once it becomes available, so it could make Zito a potential fit to lead that transition.
Martin Brodeur, President of Hockey Ops?
A lot of Devils’ fans immediately jumped to Brodeur being a possible replacement for Shero. That’s understandable, given his place in franchise history. But he also had a brief stint as the St. Louis Blues’ AGM, so it’s easy to connect the dots. With that said, Brodeur isn’t a serious candidate to be the next GM, per The Athletic’s Pierre Lebrun. Instead, he may be looking at a different title such as President of Hockey Ops. (From ‘LeBrun: Why collaboration is key for Devils new front office, Bergevin has no interest in trading Price or Weber,’ The Athletic – 1/15/2020).
There have been instances of former NHL greats working out as GMs (Stevie Yzerman, Joe Sakic). While Brodeur may have the potential to be as great as those two, a role as President of Hockey Ops may make more sense for him. The Devils seem to have some dysfunction in their front office. And with ownership looking to get their analytics team more involved in hockey decisions, a President of Hockey Ops would have the oversight to integrate everything the right way.
And some of the NHL’s best teams have that setup. Cam Neely has been the Boston Bruins’ President of Hockey Ops for 10 years. Has there been a more consistent and successful team than the Bruins under his watch? It’d be hard to find one. Brendan Shanahan’s had the same position with the Maple Leafs since 2014. They’ve haven’t had the postseason success of the Bruins, but they’ve been one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference for a few seasons now. So you may get where I’m going here.
Having a front office set up with a President of Hockey Ops seems like the smart thing to do in 2020. Brodeur would be a suitable fit for that job. But if he ultimately isn’t interested in the position, Gillis would be an excellent choice, too. His inclination towards sports science and analytics would be perfect to lead the Devils’ management team. He’d likely hire people under him (GM, AGM) who’d have similar trains of thought. And with the way the Devils’ 2019-20 season has gone, having everything function as one entity would help provide the fresh start they need.