Think a rebuild means a team is doomed to sit in the NHL basement for five years?
The New Jersey Devils beg to differ.
When Ray Shero took over the GM’s chair in New Jersey following the 2014-15 season the team’s top three scorers were Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Patrik Elias. Cammalleri was continuing to see his production slide, Elias was at the tail end of his career, and none of them reached even 45 points.
In fact, eight of New Jersey’s top nine scorers from that season are no longer with the team, retired or traded.
New Jersey’s top scorer this season is also Shero’s best trade addition since coming to town. Taylor Hall is 14th in league scoring, sixth in points per game, riding a 22-game point streak and challenging for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He’s also on track to finally play in his first Stanley Cup Playoff game this spring, eight years after being taken first overall in the 2010 NHL Draft.
“Getting to know him over the course of last year and the confluence of events that transpired in Edmonton: he gets traded and we don’t do well last year, they do well, that’s a tough thing to handle,” Shero said Thursday on Hockey Central at Noon.
But Shero said he had some good conversations with Hall after last season, and the 26-year-old took it upon himself to get better, come back with a refreshed attitude and really take over control of his team, leaving Edmonton in the dust.
“I said ‘You have to move on here and you have to trust us here.'” Shero noted about his talks with Hall. “He comes back with that attitude and at the time comes in and all of a sudden sees there’s some pretty good players here and he has been a driving force here and we’re not where we are without him.
“And he deserves what he’s getting because he’s worked really hard at it, he cares and he’s a difference-maker … this isn’t happenstance for him.”
Of course, as Hall’s old team will attest, you can’t win in the NHL with just one player. Shero has overseen a quick transition from a slow, aged roster in 2015, to a young and exciting one that plays with a speed the Devils have never been known for, but is required in the modern NHL. If not for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, New Jersey might be the best story going right now.
“The vision we tried to set out when I was first hired, it was important for our fans to see that,” Shero said. “Even earlier in the year I think they could. Build up the assets and be a competitive team and really just earn some respect back in the National Hockey League, which we definitely lost last year.”
Shero’s team has made 20 selections over the past two NHL drafts and hold another six this summer. They could have had a few more if Shero went all-in on the draft-and-develop route, but he used some of the picks in his arsenal to add NHL-ready contributors such as Kyle Palmieri (acquired in 2015) and Marcus Johansson (acquired in 2017). With his team in a wild-card position, Shero again moved picks and depth prospects at the deadline for scorers Pat Maroon (big) and Michael Grabner (speedy), but didn’t give up anything that will derail a long-term plan for sustainability.
The Devils have found themselves in this position because of the work put in by the GM and his staff over the past three years.
“I think you have to get lucky to begin with,” Shero said. “We got lucky to win the (draft) lottery … we had to get lucky to get Jesper Bratt in the sixth round. You gotta get Brian Gibbons, who we had signed in Pittsburgh before, but he’s been a really good story for us. Will Butcher selects us in free agency and that’s helped. Like with anything there’s a randomness in the game of hockey for sure and there’s some luck involved and you need that when you’re trying to rebuild.”
Today, the Devils are firmly in a playoff spot by a comfortable nine points and are even challenging for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division. Three of their top five scorers are rookies (Nico Hischier, Bratt, Will Butcher) and at least two of them have a chance to eclipse the top scorers from the 2014-15 Devils.
Sure, New Jersey hasn’t made it to the playoffs since losing in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final with Martin Brodeur still in net. But most of this team’s success is because of the players Shero has added since 2015.
The Devils are on the road for games Thursday in Florida and Friday in Carolina, two teams chasing down a wild-card berth, and then return home for a three-game set. Against the Panthers, the Devils get another key piece back to the lineup as goalie Cory Schneider returns for the first time since Jan. 23. Gibbons, with his 12 goals in 45 games, is also set to return from injury very soon, and Maroon will make his debut in short order.
The Devils are one of the best, and quietest, stories in the NHL today and a great example of a GM re-tooling his team without dooming them to years of obscurity. It took smart asset management, an accumulation of draft picks, a blockbuster trade and an overall supplementation of pieces already in place.
And, sure, a little luck as well.