How Ray Shero drastically reshaped the Devils during his GM tenure

New Jersey Devils owner Josh Harris spoke to media about the team parting ways with former GM Ray Shero, and being optimistic about their future. (Courtesy: MSG)

There’s no question the 2019-20 campaign has been a disastrous one for the New Jersey Devils.

What once seemed like a squad destined for dark-horse status in the East has now sold off its best player, fired its general manager and head coach, and looks more likely to claim another No. 1 pick than a playoff spot any time soon.

Ray Shero is the latest among the former Devils regime to be ousted, parting ways with the organization on Sunday after parts of five seasons with the club. While recency bias would have most viewing Shero only as the author of New Jersey’s current failure, it’s worth remembering just how drastically the longtime executive reshaped the team during his tenure at the helm.

For frame of reference, let’s take a look back at what the club looked like in 2014-15, the last year before Shero entered the picture:

Adam Henrique led the way in team scoring with a whopping 43 points to his name (tied for 127th-highest sum in the league). Behind him, veterans Mike Cammalleri, Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez ranked second, third and fourth among Devils scorers — all at the tail-ends of their careers, with the trio clocking in at 32, 38 and 35 years old at the time, respectively. Cory Schneider led the way in net, and Adam Larsson paced the blue line in scoring with 24 points to his name.

That group finished with just 78 points, good for seventh in the Metro.

So, what changed with Shero’s arrival? Let’s take a look at the most significant acquisitions by the former Penguins GM, who made his name in Pittsburgh by proving his willingness to engage in a blockbuster trade or two, and only cemented that legacy during his Devils tenure:

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Kyle Palmieri, 2015

Shero’s first big splash in New Jersey was the acquisition of hometown boy Kyle Palmieri in June 2015, sending a 2015 second-round pick and a 2016 third-round pick to Anaheim for the winger.

It wound up a prescient bet on an under-utilized talent, as Palmieri — who hadn’t topped 14 goals or 31 points in the NHL to that point — broke out with a 30-goal, 57-point effort in his first year as a Devil.

He hasn’t hit 30 since, but Palmieri’s remained a reliable scorer in New Jersey in the subsequent three-and-a-half seasons, topping 20 goals in each of the past three years and sitting on pace for nearly 30 this season, despite the club’s hefty struggles.

Taylor Hall, 2016

Unquestionably the biggest move of Shero’s tenure in New Jersey, and the most significant catalyst for this new era of Devils hockey, Shero swung a league-altering move in June 2016 when he acquired Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defender Adam Larsson.

What seemed like a lopsided deal at the time became one of the most tilted trades in league history, as Hall eventually settled in and reached peak form as a Devil.

Year 1 was a more pedestrian affair, as the 2010 No. 1 pick posted 20 goals and 53 points through 72 games — tied for the team scoring lead with Shero’s previous addition, Palmieri, but still below the level most expected of the former 80-point man.

Hall made good on Shero’s bet the following year, putting up a career-best 39 goals and 93 points. Good for sixth-highest sum in the league, Hall’s 93 points also sat a staggering 41 points higher than the next-best total on the team (that of Nico Hischier, whom Shero’s front office drafted first-overall the summer prior).

That gap was the biggest between any team’s No. 1 and No. 2 scorer in nearly a decade, and earned Hall MVP honours as the 2018 Hart Trophy recipient. It wasn’t only the winger’s first Hart Trophy, but also the first ever claimed by a Devil.

An injury-plagued 2018-19 season robbed him and the Devils of a follow-up effort, before the prospect of unrestricted free agency prompted a trade out of town this season.

Will Butcher, 2017

Perhaps the most intriguing free-agent signing of the new Devils era, Will Butcher joined the club in August 2017, after a successful run with the NCAA’s University of Denver.

The prototypical new-school defender — a smooth-skating puck-mover before all else — Butcher provided an offensive spark for a blue-line sorely lacking in that department.

His debut campaign saw the American blue-liner amass 44 points in New Jersey colours, good for 21st overall among all NHL defenders (tied with established back-end presence Dougie Hamilton).

Butcher followed up with 30 the next season, upping his workload to just under the 20-minute mark per game.

Sami Vatanen, 2017

Following in his tradition of pulling off an annual blockbuster, Shero turned his attention from the forward corps to the blue line in November 2017 with the addition of talented defenceman Sami Vatanen.

Coming aboard along with a conditional third-round pick, Vatanen’s arrival cost New Jersey longtime forward Adam Henrique, who was shipped to Anaheim along with Joseph Blandisi and a third-round pick.

With the Ducks known at the time for their stable of capable, young defenders, Vatanen was a notable get for the rebuilding Devils, adding an offensively inclined right-handed talent to a blue line already boosted with Butcher’s arrival.

Through 57 games during his first foray with the Devils — after a mid-season trade in 2017-18 — Vatanen posted 28 points, a 40-point pace if projected over a full 82-game season.

The next year brought a step back for the promising Finn, with Vatanen limited to just 50 games and 17 points for the Devils. He’s rebounded in 2019-20, posting 22 points over 41 games so far this year — putting him on pace for a career-high 44 points by the season’s end.

 
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P.K. Subban, 2019

Shero’s third marquee blue-line acquisition as the Devils GM was among his biggest splashes of all.

After somewhat of a down year in Nashville saw Subban post just 31 points through 63 games (an impressive 40-point pace still, but a step back for the former 60-point talent), the Predators emerged on the trade market with a surprising willingness to deal the former Norris Trophy defender.

As he’s proven willing to do in the past, Shero jumped at the opportunity, sending Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies and second-round picks in 2019 and 2020 for the dynamic blue-liner.

It’s been an undeniably rough go for the former Montreal Canadien, as he’s amassed just 10 points through his first 45 games in Devils colours. That said, the confluence of a needed adjustment period, a different role (one without top-unit power-play minutes), and a struggling team overall have certainly helped sink Subban’s numbers.

And with four 50-point campaigns on his resumé, no significant pieces lost in the deal to acquire him, and two years left on his current deal, it’s too early to say whether or not the bet will pan out in the Devils’ favour as it has in the cases of Shero’s other key moves.

As is often the case, a season of pointed disappointment in New Jersey necessitated sweeping changes. Such is often the cycle of an NHL club with high hopes and a long climb. But looking back at Shero’s body of work, it’s difficult to deny he did all he could to infuse the Devils with high-end talent as they looked to slowly alter their identity and take a step forward into the new NHL.

There were certainly some questionable moves, too — while the club hit on its two No. 1 picks, Hischier and Jack Hughes, other first-round choices were less convincing. Pavel Zacha at sixth-overall in 2015 looks like a misstep in hindsight with the likes of Mikko Rantanen, Mathew Barzal, Kyle Connor and Brock Boeser selected later in the round. Michael McLeod at 12th-overall in 2016 looks the same with Charlie McAvoy selected soon after.

But that’s a game one could play with any team in the league, in any year. And while Shero was forced to part with his marquee acquisition this season, trading Hall to Arizona to avoid losing the former league MVP for nothing in the off-season, the blame falls no more on the GM than the players on the roster who fell short of piecing together a strong-enough campaign to convince their star forward to stay.

Overall, Shero reshaped the Devils fairly radically over his five-year stretch, swinging trade after trade — while adding other gambles like KHL standout Nikita Gusev and veteran sniper Wayne Simmonds — to turn the once defensive-minded, arguably mundane team into a quick, offensive up-and-comer in the East.

Better results will be expected under the new regime, but there’s no question the talent base in New Jersey is far better after Shero’s exit than it was when he arrived.

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