The New Jersey Devils Are Stuck At A Crossroads

Adam Larsson New Jersey Devils
If the New Jersey Devils decide to tear their roster down this summer Adam Larsson will be one of the key players in the rebuild (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

Ray Shero has a lot of work to do this summer.

Shero is the newest general manager of the New Jersey Devils, officially being announced in the role back on May 4th. Despite being a little over a month into his new job there’s going to be no time for him to adjust, as his Devils team currently finds itself on the brink of one of the toughest identity crises in the organization’s history.

Long gone are the days of the Devils being one of the NHL’s premier powerhouse teams. Sure, the team’s identity – building a roster around stellar goaltending and a deep, talented defense – is still intact, but the results that came out of last season are hardly recognizable for the franchise that’s made five trips to the Stanley Cup Finals over the last 20 years.

Just how far did the Devils fall in 2014-2015? Their shoddy record of 32-36-14 put them just 13th in the Eastern Conference, and 25th in the league overall. Their 78 points are the franchise’s lowest non-lockout total since 1988-1989. All of this accomplished with the oldest roster in the league, at an average age of 31.0 years old.

Luckily for Shero, however, he finds himself in a scenario where he has a lot of freedom to choose which path the Devils head down next.

Thanks to a handful of expiring contracts, New Jersey currently has just nine forwards, five defensemen, and two goalies penciled in for their roster next season. Their list of impending unrestricted free agents is massive: Scott Gomez, Steve Bernier, Martin Havlat, Michael Ryder, Bryce Salvador, Mark Fraser and Peter Harrold. While these gaps are troubling in some instances — the Devils only have six players that are signed into the 2017-18 season and one of them is Ryane Clowe, who may never play again due to concussion issues — they also give Shero a lot of options for what to do next.

The big decision for New Jersey, essentially, is whether they want to try to make one last big push for the playoffs or to tear it all down and build again, a route that is becoming increasingly popular in the salary cap world of the NHL.

If the Devils decide to make another big push, they need to do it right now as their window to do so is closing rapidly. Mike Cammalleri and Andy Greene are nicely locked up but are already on the downward swings of their careers, while Patrick Elias, Dainius Zubrus, Tuumo Ruutu, Jordin Tootoo and Stephen Gionta are all not only on the wrong side of 30, but also all free agents at the end of next season.

One must also ask the question of whether or not such a group, even bolstered by some veteran free agent signings this summer, would be worth bringing back at all considering the team finished a horrid 28th in goals scored and only a middle-of-the-pack 15th in terms of goals against. And while new head coach John Hynes may do better with the roster than outgoing coach Pete DeBoer did, it’s a long road ahead.

On the flip side of the coin, the Devils don’t have any guarantees that tearing everything down now will lead to any sustainable, long-term success in the future. Cory Schneider is one of the best goaltenders in the league, and should be for a few more years, but he is 29 years old already. Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, and Eric Gelinas form one of the best young defensive groups in the NHL, and would be the obvious focal point of any attempted rebuild, but the team’s young forward group is completely barren with the exception of Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson. New Jersey’s 6th overall selection in the upcoming 2015 NHL Draft will net them a high-end prospect, but not the franchise-changer like Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel that they so desperately need.

Regardless of which path Shero decides to take, it looks like it’s going to be a long, busy summer in New Jersey.