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The Long Game Ray Shero Must Play to Rebuild the Devils

Ray Shero will have a lot of contracts and decisions to make on players right away in this offseason. However, to rebuild the New Jersey Devils, he must consider the long game for those already signed to long deals.

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Travis Zajac may be part of the core now.  But for the future? With that contract? It's not so easy to see...
Travis Zajac may be part of the core now. But for the future? With that contract? It's not so easy to see...
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Ray Shero will have a lot to do in this offseason.  The New Jersey Devils will be done playing games in this season after April 9, 2016.  The team's work doesn't end as Shero has to really consider new contracts for players, who to keep and let loose, get an understanding about the NHL Draft that will happen in June, and dealing with other general managers about any potential deals.  While a lot of the actual action will happen around the draft and free agency on July 1, a lot of preparatory work takes place well before then - if not during the season itself.  This could be said for pretty much all thirty general managers in the National Hockey League.

Shero's situation isn't quite same from most other GM's in the NHL.  For starters, only five forwards currently on the roster and injured reserve are signed through next season according to CapFriendly. There are five forwards who will be hitting restricted free agency and all are likely return to New Jersey Shero will still have plenty of holes to fill to complete a roster, much less try to improve on of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL. The defense may get a different look too with David Schlemko and David Warsofsky hitting unrestricted free agency on top of Jon Merrill hitting RFA status. There's plenty of cap space but there's only so much Shero can do on the open market.

The biggest difference is that the Devils are rebuilding. This is not just my opinion or the opinion of other fans, bloggers, and any "insiders." It's the main point in this article about Shero in this February 5, 2016 post by Jonas Siegel in the Globe & Mail. The Devils have missed the playoffs in four out of their last five seasons, the current NHL roster has a dearth of offensive talent, their prospect pipeline needs to be re-filled with talents players, and there's no star skater to make up for a lot of issues.  There's Cory Schneider, who's been supremely fantastic for the Devils, and a bunch of skaters still trying to make low-event hockey work by relying heavily on Schneider.  The Devils themselves may need to make a sea change in how they perform on the ice to get more offense and to be more effective than a nightly game plan of "rely on the goalie and minimized everything."  That plan may have worked in the past. Again, four playoff misses out of the last five years suggests it doesn't.

It is in that sense that Shero also has to worry about the long term rebuild of the team.  The contracts to be offered and deals to be made in this year are for the short-term. They can affect the long term based on what is done, but Shero has to establish and maintain his goals for what he wants this team to do in three, four, and five years as opposed to what they'll do in 2016-17.  Is it just to make the playoffs? Is it to become contenders to go deep in the playoffs? How would he want them to play in the future? The answers to those questions start with actions made today. Those actions must consider the long game he has to play as a GM.  Let's take a deep look at the Devils' long term situation.

Current Deals Beyond 2017-18

The Devils have fourteen players signed through 2017-18, which is two seasons from now.  According to CapFriendly, there are six entry level contracts and eight NHL contracts. The ELCs are: goaltender Ken Appleby, forward Nick Lappin, forward Ryan Kujawinski, goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood, forward John Quenneville, and forward Pavel Zacha.  Blackwood may slide, for what it's worth.  Zacha could too.  By 2017-18, the hope is that the Devils have identified at least one or two of those players to either be ready for the NHL then or the near future.  The real hope is that one of them is 2015 sixth overall pick, Pavel Zacha.   The Devils need hits on their picks and undrafted free agents to really progress in this rebuilding stage of the franchise. Young players on relatively cheap deals contributing is always a plus for any organization.  The hope is that a top-ten draft pick would meet that expectation and that's what Zacha was.  Especially among a prospect pipeline that's short on top-end talent much less forward talent.  All the same, the fewer number of these six still being in development in two years, the better for Shero's options.

The eight NHL players signed through 2017-18 should be very familiar to you: Ryane Clowe (last year of that deal, BTW), John Moore, Michael Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Adam Larsson, and Cory Schneider.  With the exceptions of Clowe and Moore, they were the core of this season's team, for better or worse.  That's the team's top defensive pairing (Greene-Larsson), half of the top six forwards (when healthy), and one of the best goalies in the league (Schneider, duh).  The biggest question for Shero is whether these players can still be a part of the core and be a significant contributor to the team in the future (think three seasons or so from now).  If he thinks they can, then great.  If not, then he needs to figure out how to move the player or utilize them so someone better can take their current spot.

