TORONTO — Ray Shero was happy to be on the right side of some draft luck. And should another fortuitous bounce come his way soon, you get the sense he’s ready to improve the New Jersey Devils’ outlook even more.
Shero was one of 15 sharply dressed men representing their teams at the NHL Draft Lottery in Toronto on Saturday night and nobody was wearing a bigger smile after it was revealed the Devils—who entered with the fifth-best odds of winning—had gained the top spot.
“A franchise like us, this is what we need,” said Shero. “The Devils haven’t won anything in a little while, so this is a step in the right direction.”
New Jersey also struck the right lottery combination in 2011, but there was a limit to how far up a team could rise at the time. The Devils picked defenceman Adam Larsson fourth overall that year and, nearly 12 months ago, Larsson was traded to the Edmonton Oilers for the 2010 first-overall pick, Taylor Hall.
Now, with rumours swirling the head of the 2001 class, Ilya Kovalchuk, wants a return to the NHL after four seasons in the KHL, things are officially getting interesting for New Jersey.
Shero said he had no firm knowledge of Kovalchuk’s plans, something he hopes will change next week when he speaks to the player’s agent. Should it be revealed the former Devil does desire to once again play in the world’s best league, any number of possibilities are in play. One that feels like an extreme long shot, though, is New Jersey getting nothing out of the equation.
Shero noted everything surrounding Kovalchuk right now is speculation. That said, we do know that if Kovalchuk signs a free-agent contract with an NHL club, each of the remaining 30 teams—including New Jersey—would have to OK it based on the abrupt way Kovalchuk “retired” in 2013.
“As we all say, it’s a competitive league; that might be a stretch,” Shero said.
The more likely scenario, it would appear, is the 34-year-old Kovalchuk signing with the rebuilding Devils for the purpose of being moved to a team with more immediate designs on the Cup than New Jersey. Given Kovalchuk’s value—everyone knows his pedigree and he’s coming off a great year with SKA St. Petersburg—that would allow Shero to toss a little more kindling on what he hopes, in coming years, will be a blazing fire.
“We’re in a situation where we need to inject talent into our organization,” he said.
That’s something Shero has specialized in during his previous NHL stops. Most recently, he spent eight years as GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning a championship in 2009 and overseeing the acquisition of many key pieces—including goalie Matt Murray—for the Penguins squad that claimed the Cup in 2016, two years after Shero was axed.
But while he made a slew of notable moves in Pittsburgh over the years, the organization already had foundational pieces—namely Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—in place when Shero came aboard in 2006. For that reason, he believes other things on his resume have more parallels to what he’s doing in New Jersey right now.
“Everybody talks [about my years in Pittsburgh],” Shero said. “But what I lean on is those 13 years I was assistant GM between Ottawa and Nashville, building something.”
Working with fledgling Senators (1993-1998) and Predators (1998-2006) franchises was certainly a lesson in the value of deliberate, methodical construction. The Devils had nine selections in the 2016 draft. Shero said they hold 11 heading into this year’s event in Chicago, including that coveted first selection.
And while asset accumulation is the emphasis in New Jersey, where the team hasn’t seen playoff action since making the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, Shero has learned you always have to be nimble. That way, when somebody like Hall becomes available, you’re ready to act, even if it means trading one of your best young blue-liners. That was the approach of the Devils’ former GM, who held the post for 30-plus years before Shero.
“As Lou Lamoriello always said, he has a five-year plan and it’s changing every day,” Shero noted just a short time before the lottery balls rolled his way. “I think you have to be open to everything, especially in our situation.”
That situation suddenly looks better than it has in a while. And with Shero working all the angles, the Devils might not be down for long.