The New Jersey Devils fired general manager Ray Shero over the weekend, ending his four-and-a-half year run with the team.
On the surface, it’s not hard to see why the decision was made. Given the circumstances, it was inevitable.
The Devils have been a massive disappointment this season after a huge offseason, and were on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Shero’s watch. Not many general managers are going to make it through that sort of run unscathed. Especially when you consider how high expectations were in the preseason after the additions of top pick Jack Hughes and the acquisitions of Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds.
So where did it all go wrong for Shero and the Devils?
We should start with the very beginning.
1. Shero inherited a mess
While the lack of progress is the thing that will stand out in the wake of the change, it can not be understated how bad of a situation Shero walked into when he was hired by the Devils in May of 2015.
The Devils were coming off of a 2014-15 season where they had one of the worst records in the league, had missed the playoffs three years in a row, had a barren farm system, and had what was by far the oldest roster in the league.
Things were bleak. Very bleak.
- Seven of the top-12 scorers on the 2014-15 season were age 32 or older. Five of them were out of the NHL completely within two years.
- Of the 35 players that appeared in a game that season, 18 of them were out of the NHL within the next two years.
- Only two players on the team recorded more than 40 points, and nobody scored more than 43.
It was a team of fringe NHL players that were not only not very good, but were on their way out of the league.
Combine that with a mostly empty farm system and there wasn’t a lot to build on.
He had to start from the ground level and try to build a contender out of nothing. That was always going to take time.
2. The trades always seemed to look good on paper…
… But the timing and the luck was never on the Devils’ side.
Given the lack of quality talent on the NHL roster, Shero had to work quick to bring in talent from outside the organization. And when you break down his individual trades, he almost always seemed to come out on the winning side of them.
Getting Kyle Palmieri for a couple of draft picks was a steal.
He pounced on the Capitals’ salary cap crunch and picked up Marcus Johansson for two draft picks.
The same thing happened this summer when he managed to get Subban and Gusev for next to nothing. Combined with a pair of No. 1 overall draft picks (Nico Hischier and Hughes) and there was a huge influx of talent on paper over the past couple of years.
But for one reason or another, the results never followed.
For as promising of an addition as Johansson was, his time with the Devils was ruined by injuries that prevented him from ever making an extended impact.
Subban and Simmonds were big-name pickups this summer, but it has become increasingly clear as the season has gone on that he got them at the end of their careers.
There was even some bad luck with Hall when he lost almost the entire 2018-19 season to injury.
3. Cory Schneider rapidly declined, and the Devils never adjusted in goal
This might be the single biggest factor in the Devils’ lack of progress under Shero.
When he joined the Devils he had one franchise cornerstone that he could build around, and that was starting goalie Cory Schneider. And he was a legit building block.
Coming off the 2014-15 season Schneider was one of the best goalies in the league. Between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 seasons he owned the best save percentage in the NHL (minimum 100 games played) and was just beginning a long-term contract that was going to keep him in New Jersey for the next seven seasons.
He was also still at an age where his career shouldn’t have been in danger of falling off. But after one more elite season in 2015-16, Schneider’s career did exactly that. It fell apart. After his 30th birthday Schneider went into a sudden and rapid decline that sunk him to the bottom tier of NHL starting goalies.
This is where Shero’s biggest failing in New Jersey came into play. He never found a goalie to replace Schneider. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season, and the play of their goalies this season has been one of the biggest factors in their disappointing performance.
Shero’s tenure with the Devils is a fascinating one to look at from a distance. He inherited a team that had absolutely nothing to build around and tried to swing for the fences with some big additions over the years. He made a lot of the right moves and brought in legitimate top-line talent. But some bad injury luck (Johansson; Hall a year ago), a couple of star players declining (Schneider, Subban), and his inability to make the one big move that he needed (a goalie) helped hold back what started as a promising season. The 2019-20 season ended up being one losing season too many for the Devils.