Let's Dwell on the Eight Currently Signed through 2017-18

Among the eight, three players can be ignored because I think they would be a part of the core for the future.  I don't expect Clowe to play at all.  He is just going to take up salary cap space anyway. Larsson is 23 right now and he's already a top-pairing caliber defenseman. He's likely going to stay as one by the time his contract ends in the summer of 2021. He's going to lead this team's blueline one day, assuming he isn't to a degree already.  Schneider is one of the best in the world at what he does and he's 29.  Goalies may age better than skaters and Schneider doesn't exactly have a lot of mileage on his body.  He's set for the future.  The other five? Well, I'm not so sure it's a guarantee they are sure-fire, you-want-this-guy-for-three-years-from-now players.

C.J. actually asked that question about 25-year old John Moore recently. The comments are enlightening. It's possible Moore just needs a solid partner and not to play on his off hand regularly.  If that does happen and Moore is still posting relatively high on-ice SA/60 rates (he's now at 31.93 per Corsica, no other Devil is close to him) while not providing much going forward, then it may be time move on from Moore. Per CapFriendly, Moore's not making a lot of money so it's not like he's getting significant money. At a minimum, he's movable either within the lineup or to another team.

Adam Henrique is another one I'm concerned a bit for the future. I like what Henrique does in general.  He's good enough in his own end and on offense to play significant minutes.  So far this season, Henrique has set a career high in goals, he will set a career high in shots, and he has an outside chance of cracking fifty points since his rookie season. Yet, that's part of the issue.  For someone who's going to be paid an increasing salary for the next four seasons from $4 million to $5.5 million, should he not be a driver of the play and/or production?  Or at least more than what he has done?   Henrique is definitely a top-six forward and all. At 26, I expect Henrique to keep it up. Yet, if the issue is that the Devils aren't productive enough, then why keep a player whose most productive season was in his rookie year between two massive producers?  Perhaps that's the going rate for a player like Henrique these days - and if so, I expect Kyle Palmieri to get a similar contract in this coming offseason.  It's clear Henrique can be a fine compliment and good teams need those players, so I expect he'll stick around.  And it'll be fine (as with Palmieri), if/when the Devils get a go-to guy on offense, which is what the Devils sorely need.

Mike Cammalleri is going to prone to these sorts of discussions for the next few seasons.  Namely because he's injury-prone. This season is a perfect mix of why Cammalleri is a desirable player and why he isn't.  In the 2015 portion of this season, Cammalleri finished tied for eleventh in points in the entire NHL and had a near point-per-game rate. In the valley of the blind that is the Devils offense, Cammalleri had at least one good eye.  That he's 33 and doing what was expected of him - provide offense and results on offense - was a good thing.  Since the new year began, Cammalleri played four games. His right hand/wrist injury may prevent a return at all this season. I feel bad when players get hurt because they can't do what they do for a living, which I presume they enjoy on some level.  Yet, Cammalleri hasn't played more than 70 games since 2008-09. One has to expect he'll continue to get hurt for more than just a few games, and therefore not be able to contribute as much as he could.  Combined with the fact he's on the wrong side of 30 years old, his $5 million/season deal for through 2018-19 is going to stink.  As much as I enjoyed his contributions such as in this season, Shero may need to find a way to get out from this deal and try to replace him with someone who's reliably expected to play the vast majority of a season.  Again, you can't help if you're hurt.

