Hindsight is 20/20. When it comes to the NHL, some personnel decisions will appear fine at first glance. It’s only later on that these moves are dissected ad nauseum. For the New Jersey Devils, the 2015 offseason was one with shrewd acquisitions but also wasted contracts, most of which coming from general manager Ray Shero.
Upon his appointment as general manager, Shero promised Devils fans change but refused to do so hastily. His approach would be cerebral, parsing through each avenue looking for low-risk fixes. Certainly Shero practiced what he preached in both 2015 and 2016. His level of success, however, is under debate.
On the one hand, Shero found major diamonds in the rough when trading for Kyle Palmieri at a bargain and signing Lee Stempniak on a prove-it deal. But it’s just as easy to point out the assortment of moves that resulted in nothing but wasted contracts and poor production. Shero’s performance as a general manager is an amalgamation of all decisions, both fruitful and futile.
After taking a year off, Shero came back to the NHL in stunning fashion as the handpicked heir to Lou Lamoriello’s throne. After taking the Devils from irrelevance to superstardom, Lamoriello would take on an executive role, leaving personnel decisions to the former Pittsburgh general manager. Most assumed Lamoriello had little say in his reassignment.
With Lamoriello lurking in the shadows and the power balance not fully understood by outsiders, the Devils dual-headed management made a few ripples. In a trio of pre-draft festivities, the team re-signed Jordin Tootoo, took on Sergey Kalinin from the KHL, and also relocated Vojtech Mozik to New Jersey from the Czech hockey league.
The signing of Jordin Tootoo, a one-year pact, came just a few days after Shero stepped in as GM. The coaches’ tendency to play him over younger talent slowed down the development of players like Stefan Matteau, Joseph Blandisi, and Reid Boucher, which could’ve contributed to the decision not to extend him in 2016.
Shero opted to sign Kalinin months after the Russian center suffered a near career-ending injury while serving as captain of the KHL’s Avangard Omsk. The hit caused Kalinin to have convulsions and a major concussion and sidelined the team’s captain for the rest of the Gagarin Cup playoffs.
Injuries aside, it was easy to see that there was a lot Kalinin could offer the Devils: strong board play, leadership (after all, he captained Omsk as a 24-year-old), and a developing scorer’s touch. Kalinin exhibited such talent and looks to be a fixture in the bottom-six for the near future, making it a worthwhile low-risk move by Shero.
The third of the postseason acquisitions, Vojtech Mozik came to New Jersey after being a sought-after option in the Czech hockey league in 2015. As a 23-year-old who had not yet played on North American ice, Mozik struggled in year one but looks to be someone who could be in the fold for a part-time NHL role in his sophomore campaign.
The NHL Draft
It is no secret that Ray Shero has an eye for making the most of trading. In Pittsburgh he made a name for himself by robbing his fellow GMs time and time again. He brought over this shrewdness, which was on full display in the 2015 NHL Draft.
During that weekend, Shero picked up an extra third round pick by moving down four spots in the second round and still ended up with his desired target, goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. He also landed a major coup by using a second and third round pick to acquire Kyle Palmieri from Anaheim. The New Jersey native had his first 30-goal season in his first year with the Devils and appears destined for more of the same.
In the draft itself, the Devils went high-risk with the sixth overall pick, selecting embattled but talented Pavel Zacha. The Czech forward improved drastically in 2015-16 after failing to put his physical tools to use in his draft season.
Typically, a top-10 pick becomes a difference-maker at the NHL level and it appears that Zacha is well on his way. Consider that move inconclusive but closely resembling a good pick.
As mentioned earlier, Blackwood was the team’s second round pick. Another prospect who has dealt with suspensions, Blackwood was banned without pay from the OHL on two occasions last year: once for a high slash and once for launching a puck into the stands.
In an organization with a prime-aged Cory Schneider, Blackwood won’t need to be rushed and has time to go through these growing pains. Nonetheless, the OHL named Blackwood the league’s top goaltender, so the future is bright at goalie.
Other picks included Blake Speers, who had a productive post-draft season on the OHL’s Sault St. Marie Greyhounds. He and Colton White, the Devils’ fourth round pick in 2015, were two of the bright spots on an otherwise bleak squad. The team finished with Brett Seney of Merrimack College in the sixth round.
Re-signings and Free agency
The Devils made no re-signings between draft day and free agency frenzy in 2015. Even on July 1, a day where organizations throw around money like candy, the Devils management stuck to their guns. Shero would opt to make a few small-scale moves the following day, signing John Moore, Yann Danis and Jim O’Brien, re-signing Paul Thompson, and issuing an entry-level contract to Blake Coleman.
This is where things start to go haywire on the Ray Shero experiment.
Moore’s three-year five million dollar pact seemed like a low-risk, moderate-reward type deal. Instead, the former Ranger found his way into the lineup at the expense of homegrown talent like Eric Gelinas (now in Colorado), Jon Merrill, and Damon Severson.
It is debatable if Moore is better than any of those three, but he kept a longtime lineup spot over them because of his superior skating. He is now in the second season of his contract and is likely to be exposed in next summer’s expansion draft.
