The New Jersey Devils are five seasons into the rebuild and have made the playoffs only one time. When former general manager Ray Shero moved to New Jersey, the Devils were short on assets and capped on spending.
It was clear from the start – he would need to be great at the podium in June – and did not disappoint. He multiplied his picks and turned some of them into NHL players.
2015: Mackenzie Blackwood
The selection of Pavel Zacha at No. 6 overall is regarded as a major blunder by most fans and writers. Nine players who were drafted after Zacha have outplayed and outscored him to date – three happened to be defensemen. Matthew Barzal was drafted by division rival New York Islanders. Then again, some felt defense was the way and Zach Werenski, Ivan Provorov, and Thomas Chabot have all outplayed and outscored Zacha as well.
Despite being one of the more NHL-ready bodies in the first round at 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, I don’t believe the points comparison tells the whole story. I do believe his development has been slow but he appears to be making the turn. We certainly have not seen the best of Zacha!
Notwithstanding, the highlight of this draft was pick No. 42 in the second round, Mackenzie Blackwood. Shero knew Corey Schneider had a confidence problem and, as he was struggling mightily, the top-ranked North American goalie slid right into his lap.
2016: Jesper Bratt
The first two selections, Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian traveled together from the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads as linemates. Both players had great success with the Steelheads and perhaps Shero felt they would get to the NHL faster if they continued developing together. A recurring flaw with players in the draft was not playing correctly without the puck. That is a maturity issue that definitely has a time limit. And though it wasn’t a misguided choice, pressure was mounting as the undersized Jesper Bratt was excelling.
Joey Anderson of the US National Team Development Program was selected 73rd overall in the third round and he’s seeing ample opportunities with the big club. He is a true power forward with a likeness of former Devil, John Madden. He is currently finishing the 2019-20 season in New Jersey and should start the 2020-21 season in Newark. Bratt was chosen 162nd overall in the sixth round. When asked if he anticipated this level of play from Bratt, Shero promptly replied, “no!”
If we thought Jesper would be this good, we would’ve taken him a lot earlier than the sixth roundRay Shero (from ‘Devils’ Youth Movement Is Off to a Promising Start,’ New York Times, 10/31/2017)
In a redraft by The Athletic, Bratt jumped to 17th overall! (from ‘Pronman: Auditing the grades for the 2017 NHL Draft,’ The Athletic 12/11/2019) This was a wholesome draft salvaged by Jesper Bratt.
2017: Nico Hischier
When the clock started for New Jersey, the momentum behind Nico Hishier’s stock was unstoppable. Despite Nolan Patrick spending the entire year as the consensus No. 1, growing fears about repeated health issues brought pause to the league. Though it truly could have gone either way, Shero relented and went with Hischier. In his third season, he is already donning the “A” on his shoulder and some believe he will succeed Andy Greene as the 12th captain in Devils history.
The Devils were feeling Swedish again and selected arguably the best player in the second round, Jesper Boqvist. Boqvist has elite hands and foot speed and the Devils have balked a few times putting him the lineup. If he wants to be an NHLer, he has to improve his gap control and backchecking.
Finally, the Devils got their due. After losing a third-rounder for signing former head coach John Hynes, they were awarded a third-round pick from the San Jose Sharks for signing coach Pete Deboer. The Devils chose to gamble that free pick on an undersized defenseman from Harvard – Reilly Walsh (5-foot-11) (from ‘Catching up with Devils prospect Reilly Walsh, who’s learning from a year packed with adversity,’ The Athletics, 02/12/2019). There is a new trend developing in the collegiate ranks where players are dodging the team that drafted them for a team of their choosing.
And you thought chivalry was dead! Kevin Hayes was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and signed with New York Rangers in August 2014. Jimmy Vesey also signed with New York in 2016; he was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2012. Only one month after this draft, Alex Kerfoot dodged the Devils for the Colorado Avalanche. The writing is on the wall, but taking this high of risk on a free pick was foolish. College players just haven’t made enough impact to justify being drafted that high. Despite a mediocre closing, the Devils headlined the first two rounds.
2018: Ty Smith
This may have been the most difficult of Shero’s offseasons, but Ty Smith was the icing on a bundt cake. New Jersey has been patient in allowing Smith to develop with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, and for that Smith has been dominating the league. He recently broke his own single-game points record (7) against the Seattle Thunderbirds on Feb. 29. He scored a hat trick and added five helpers, totaling eight points. As long as he has a good camp in 2020-21, he will start the season in Newark. In a series of moves that led to the acquisitions of Michael Grabner and Marcus Johansson, the Devils gave away four draft picks plus defensive prospect Ygor Rykov.
The sooner Smith becomes an impact player the more accurately we can grade this draft. The Devils had five picks in rounds five through seven, but only Xavier Bernard in the fourth round is shining through. He said he “likes to hit”. In an interview with The Guardian, Charlottetown Islanders GM Jim Hulton says, “I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I don’t think he realizes how good he really is.” (from ‘Xavier Bernard comes full circle,’ the Guardian, 02/05/2019) The scouting reports on Bernard can be tantalizing but patience will prove to be a virtue.
2019: Lightning Strikes Twice in NJ
For the second time in three years, the Devils won the draft lottery and an air of suspicion had set in. As Shero approached the podium in 2019, fans and media rallied in anticipation of the Devils selection of Jack Hughes. Hughes had been labeled a “generational talent” with similarities to Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid. The Devils have never seen such a player. Kaapo Kakko made a late charge in the rankings but the Devils had a rendezvous with destiny.
The Rangers selected Kakko and the Hudson River rivalry was renewed. Shero gets credit for not screwing up the pick but the decision to start Hughes in the NHL was a mistake. He started the season with Wayne Simmonds on his flank – the line lacked chemistry to the point of chaos and it became evident that starting with the AHL’s Binghampton Devils would have served him better.
After burning two second-rounders and a defensive prospect on P.K. Subban earlier in summer, Shero started the draft short on picks and was hard-pressed to replenish his stock. It’s plausible that he and old pal David Poile sought each other’s help. Prior to the Subban trade, Nashville turned over a prize second-round pick for a tired Brian Boyle. Shero went on to flip this second-rounder for two third-round picks. Later in the draft, he traded one of these for a fourth and a fifth-round pick.
In summary, the Devils now had a third, fourth, and fifth-round pick to replace Boyle. This is about as good as anyone could muster for him. It would be premature to speculate on the rest of this draft class but Mikhail Maltsev of Russia stands out at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. The initial scouting report characterized him as “very reliable but lacking elite skill”. Considering the draft capital invested in Subban, this draft grade is contingent on a bounce-back year by him. Shero got his most important pick right and managed to add picks.
Shero will not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The rebuild has stalled and is awaiting rescue. Initially, I questioned the various trades for late-round picks and the Yost Model shows the Boyle trade decreased their likelihood of drafting an NHL player from 30 percent down below 10 percent. The Devils’ future captain is waiting in the wings with a growing core that should be preserved by the next regime. There is a lot at stake in this transition and rumors abound – the front office is rife with subterfuge and hockey analytics has hijacked the Devils front office.