Travis Zajac, on the other hand, well, this hurts me a bit. I'm a big Zajac fan. I have his number on my jersey.  I appreciate how good he is off the puck.  He's definitely a smart player. If you think the Devils struggle in match-ups now, then imagine it without Zajac.  Yet, I can imagine this team without Zajac.  As with Henrique, for the amount of money Zajac gets, one should reasonably expect more production and play being driven.  Zajac isn't a bad possession player but he hasn't been positive since the start of 2014-15. He's definitely not a very significant producer; he's surpassed sixty points twice in his career and that's largely from playing with Zach Parise. It was also back in 2009, too.   Unlike Henrique, Zajac is older, he's 30, and he's getting paid much more money.  Not only does he have the highest cap hit among forwards, CapFriendly has his salary listed at $6.5 million through 2018-19. As much as I like Zajac, this is a bad contract.  The Devils may have the cap space to afford it but Shero may need to try to find someone to take Zajac and start from scratch with the top center position. The time to do that is soon while the team is rebuilding and expectations are low.  Of course, it only works if the Devils improve upon Zajac or at least not throw $6.5 million at someone similar to what he does.

Lastly, there's Andy Greene.  I also like Greene. I think he doesn't get enough respect that he should in the league. USA Hockey certainly doesn't respect him. He's grown to be the leader of this blueline.  His underlying numbers for this season aren't so hot, but neither are Larsson's. Yet, I wouldn't trust anyone but the Greene-Larsson pairing to take on tough competition and difficult situations.  However, like Cammalleri, Greene is 33.  Like Cammalleri, Greene is getting $5 million/season for quite a while to continue to perform.  Unlike Cammalleri, Greene is very durable as he's played in 301 straight games for New Jersey and often played well over twenty minutes in those games.  Greene's good from what I see and his previous numbers note that he's got game.  Can Greene still be as effective as a defenseman two to three years from now, when he hits and goes beyond age 35?  If he does fade, is it worth paying him $5 million for a lesser role as Larsson presumably takes over as the leader of that blueline?  I don't know and I'm not so confident the answer is necessarily yes.

The basic question for these eight players that Shero should ask is: Can they be expected to contribute at a significant level three years from now? I think the answer for two of them is "yes" (Larsson, Schneider), "sort of" for Henrique and maybe Greene, "maybe if he's used better" for Moore, "the level right now isn't worth all of the money" for Zajac, "not really" for Cammalleri, and "irrelevant" for Clowe.  Among them, I think Zajac's and Cammalleri's deals are the worst and if Shero has to cut bait and move on from any of these contracts, then I'd make it those two. My conclusion is that Shero needs to move some players.  How?

Be Bold, Be Making Moves

Check out this post by Sean "Down Goes Brown" McIndoe at Sportsnet about five relatively recent teams that went from the basement to the penthouse.  Teams that are currently good or even excellent this season.  They're all good examples of teams that needed something to go their way and needed to be bold about what they would do.  Fortune supposedly favors the bold, and they made the most of it.

How is that relevant to the Devils?  Much of the good feeling during the Devils' 2015-16 came from the fact that they defied initial expectations - mine included - that they would be dead last in the division.  Instead, they spent most of it around a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The underlying numbers weren't pretty but they found ways to win and stay above Philadelphia, Carolina, and even Pittsburgh for the most part.  The bottom really only started fell out in February.  Yet, for the Devils to go and have that high draft pick to get a very desirable prospect, then this wasn't the right to get there. For the Devils to be this much of a pleasant surprise, perhaps Shero and management will be tempted to keep players beyond what their actual use.  While patience was enough for Tampa Bay, there's very little reason to think that bringing back most of the 2015-16 Devils and hoping for better one season later will yield better results. If anything, they'll do worse.

So it's on Shero and his staff to identify what they want to do, who really can or cannot contribute to that, and make the moves necessary for those who cannot do it.  This may mean making a lopsided trade just to remove the contract.  This could mean taking a bad contract back in return, though it's not ideal. This could yield more draft picks but instead of firsts, maybe seconds and/or thirds.  On top of that, we have to hope Paul Castron, the Devils' Director of Scouting, and his scouts uncover players in all rounds and not just hit big among the best prospects.  There's a lot to hope for, but Shero isn't going to achieve much in the long run - or even the short term - by just tinkering with what he has.

There's another thing he needs consider.  Let's just say I didn't pick 2017-18 as a totally arbitrary season for this post.

