The time has come. In what has been a disaster of a season (again) for the New Jersey Devils, they need to start becoming a stable NHL franchise again, and that starts with removing the ‘interim’ tag from Tom Fitzgerald’s job title. Name him the team’s next General Manager. You’ve already given him enough power and responsibility to make a handful of trades that have stripped the roster of NHL assets. Let him continue the job to refill the roster with NHL talent.
No one who will come in and take over the Devils GM job would have more knowledge and insight about the players up and down the organization than Fitzgerald. He served as Binghamton’s GM in the AHL so he knows that group inside and out. In addition to being assistant to the GM (when Ray Shero was the GM), he also spent time behind the bench in New Jersey for a spell before John Hynes was sacrificed. He’s been in scouting meetings and meetings about non-pro players in the organization.
Fitzgerald is a no-nonsense guy, a man who isn’t going to be bullied by other GMs or by ownership to make a move he doesn’t want to make. He also isn’t afraid to make a move that may not seem popular – see the trade of Blake Coleman. He is 100% the right man for the job right now.
Let’s take a look at what he’s already done since he awkwardly took over as the interim GM two hours before a Devils game was set to start. He managed to turn the aforementioned Coleman into a top prospect (Nolan Foote) AND a first-round pick (2020 or 2021). He flipped former captain and longtime Devil Andy Greene, who was on the downside of his career into a second-round pick (2021) and a mid-level prospect (David Quenneville).
That was before trade deadline day. On the day of the deadline, he turned Wayne Simmonds into a fifth (or fourth) round pick in 2021. Then he flipped Sami Vatanen (who is injured) for a fourth-round pick (2020) and one of Carolina’s top AHL players (Janne Kuokkanen) and a depth defenseman (Fredrik Claesson). He also swapped Louis Domingue for Zane McIntyre.
If there is a theme here it’s that all of the players shipped out were set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1 except Coleman. That’s the one that sticks out because Coleman was the team’s second-leading goal scorer, and also signed for another season at a very affordable value. But look at the return he got. One could argue that Fitzgerald got more for Coleman and Greene than Shero got in the trade of Taylor Hall nine days before Christmas (Nate Schnarr, Kevin Bahl, Nick Merkley, 2020 first-round pick, 2021 third-round pick).
It’s interesting to think about what Fitzgerald may have been able to get back in a trade for Hall. Not to say Shero did a bad job, he and Fitzgerald just have different philosophies and balanced each other really well in that regard. It’s not ridiculous to think that both men could view certain players in a different way.
As mentioned earlier Fitzgerald was behind the bench for a bit and knows the roster inside and out. If he keeps the job (and our stance is obviously that he should) it will be interesting to see what he does with the remaining players in the organization. Will he keep underperforming players like Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Mirco Mueller? Will he look to trade certain prospects that haven’t cracked the NHL lineup on a consistent basis?
Also of note, who will he hire as head coach? There are a lot of great candidates out there currently: Gerard Gallant, Mike Babcock, Peter Laviolette, Bruce Boudreau, John Madden. Personally I think there is a 0.0% chance that Alain Nasreddine remains as the bench boss, but I’ve been wrong before.
The Devils aren’t the only team that will be looking for a new leader behind the bench as the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, and San Jose Sharks will all be in the market for one. Plus maybe one or more teams that dump their head coach at the end of the season. For my money Gallant is the best fit, then Laviolette and Madden would be the feel-good choice.
Perhaps one of the easier decisions this offseason will be naming a new captain of the Devils. Here are the candidates: Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri. End of list. You want a face of the franchise for the next 7-10 years, it’s Nico. You want a veteran voice and face to market the team around for the next 3-5 years, it’s the local hero Palmieri. Jack Hughes is not an option currently, and that’s okay. Just let the kid focus on playing hockey and getting better. Travis Zajac likely would only be a candidate if they want a one-year stopgap captain.
Hischier is mature and reserved enough that having a letter stitched on his sweater won’t alter who he is or how he plays. Palmieri would be the first New Jersey-born player to wear the C for the Devils and that would be a nice honor. Co-captains (one home, one road) is another option as well.
A lot of pundits thought the Devils ‘won the off-season’ last summer. They’ll have to do it again as Fitzgerald tries to remodel the roster and make it competitive. They could have up to eight picks in the upcoming NHL Draft, and about $26 million in cap space to play with, and then eight more picks the following June. Here’s a few players he should target via free agency and trades: Tyson Barrie (defense, Toronto), Tyler Toffoli (winger, Vancouver), Torey Krug (defense, Boston), Kevin Labanc (winger, San Jose), Dylan Larkin (center/wing, Detroit), Rasmus Ristolainen (defense, Buffalo), Kevin Fiala (winger, Minnesota), Alex Tuch (winger, Vegas).
Fitzgerald has a lot of work ahead of him, but he’s already gotten a head start. Prior to the last game of the season announce that you are removing the interim tag from his job title. He has had a great audition and has earned it. This summer will be the most fascinating in some time for a franchise that is looking to reclaim credibility and a consistent playoff spot.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.