Lichtenstein: Shero Got It Wrong Attempting To Rebuild The Devils The Right Way

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By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

Maybe years from now, when captain Nico Hischier is carrying the Stanley Cup around the Prudential Center ice alongside Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, Kevin Bahl and Conn Smythe-winning goalie MacKenzie Blackwood, Devils fans will hark back to the Ray Shero era without wincing.

Well, that’s the best Shero can hope for at this point. He was fired after four-plus seasons as Devils general manager just prior to Sunday’s home contest versus Tampa Bay. Tom Fitzgerald, Shero’s longtime assistant, was named interim GM by Devils managing partner Josh Harris.

Shero was responsible for this organization executing a necessary 180-degree pivot from legendary team president Lou Lamoriello’s penchant in his latter days for overloading the roster with veterans at the expense of his prospect pipeline.  Hired by New Jersey in May 2015, Shero brought over the model he used when he won a Stanley Cup ring as Pittsburgh’s GM.

Unfortunately, this is a results-oriented business. With one exception, the flukish 2017-18 campaign, when enough pucks bounced the Devils’ way to enable them to earn the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, Shero’s tenure here was a never-ending rebuild. What’s the use of all the draft picks, including two lottery wins that secured the first overall selections, and plenty of salary cap space if every trade deadline results in sell-offs that create playing-time opportunities for large casts of not-ready-for-prime-time players? Harris, whose patience as owner of the NBA’s 76ers was tested beyond belief throughout “The Process,” said he essentially grew tired of all the losing by his New Jersey hockey team.

Devils general manager Ray SheroUSA TODAY Images

The irony of sports management is that you can do everything the right way and still fail. Another example: Shero’s maneuverings this past offseason -- trading for defenseman P.K. Subban and wing Nikita Gusev and signing wing Wayne Simmonds to a free agent contract — were almost universally hailed in the media.  Like with Hischier in the 2017 draft, Hughes was either 1A or 1B as the consensus choice for the top overall pick in June.

Yet the Devils (17-21-7) are still not close to contention for a postseason berth.  Instead, they once again sit at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, 12 points out of a wild-card seed. They fired coach John Hynes on Dec. 3 and traded Taylor Hall, who in 2018 became the only player in franchise history to win the Hart Trophy, to Arizona for picks and prospects (including Bahl) two weeks later.

Yes, Shero’s blueprint included the sound foundation of a young core. However, it also had some serious flaws and imbalances. Whereas Lamoriello built the Devils’ dynasty from the back end, Shero did not allocate enough resources to fix an awful defense. The Devils correctly prioritized speed in team-building, but this is still a league where players who are also hard and heavy on pucks rule. They can’t all be Jesper Bratts or Will Butchers. Instead of fulfilling the club’s desperate need for a power forward, Simmonds looks like a dinosaur on his last legs on the ice, unable to even tap in gimme layups from the crease.

In addition, the Devils have been hamstrung by goaltending that has been, to put it kindly, inconsistent. The team has had sub-.900 save percentages the last two seasons. While it was Lamoriello who rewarded Cory Schneider with a seven-year, $42 million contract in 2015 that went from being deemed team-friendly at signing to an albatross by the end of Season 3, Shero kept betting that Schneider would “find his game” when all indicators pointed to more permanent issues.  Schneider was recalled Sunday after playing eight games with AHL Binghamton.

Speaking of Binghamton, it’s not like all the Devils’ draft picks have turned their minor league team into a powerhouse. What does it say about a program when guys like Michael McLeod, the Devils’ 2016 first-round pick, or former Team USA junior star Joey Anderson are stuck there? They can’t make this team? One that rolls out nonentities such as Kevin Rooney and John Hayden on many nights?

Or how about 2018 first-rounder Ty Smith, who had a clear runway to a spot on this season’s roster given its dearth of NHL quality defensemen? He played his way back to juniors in training camp.      

The hard truth is that Shero has made some major miscalculations in his player evaluations as Devils GM. Experts grade New Jersey’s prospect pool as mediocre at best. Plenty of bottom-six forward types, but very few who they project to make big NHL impacts. Guys such as Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood and Damon Severson continue to underachieve for the big club.      

Given all that, the only thing curious about Shero’s demise was the timing. Unlike when Shero axed Hynes following the Devils’ most recent noncompetitive efforts, Harris gave no explanation for the urgency of Sunday’s announcement. In fact, New Jersey is now playing its best hockey of the season. On Saturday, the Devils pounded Washington, the league’s top team, 5-1, and then immediately came home to sweep a very difficult back-to-back by halting Tampa Bay’s 10-game winning streak with a 3-1 victory. New Jersey is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games.

No one is reporting that Harris was disappointed in the Hall resolution, though he previously stated his intention to make the pending free agent the face of the franchise for years to come by offering him a rich contract. Shero reportedly never made Hall any offer. In addition, by delaying trade talks until after the season had begun, Shero limited his potential counterparties and, therefore, the return package.    

We won’t know for years whether Shero will be hailed for getting the best of the Coyotes in this deal. We do know, though, that with Shero’s New Jersey book now closed, that the once-famous summer 2016 Twitter post by TSN’s Bob McKenzie reporting New Jersey’s acquisition of their superstar, “Trade is one-for-one: Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall,” will be relegated to a footnote.      

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and Devils, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1