Devils’ Rebuild: Grading Shero’s Trades
Despite his quick departure from the brick-city, Ray Shero was very assertive in bringing his vision to life. In total, Shero made 36 trades during his tenure – some for better and some for worse. We previously assessed his time at the draft podium, and we know 24 of these trades involved either the acquisition or expenditure of draft picks. Of the 28 general managers in NHL history who were given exactly five years to build a winner, only five were more active than he – the highest being 51 trades by Scotty Bowman with the St. Louis Blues (1968-72).
Shero knew that, with enough leverage, he could lure teams that are brushing up against the salary cap or competing for the playoffs into a profitable deal of his own. This became a central theme during his tenure and perhaps defined his reputation as a deal maker. The significance of his deals at the negotiating table may not be self-evident, so with a deeper dive, we hope to elicit a greater appreciation from Devils fans as well as his contemporaries. Each of his years as general manager can be highlighted by the most notable trades of them all.
2015: Kyle Palmieri
Shero’s first major trade was for Kyle Palmieri days after his first draft. Both parties wasted little time mulling over an extension and signed a super cap friendly deal that would secure his services for another five years at $4.6 million. Lining up on the right side, he was instantly the Devils’ top scorer and possibly their fastest skater.
Palmieri has a remarkable wrist shot and likes to pull the trigger often and from odd angles. He set the bar for the fast and furious “identity” John Hynes was looking for and has led the Devils in scoring in all but one season. Palmieri was a rising star in 2015 and Shero was able to take advantage of the Anaheim Ducks impending cap crunch. Palmieri is a beloved New Jersey native and potentially the Devils future captain.
Shero was indeed a bargain hunter and was able to exchange a seventh-round pick for center Brian O’Neill of the Los Angeles Kings. The scouting report on O’Neill alone was intriguing. He has “fine vision and play-making ability but at 5’9″ he struggles in battling the bigger players”. If you saw our grades on Shero’s drafts already, you know we don’t like college players in the draft! O’Neill split his first season between the NHL and AHL (Binghamton)but left the following year for the Kontinental Hockey League of Russia. He has been there ever since.
One thing has become clear – Shero likes a “bright” roster. He has drafted or signed a handful of players out of the nation’s top universities (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown). Shero shared the reigns with Lou Lamoriello in his first season, but as we witnessed he would become more active once Lou stepped down.
2016: Taylor Hall
Sometimes it isn’t obvious until years after the trade! Trading Adam Larsson was the best decision of Shero’s tenure, hands down. In six seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, Taylor Hall had yet to breach the 30-goal milestone in a single season. He was approaching the end of his contract and the urge to sign or trade was building. Hall had not been the dominant star the Oilers were expecting from a No.1 overall pick. With his apathetic personality, it appeared a change of scenery was necessary. The only question that remains is, did Shero call Pete Chiarelli? Or vice versa?
The Devils had their own underachieving star in Larsson and Shero saw an opportunity to get tremendous value on a trade that could change the course of Devils history. Hall would lead the Devils into the playoffs of 2017-18 and won the Hart Trophy for being the Most Valuable Player to his team. It didn’t matter if the Devils could sign him to an extension because they had a much larger chip to trade now, and the Devils were playing with house money. Larsson eventually reeled in a 2020 first-rounder, 2021 conditional third (possible first), prospects Nate Schnarr (RW), Nick Merkley (C), and Kevin Bahl (D).
The 2021 third-round pick has special conditions that may have been altered by the ongoing global pandemic. It was contingent on the Coyotes qualifying for the playoffs and they are currently on the outside looking in. We haven’t heard much from the teams on this scenario but the NHL may have some legal matters to settle after the virus runs its course.
Shero has developed a pattern for surrounding himself with familiar faces. I don’t dislike it but in a competitive business, how friendly can you be? The Devils traded a third-round pick (Connor Hall) in this year’s draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a former Shero disciple, Beau Bennett. The following year Bennett disappeared into free agency. He may never live to regret this one as Connor Hall has struggled with injuries to both shoulders.
After being released by the Penguins before the signing deadline of his last draft, he is able to re-enter the draft. For now, he is hedging his NHL bet at the University of New Brunswick, CA. Perhaps he will return for the better, but as our old friend Patches O”Hoolihan would say, “dip, duck, dive, and dodge.”
2017: Marcus Johansson, Sami Vatanen
The Marcus Johansson trade was a brilliant move by Shero. Johansson is a play-making center, at the time 28, on an affordable contract. The presumption was that he would get an extension and become part of the new core. These types of players are few and far between, so when you have an opportunity, you seize it. A handshake agreement on an extension before the trade took place should have happened.
