Former New Jersey Devils general manager (GM) Ray Shero spearheaded a rather complicated era in team history. When he took over for the legendary Lou Lamoriello in 2015, fans had diverse opinions about the former Pittsburgh Penguins executive who helped the team establish a core that won them a Stanley Cup in 2009, but also had a pretty sour last few seasons. The ensuing results were similarly mixed. Under Shero’s leadership, Jersey oftentimes found themselves at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. However in 2017-18, they also managed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in six years. The GM was eventually fired during the 2019-20 season, but the remnants of his tenure still remain on a Devils team that needs all the help it can get.
Like him or not, Shero made some deals for New Jersey that are still paying off in big ways for the team — both directly and indirectly. Let’s take a look at three of them.
Taylor Hall and Blake Speers to the Arizona Coyotes for a 2020 First-Round Pick, 2021 Conditional Third-Round Pick, Kevin Bahl, Nick Merkley, and Nate Schnarr
Shero arguably pulled off the heist of the century when he acquired star winger Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers straight up for d-man Adam Larsson in 2016. Hall would go on to win the Hart Trophy in 2017-18 and continuously be New Jersey’s most dangerous weapon in the three-plus seasons he stayed with them. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
With the Devils struggling to reach a contract agreement with the impending free agent in Hall, Shero opted to deal him to the Arizona Coyotes in 2019-20. Unfortunately, with the contract dispute being public knowledge, Jersey didn’t quite get the return that you might expect from trading a former Hart-winner. But that’s not to say that the Devils got nothing out of the deal; they actually got a pretty big return — literally.
The most immediately noticeable prospect coming back to New Jersey in this deal was 6-foot-6, 230-pound defenseman Kevin Bahl, who is a former second-round pick from 2018. A physical, shutdown-type d-man with pretty good skating skills compared to others his size, the 21-year-old was — at the time — the main piece of Arizona’s offer. In seven total NHL games with the Devils last season, Bahl appeared to hold his own. With a little bit more experience and development, there’s hope he could become a second-pair option for the team in the future.
But two years later, the most valuable piece in this deal for Jersey might be who they selected with Arizona’s first-round pick (18th overall) in 2020, Dawson Mercer. The center — a young man of just 19 years old — has quickly become one of the organization’s most exciting offensive prospects since being drafted and has the potential to be an impact player down the road. In 2020-21, for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Mercer tallied an impressive 36 points in 23 games while tacking on an extra 17 in nine games during the postseason.
The third-round pick, Nick Merkley, and Nate Schnarr were also sent to New Jersey. Both the pick and Merkley have since been dealt for depth defensemen Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Jaros in separate deals, respectively. Schnarr, an average forward prospect, still remains in the system.
Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi, and a Third-Round Pick to the Anaheim Ducks for Sami Vatanen and a Third-Round Pick
In November of 2017, Shero pulled the trigger on this deal that sent fan favorite Adam Henrique to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Sami Vatanen. The defenseman would go on to play in New Jersey in parts of four different seasons before getting cut in 2020-21 and being claimed off waivers by the Dallas Stars. However, before that transaction, Vatanen had actually departed (and rejoined) the team once before: February of 2020, just a short while after Shero had been let go.
In mid-January of 2020, Tom Fitzgerald replaced Shero as the interim general manager of the Devils. Just a month later, he utilized one of the assets his predecessor had left him in Vatanen, striking a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. The full trade involved the Hurricanes sending over Janne Kuokkanen, Fredrick Claesson, and a conditional fourth-round pick for Vatanen. Kuokkanen, who was relatively unknown at the time, became an extremely useful forward for the Devils in 2020-21 by posting 25 points in 50 games while averaging nearly 15 minutes in time on ice per game. He also eventually found himself on Jack Hughes’ wing last season alongside Yegor Sharangovich. At just 23 years old, the former Hurricane looks like he can be a very effective third-line playmaking wing, at the very least.
However, that conditional fourth-round pick also turned into something of intrigue. Because Vatanen reached a certain games-played threshold in the postseason for Carolina, the Devils actually ended up receiving a third-rounder in the 2020 NHL Draft. With that pick (84th overall), Jersey selected goaltender Nico Daws, who has become their most valuable puck-stopping asset behind Mackenzie Blackwood. While a messy season in a short sample size last season saw Daws underachieve overseas, 2019-20 saw the 6-foot-4, 203-pound goalie post a solid 2.48 goals-against average with a .924 save percentage.
A 2015 Second-Round Pick and 2016 Third-Round Pick to the Anaheim Ducks for Kyle Palmieri
Just weeks after becoming the general manager of the Devils, Shero made one of the best deals of his entire tenure. Palmieri, just 24 years old at the time, came over to New Jersey in 2015 and immediately turned into the player that Anaheim always hoped he would be. Notching 30 goals in his first campaign as a Devil, the New York-native went on to score at least 24 goals in each of his next four seasons in Jersey. In 2020-21, that streak came to an end, as did his status as a Devil.
Fitzgerald shipped Palmieri (along with veteran Travis Zajac) to the New York Islanders this past season in exchange for forwards A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst along with a 2021 first-round pick and 2022 fourth-rounder. That 2021 pick became the 29th-overall selection in the draft, which subsequently turned into forward prospect Chase Stillman. While the selection was met with criticism as a bit of a reach, New Jersey sure does seem high on the hard-working winger from St. Louis, MO. Should Stillman develop into what the Devils hope he will, one of Shero’s better acquisitions in Palmieri will be a gift that keeps on giving for a long, long time.
A Ray of Hope
No, the Shero era didn’t produce the success Devils fans were hoping for. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t bright spots. The Hall trade was an absolutely massive moment for fans of the team, as was the one playoff berth in a long time. While P.K Subban’s tenure with New Jersey hasn’t seen the best of him, it was still a valiant attempt by Shero to try bringing star power to a franchise that sorely needed it. Oh, and don’t forget that many of the key pieces of the rebuild moving forward, such as Jesper Bratt, Mackenzie Blackwood, Yegor Sharangovich, and more, were all products of Shero era drafts.
The Devils’ future looks really good. If they go all the way at some point and win a Stanley Cup, it’s likely that Shero’s work will have played a big part.
Vincent Velotta is an NYC based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Minute Media, and more.