The 2019-20 NHL season continues to be one full of surprises for New Jersey Devils fans. Not to trivialize a pandemic illness, but purely from the context of its impact on the NHL season, the COVID-19 outbreak is the latest in a series of curveballs that have been thrown at fans in New Jersey this season.
The Devils, though, have the opportunity to make like Jose Altuve (because they know what’s coming) and hit this one out of the park. If you haven’t figured out where I’m going with this, I’m talking about the inevitable shortened offseason that will follow whatever the NHL decides to do with the remainder of the 2019-20 season.
At this time, it cannot be known when the season will pick back up and it cannot be known what form that season will take. The Devils face an extra level of uncertainty because they are moving forward towards this unknown with an interim general manager. It’s time to remove the “interim” tag and make Tom Fitzgerald the official GM of the Devils.
Without the shutdown, the Devils’ season would have ended the first week of April. The NHL Draft was originally scheduled for June 26. This would give the Devils 10 weeks from the end of the season to bring in a new GM, get him up to speed on the prospects in-system and gear up for the draft. That’s assuming the new GM decided to keep the existing scouting department, which would be a likely move in that time crunch. Former GM Ray Shero did that when he was hired in the first week of May 2015.
Deductive reasoning says that the NHL will try to minimize the impact that Coronavirus has on the 2020-21 season. To that end, they will try to have prospect camps, training camps and preseason start as close to on time as possible. In 2019, the Devils played their first preseason game on Sep. 16. If you condense down the prospect camp and training camp time period and begin everything on Sep. 1, that gives you a hard offseason finish date.
The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs lasted approximately nine weeks. The CDC recommendations issued recently suggested an eight-week minimum before allowing sporting event-sized gatherings. Hypothetically, if the NHL returned to action and just began the playoffs immediately in that window, that would put the playoffs beginning on or about May 12. That pushes the end of the season to approximately July 14. It shortens the offseason by an entire month.
However, that hypothetical assumes the shortest possible time span from back to action to the Stanley Cup being awarded. It does not seem likely that the league will go that route, meaning the season end date would be even later and the offseason would be cut even shorter. In any scenario, a shortened offseason is not the time to have uncertainty at the GM position.
Why Should the Job Go to Fitzgerald?
Prior to the shutdown, Fitzgerald had proven he at least deserved a chance to be considered for the full-time GM position. He had been the assistant GM for the Devils since July 2015. Prior to that, he was the assistant GM for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has the resume as an assistant GM to be considered for a job as an NHL GM. Add to that his trial-by-fire at this season’s trade deadline and there is a strong case for him.
In his press conferences, Fitzgerald made it clear that he wasn’t going to just sit back, but that he was going to be decisive and do the job, as long as it was his. To that end, he made some impressive moves. Acquiring Nolan Foote and the Vancouver Canucks’ first-round pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning, in return for Blake Coleman, was an exceptionally shrewd move. Getting Janne Kuokkanen and a conditional pick from the Carolina Hurricanes in return for an injured Sami Vatanen was also a really solid move.
At the same time, Fitzgerald endeared himself to many fans by not trading Kyle Palmieri simply for the sake of moving assets. He made Palmieri’s value to the franchise clear and said somebody would have to “blow his socks off” to acquire Palmieri. That kind of honesty, transparency and matter-of-fact demeanor is the kind of thing that comforts a fanbase when faced with uncertain times. With the tumult of the 2019-20 season, Devils fans could really use that kind of reassurance and certainty moving forward.
For the New Jersey Devils, this shutdown could be an opportunity to increase fan confidence in the direction the organization is heading. Naming a full-time GM in the immediate future gives the impression that the scouting, analytics and management departments will all be on the same page during this shutdown, with an eye towards the future of the franchise. Without that decision, uncertainty looms and it’s not known who will be captaining the ship, once the NHL sets sail again. Eliminating that uncertainty and getting everyone on the same page towards the draft and free agency would have a positive ripple effect for the next chapter in the story of this franchise.