The longer the new ownership group is in place the more it feels like they are either afraid to spend the money or don’t know where to spend it. Either way, it seems unbecoming of an expert in “risk-management” to continuously get into contracts he needs to bail out of. Trading Johansson was a mistake but trading for him has become a bigger one. The Devils have since traded Johansson for a second-round and fourth-round pick but originally cost the Devils a second and third-round pick.
Sami Vatanen, a young veteran defenseman was another great, timely trade. Most fans felt he should have been part of the Devils core going forward. He has superior passing skills and the ability to evade trouble in the corners – he will be sorely missed. The Devils are now short on leadership and the defense will be left to a handful of kids, unless they seek out another quality defenseman in free agency. Considering the global pandemic underway and monies lost, it is unlikely that ownership will take on the extra dollars necessary next season.
I have yet to see a team sign a player after trading them. Hopefully, for Devils fans, the next regime will correct Tom Fitgerald’s mistake. Although the Devils were able to exit these contracts while getting a return on them, they delayed our draft picks and rebuild possibly another two years. An embarrassing performance in the first round of the playoffs (Johansson was sidelined with an injury) may not have been worth it.
2018: Patrick Maroon & Michael Grabner
The trades for Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner were deadline moves in the final push for the playoffs. Playoff teams almost always over-pay during this window of time. Shero’s trade history suggests that he doesn’t like to get into the bidding wars. (from ‘Revealing GM tendencies: Which NHL GMs trade the most? When do they like to deal?,’ The Athletic, 12/17/2018) Although he recognized the team was not primed for a long run and he made them bigger with Maroon and faster with Grabner. This series of moves culminated in a first-round bludgeoning by the Tampa Bay Lighting. They did not look like they belonged on the ice.
They may have been hungover from the “Welcome To the Playoffs Party”. Nevertheless, Shero took a swing for the fences in 2018 – willing his team back into the playoffs. Overall, this was a good look for ownership and Shero himself. It showed the fans that they were serious about winning and it just felt good, in a building where the ghosts of cups past hung in the rafters of “The Rock”. It is a likely possibility that the decision not to retain either player was the owners, but Shero will bear the burden of responsibility.
2019: PK Subban
The worst trade goes to the team that “over-payed for a player who was going in the wrong direction”. The Devils traded a couple of defensive prospects and a couple of second-round picks for PK Subban. That was a hefty price-tag, but the Devils felt the price was right. Or did they? As the dust is settling around Shero, we may find that he was burdened with apprehension during this period. The decision to trade a kings’ ransom for the most expensive defenseman cresting 30 years of age may have been an ownership decision with ulterior motives.
Only one year removed from playoff contention – the Devils doubled down on their position in hopes of another surge back to the playoffs. The first-round exit in Tampa Bay was hardly memorable and giving up prospect Jeremy Davies plus two second-round picks might have prolonged the rebuild another season. A little prudence by the Devils here would have served them best.
Nikita Gusev, also known as “the goose”, was drafted out of SKA St. Petersburg by Tampa Bay Lightning in 2012. His last year with SKA he led the league in points with 82 (65A). Gusev repeatedly found himself in deep roster situations which didn’t allow him to showcase his talents on the NHL level. He is a shifty little winger with exceptional playmaking skills. Almost omnipresent, with his premier skating ability, he has found a home in Newark after being traded by the Vegas Golden Knights. The fans have welcomed him with open arms and the Gusev – Devils marriage seems like a perfect match. New Jersey extended him immediately on a cap-friendly deal while Gusev got his foot in the door and his biggest payday yet. He is second in points (44) to Palmieri (45).
The Devils traded John Quenneville (C) to the Chicago Blackhawks for right winger and wrangler, John Hayden. Quenneville wasn’t taking advantage of his opportunities and the Shero saw a chance to make his team tougher to play against. Hayden is constantly seeking to make a play on the body and force a turnover.
He reminds me of Randy McKay -always ready to drop the mitts but also wielding some offensive touch. Since joining the Devils, Hayden stands fifth in hits, fourth in plus-minus, second in penalty minutes. That reads like a player who wreaks a lot of havoc and surely, he did. Hayden endeared himself to his teammates and the fans. He will be fun to watch in 2020-21.
The Art of The Deal
The central them in Donald Trump’s first book, The Art of The Deal, was the power of leverage. Shero exercised this position more than once. The Palmieri, Johansson, and Gusev trades specifically were sought by Shero because of their team’s looming cap trouble. When teams come calling in February, it can be tantalizing, and some general managers tend to lose control…The opportunity to obtain a first-round pick or an exciting prospect is hard to resist. Shero found himself on the wrong side of this equation during the 2017-18 trade deadline. Now, with Shero gone, the Devils are in danger of recycling the rebuild as the interim manager, Tom Fitzgerald has already begun purging the roster.
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