A few thoughts on the hiring of Ray Shero as the new general manager of the New Jersey Devils, replacing longtime GM Lou Lamoriello, who will maintain his role as team president.
Not unlike a great player who perhaps cannot unlace the skates for the final time, this is a move organizationally that is probably two seasons too late. Lamoriello will always be regarded as one of the great hockey minds of this or any generation. He built a team that for many seasons was the standard bearer for excellence in the NHL and in all of pro sports, winning Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. But recent seasons have not been kind to Lamoriello or the Devils in terms of how the team has drafted and developed, free-agent signings and managing the salary cap. There’s a reason the Devils have missed the playoffs in three straight seasons since their improbable run to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals, and it starts at the top. Whether ownership demanded such a move or whether Lamoriello made the choice on his own, it was a crucial decision for the team’s future.
The situation in New Jersey is much different on many levels from the one Shero dealt with when he first arrived with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006. There’s no Sidney Crosby. There’s no No. 2 draft pick to help bolster the Devils this June. But Shero begins with an elite goaltender in Cory Schneider and a slowly emerging young blue-line corps that includes Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson and Damon Severson. The challenge for Shero will in some ways be diametrically different from the one in Pittsburgh in that he must retool an offense that has fallen into disrepair. The Devils ranked 28th in goals scored this season and Shero will have his hands full trying to make this unit more productive while at the same time younger.
As for Shero’s track record, it's funny how critics of Shero’s time in Pittsburgh like to single out his draft record and the lack of up-and-coming offensive talent as an indictment of his team-building skills. This is a man who was blessed with high picks with which he selected exceptional talent. But anyone who follows the game (i.e. anyone familiar with the franchise known as the Edmonton Oilers) knows that draft picks guarantee nothing. Shero presided over a team that went to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, winning a Cup the second time. Only Ken Holland, whose Detroit Red Wings tangled with Shero’s Penguins both of those seasons in the finals, can say the same since the Devils went to back-to-back Cups in 2000 and 2001. It bears repeating that Shero’s mandate from 2008 until he was dismissed following the 2014 playoffs was to add veteran talent for deep playoff runs -- every season. That’s not sustainable, and so if the Penguins, who have advanced beyond the second round just once since 2009, have issues with homegrown talent, it’s because ownership mandated that prospects and picks went out the door every single year to buoy the team's playoff chances. In spite of that, the Penguins still boast a strong collection of defensive prospects, including Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin -- all collected under Shero’s watch. The other part of Shero’s time in Pittsburgh that doesn’t get the credit it deserves is building a strong American Hockey League franchise to serve as a learning environment for young players. Many of the players who formed the nucleus of the twin Cup finals teams came out of Wilkes-Barre under Shero’s watch, as did current Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher and head coach Mike Yeo.
So, what does Shero do with the Devils' coaching staff? That would presumably be the first job for the new GM. After Pete DeBoer was dismissed in late December, Lamoriello presided over an awkward three-man tandem that included Lamoriello, Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens and Hall of Fame forward Adam Oates. Our guess is that, while the team did show improvement on a number of fronts under the trio -- the Devils’ power play finished tied for eighth, a nod to Oates’ influence on the team -- Shero will go in a different direction. Does that mean former Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, part of the U.S. coaching staff at the World Championships right now, has a shot at the top job? We think Bylsma would be a nice fit given the work that lies ahead for this franchise and the young blue line. What about Paul MacLean, another former Jack Adams winner who did wonders in Ottawa and has to have learned a valuable lesson from his time with the Sens in spite of his dismissal from the job earlier this season? In Pittsburgh, Shero had instant success in promoting Bylsma from the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate, but with a plethora of experienced head coaches either on the market or potentially on the market, our guess is that the new Devils head coach will be one with NHL experience. Here’s a name just for fun: Ken Hitchcock. Although he didn’t have the success anyone expected in St. Louis vis a vis the playoffs, he remains one of the game’s finest minds and has had success in helping teams in transition in a number of markets if his time in St. Louis is at an end.
Over the years, the Devils became a kind of world unto themselves under Lamoriello’s tutelage. Whether it was dress codes or rules on facial hair or denying reporters access to assistant coaches, it will be important that Shero is able to put his imprint on this organization, to create a new environment that expresses a desire to not just bang the same old drum over and over. Will Lamoriello truly step back and allow Shero the freedom to make the kinds of changes that are integral to effecting the change needed to restore this team to relevance? The answer to that question will say much about how quickly success returns to The Rock.
Finally, we’re a little bit surprised it took this long for Shero to re-emerge with another NHL franchise given his experience and those things called Stanley Cup rings. We’re guessing his arrival in New Jersey will coincide with a rapid return to competitiveness for this once-proud franchise.