There’s been a lot of New Jersey Devils news the last few weeks. But none was more stunning than the firing of general manager Ray Shero, which came to light less than two hours before their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning yesterday evening.
In a statement from owner Josh Harris stated, he and Shero agreed it was time for the Devils to go in a new direction. The move comes just over a month after head coach John Hynes was fired and less than a month after a trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. The Devils sit at 17-21-7 and are staring at another potential lottery pick. But was firing Shero the right move?
Shero’s Successes as Devils’ GM
Shero had done a lot in five seasons as Devils’ GM, both good and bad. We’ll start with what he did well, and there’s plenty of it. When he took over for former general manager Lou Lamoriello in 2015, the organization was a mess. They had a ton of bad contracts on the books, and for players who were on the wrong side of 30 years old. Their farm system was also among the worst in the league, if not the worst.
Since then, Shero has stripped the Devils of the bad contracts Lamoriello handed out towards the end of his tenure. For example, he bought out the remainder of Mike Cammalleri’s five-year, $25-million contract in 2017. And he didn’t overspend in free agency, which helped the Devils utilize their cap space to make trades for Nikita Gusev and P.K. Subban this past summer.
Then there’s helping restock the Devils’ prospect pool. While player development has been a problem, the organization had minimal NHL-talent brewing in their farm system before Shero’s arrival. It helps to have two first overall picks, which they used on Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. But later picks like Ty Smith, Joey Anderson, and Jesper Boqvist will be NHL contributors soon enough.
And of course, there’s Shero’s trade history with the Devils. Everyone remembers the infamous Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson trade. But other gems include acquiring Gusev, Kyle Palmieri, and Marcus Johansson for nothing but draft picks. Gusev has been the Devils’ players for the last two months, while Palmieri has been their most consistent player since Shero acquired him in 2015.
That may be the best of what Shero did as Devils’ GM, too. He knew how to evaluate NHL talent, and it was rare he ever lost a trade in doing so. It may not have worked out with Hall in the end, but that’s no fault of Hall’s. And with Palmieri, Gusev, and Sami Vatanen still around, the Devils have pieces in place to speed up a retool.
What Brought Shero Down
For as much as Shero did well, he wasn’t perfect. And there are things he could’ve done better as the team’s GM. We’ll start with player development, which is a significant reason why the Devils find themselves where they are.
Things were looking pretty good regarding player development during the 2017-18 season. Hischier had 52 points as a rookie, while Will Butcher had 44 points as a rookie. Miles Wood, who had 19 goals, enjoyed a breakout season, while Jesper Bratt burst onto the scene with 35 points only a year after he was a sixth-round pick.
But things went south for a couple of players in 2018-19. Miles Wood struggled before getting on a roll to end the season with 10 goals and 24 points. Butcher’s production dropped as well, and while he didn’t have a bad season, he didn’t make as much progress as hoped (the same is true for Hischier). The only player who seemed to be on an upward trajectory was Bratt, as he finished with 33 points in 51 games, a 53-point pace over 82 games.
Much of those struggles seemed to carry into this season, too, as the Devils got off to the worst start imaginable. They lost their first six games of the season, and every player was underachieving. That’s changed since Alain Nasreddine took over as the interim head coach, as players like Hischier, Bratt, and Butcher are playing their best hockey of the season. But player development may have still been something ownership considered when deciding to move on from Shero.
Another problem that may have cost Shero his job is his failure to address the Devils’ goaltending situation. Aside from a 20-game stretch to end last season, Cory Schneider has been a below-average goaltender since the 2016-17 season. Mackenzie Blackwood has shown plenty of promise in the 57 NHL games he’s played, but you need two goalies to succeed in today’s NHL.
Related: Hischier Emerging as Devils’ Leader
And even if Shero believed Schneider was turning a corner, the Devils didn’t have a third goalie behind him who could help out if things got rough. They acquired Louis Domingue from the Lightning on Nov. 1, but by that point, it was too late. The Devils were already 2-4-2 on the season and had lost enough games because of poor goaltending.
Next Devils’ GM Walking Into a Good Situation
You may look at the Devils’ record and think, “this doesn’t look promising,” but that’s not necessarily true. They have two cornerstones to build around in Hughes and Hischier, and another high draft pick in the 2020 Entry Draft is on the way. The organization also has one of the best salary cap situations in the league. So this won’t be like when Shero took over in 2015 and had little financial flexibility.
There are also NHL pieces in place where this doesn’t need to be a full rebuild, but a retool instead. And it helps the Devils have an additional first-round pick in this year’s draft, thanks to trading Hall to the Coyotes. Their farm system may not be the best in the league, but some prospects should be regular NHL contributors soon enough. And that wasn’t the case when Shero took over, as well.
As for the timing of Shero’s firing, it’s odd. An NHL GM rarely gets fired midseason, but the owners must’ve had enough philosophical differences with Shero to move on now. The NHL Trade Deadline is a month and a half away, and if they weren’t comfortable with Shero handling that significant date, that could be one factor. It also gives interim GM Tom Fitzgerald time to audition for the permanent gig because he’ll be a legitimate candidate when the time comes to make a decision.
Related: Devils Need a Reset, Not a Rebuild
Shero’s tenure may not have ended the way anyone would have liked. But he leaves the Devils in a better place than he found them. I don’t think anyone can deny that, either. There’s uncertainty as to what comes next. But if a retool is what ownership is looking for, Shero’s legacy will have a lasting impact, even if it’s someone else who leads the team back to playoff contention.