The (Eventual) Expansion Draft

In addition to trades either at the deadline or in the offseason, Shero and twenty-nine general managers will highly likely have to participate in an expansion draft very soon.  Last Wednesday, the NHL presented a general framework for what the expansion draft rules would be to all thirty GM's.  TSN's Frank Seravalli has a summary of what all thirty teams would have to consider.  This includes protection of certain positions (eight skaters or seven forwards and three defensemen), making at least 25% of the team's salary cap from last season available for selection, players on their third year of ELCs would need to be protected, and more.

This has spurred many articles and blog posts about who to protect and such.  I've held off because, well, nothing is set in stone yet. For starters, Seravalli's article makes it seem that certain rules are yet to be decided, particularly around players with no movement clauses.  For sure, the NHL Players Association will have to buy into this framework.  Otherwise, this is all moot.  Most of all, we don't know how many teams the league will expand and when that will be.  Las Vegas is a safe bet to get a team, but I personally don't think the league will expand to 31 without having Team #32 coming with them or coming soon after.   But Gary Bettman said the earliest is 2017-18. Hence, the season I picked in this post.

As an aside, if you're interested in discussing who'd you protect now, then check out MandmeisterX's FanPost about that. I'm more interested in what this could mean for Shero.

This is the opportunity Shero could use to get rid of one of these players that he may not see as part of the team's future. The Devils would need to protect at least one of their players on ELCs under this framework, Most likely that would be Zacha - if his ELC actually is active, should it slide another year, he's safe.  But with only Clowe having a no movement clause among players signed through 2017-18, Shero could easily leave Zajac or Cammalleri free for the taking and, if they're lucky, they get out of those deals earlier than they would end.  Shero would still have to replace them, but that would be the idea anyway.  It's another tool Shero could and probably should use for rebuilding the team along with the draft, which has to be rather successful to get out of the rebuild anytime soon, and making trades, which hopefully won't mean just trading problematic contracts for problematic contracts.

The Long Game Never Ends

Shero can't just re-sign all the RFA's to short contracts and rely on just short term free agents or finds from professional try out deals. The Devils need more reliable and more productive scoring. They need more talented players on offense. This means he'll have to go out with some of the current and in with some new blood. This will require signing, acquiring, and drafting players to be part of the core for the team's future.  This will likely require overpayment through free agency on amount and term, some cleverness in trades with 29 other GM's that know New Jersey's situation, and crossing fingers on prospects developing to their identified potential.  And it'll require making space for those players. The ones to go aren't just the ones with expiring deals, but also those with long contracts that don't fit in with the team's future.  That will likely make the team suffer in the short term, but again, the Devils in 2016-17 aren't probably going to go anywhere of significance.

Suppose that Shero does it all right in free agency, trades, and the draft. And he identifies players to lose through expansion and makes the appropriate space.  The long game isn't over.  Players to keep for the team's future core know and demand that for that to happen, they want the security of a long-term contract for a lot of money.  If they become a part of it as they grow from prospect to significant player or the team just go them and they perform, then they'll want such a deal.  Larsson is a great example. While a RFA, he knew of his importance on the blueline. Ray Shero appropriately gave him a large extension last summer. He became part of the core and he now gets paid like one.  And now Shero has to consider that for future decisions made on the roster.  Again, Larsson's a safe bet on staying what he is now (or improving) when that contract ends.  Others, not as much.  But now Larsson's a part of that long game.  Other significantly long deals will put those players - I'm going to expect Palmieri is added to that list - in that area too.  What it means is that their projected path must be considered as well as how they are performing currently.  The evaluation may be short, but it has to happen to stay on whatever track Shero wants the team to follow.

The too long, didn't read of this post is that Shero, his staff, and even the fans can't go into this offseason solely focused on what's next for 2016-17.

Sure, there's a lot of more immediate actions to accomplish with the number of free agents the Devils will have. And the draft will certainly take up a lot of time too.  But what Shero has to consider the distant future when he makes his decisions in this coming summer.  And those decisions need to include those who are currently signed for this rebuild to work.  And Shero will need to be bold to make those decisions with those firmly in place on the Devils' current salary cap - even before an expansion draft is announced.  Otherwise, the team will struggle, if not be unable, to fulfill what Shero has in mind for the Devils (assuming it makes sense and it's what we'd want), short of starting from scratch.  That would at least prolong the rebuilding efforts.