Again, Moore is not so overpaid that people should be concerned about cap impact, but the deal runs three years and gives an NHL roster spot to a player that wouldn’t be in most teams’ lineups.
Jim O’Brien was brought in presumably for NHL depth and flexibility to move from New Jersey to Albany. Again, little harm was done since O’Brien made his presence known in Albany, but he had a rough outing with the big club, with four games played, no points, and a plus-minus rating of minus-4.
Yann Danis returned to New Jersey after a brief stint as a backup earlier in his career. He provided a veteran presence in Albany but was nothing special in the save percentage or wins departments. He was not re-signed this summer and was by all indications a failed signing.
It is hard to blame Shero for the Coleman or Thompson contracts because any new general manager should have made those moves. Coleman was a former third round pick who impressed at Miami University of Ohio. He projects to be a future bottom-six NHL center but struggled out of the gate in Albany this year before missing the majority of the season to a shoulder injury.
Shero’s other re-signing was Paul Thompson, who was a wizard in the goals department in 2015 with Albany. He certainly earned his two-year, two-way deal at the time.
Unfortunately, Thompson’s play would fall off considerably in 2016 and he proved to be little more than a career AHLer when he finally had his cup of coffee in New Jersey. Shero is hardly at fault for Coleman’s injury or the Thompson deal because neither was paid to be a contributor at the NHL level; however, it must be said that early-July included five weak signings from Shero.
As the month went on, management began dealing with intra-organization personnel changes, most notably the re-signing of Adam Larsson. Shero signed the former top-five pick to a six-year, $25 million pact. The deal was structured so that Larsson would be slightly overpaid in the early years but grossly underpaid later on if his development followed expectations.
In year one of the deal Larsson showed tremendous defensive prowess on the blue line but he struggled to put up any semblance of offense. Time will tell if this deal turns into a bargain now that Larsson is currently penciled in as a go-to defender in Edmonton.
The team also re-signed Stefan Matteau, Seth Helgeson, Eric Gelinas, and issued an entry-level contract to John Quenneville. It’s difficult to say anything about Shero with these moves as all of them were restricted free agents needing new contracts and were previously viewed as some of the Devils’ brighter prospects.
In mid-August Shero finally signed 2015 first round pick Pavel Zacha. The reasoning behind the delays are still unknown but believed to be performance bonus related. After several instances of players growing disenchanted with the organization that drafted them, it was not easy to watch the progress drag on for as long as it did.
Since performance bonuses are tied directly to how someone plays, it’s confusing why Shero was trying to pinch every penny in that contract: after all, Zacha will only receive more money if he performs up to expectations. That saga was an indictment of Shero’s patience, but in this case it was unlikely to have been for the best.
End of Offseason and Preseason
By the time August rolled around, it was abundantly clear that New Jersey had major holes all over their roster. Michael Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, and Patrik Elias were the only three wingers who had proven suitable for top-nine minutes at this stage. That left three top-nine openings for unproven players like Sergey Kalinin, Reid Boucher, Paul Thompson and Stefan Matteau and also players hanging by a thread like Tuomo Ruutu, Jordin Tootoo, and Stephen Gionta.
Shero saw this lack of talent and began looking for patches, opting to sign Jiri Tlusty while also issuing professional try-out contracts to Tyler Kennedy and Lee Stempniak. All three of these players would end up suiting up for the Devils with mixed results.
Tlusty played thirty games and collected just four points between the second and third lines before missing the rest of the season. He was a failed signing by all indications.
Kennedy showed energy and grit in preseason but was not so impressive during the regular season. Most of his good play came late in the year playing with Devante Smith-Pelly and Adam Henrique on the first line. Conversely, he struggled mightily on the third and fourth lines.
Stempniak would turn out to be a very astute signing by Shero. He played well in all situations and looked every bit the part when playing on the first line with Henrique and Cammalleri. He was traded at the deadline and gave the Devils a great parting gift, awarding them a second round pick in the deal.
David Schlemko was also added and turned out to be a solid defenseman. He rounded out a defensive corps that did not let many pucks get to the net.
The 2015 offseason was not as incredible as many seem to think after the Devils’ vast improvement in 2015-16.
On the plus side, Lee Stempniak brought the Devils a solid draft pick and Kyle Palmieri is a future mainstay in the top six. On the other hand, there were several players that fell flat immediately after signing.
Those shortcomings weren’t catastrophic, but one need not look further than some of these newcomers when it comes to pinpointing weaknesses: the bottom-six faltered with Tlusty, Tootoo, Matteau, and Kennedy in the lineup.
The team’s offensive depth also fell short when recently acquired AHLers made their way to New Jersey (think Brian O’Neill, Jim O’Brien, and Paul Thompson). And when the starting six on defense started to succumb to the injury bug, Mozik, Gragnani, Gelinas, and Helgeson were unable to pick up the slack.
Last offseason helped the rebuild in that the top-six gained a new piece in Palmieri and the team leveraged other acquisitions into useful pieces. That said, the team has a long way to go and Shero’s 2015 performance was not a leap but merely a small step in the right direction.