The New Jersey Devils are about to end what has been an up-and-down 2018 calendar year. Their initial struggles to start the year nearly threw away a hopeful 2017-18. However, Taylor Hall put up one of the greatest runs of performance by a player in franchise history, Keith Kinkaid suddenly became good, and the Devils got hot enough to hold off Florida and clinch their first playoff berth since 2012. Tampa Bay may have dumped them in five games but making it was a big accomplishment. Unfortunately, the 2018-19 season has been a downgrade. After a hot start, Kinkaid has been bad, Cory Schneider has been worse, returning nearly the bulk of the 2017-18 roster back has not led to similar results, and the team is well outside of the playoff picture in the East. This leads me to ask one very basic question:
What should Devils general manager Ray Shero do in 2019?
Your answers may vary, but there are five big issues that I think he should address as best as possible within the remainder of this season and the offseason coming up. First, let’s take a step back as to where things are now:
The Re-Build Apparently Did Not End
Shero has been mostly quiet in the 2018 offseason and so far this season. Shero has been willing and has made significant deals in past offseasons and during seasons. That has not happened. I can agree that there was not anyone worth handing a huge, long-term contract to; but the Devils stood pat. I also respect Shero taking Lou’s approach to the media of saying as little as possible and revealing even less. That said, Shero did have a rather candid set of statements about the team’s performance prior to Christmas. His most recent appearance in the media was reported on at length by Corey Masisak at The Athletic ($) on December 19. Those who have an account should read the whole thing.
My big takeaway from it is that Shero has remained insistent that the team is on its way and that the re-build never really stopped. Here is a sample quote of reflecting that:
We are using all avenues to try and get there as quickly as possible. You sit there and sometimes someone is driving and you’re like, “Hurry it up!” “Well, Christ I’m going 75. Do you want me to (expletive) crash or what?” That’s a little what this analogy is like. Our car is in good shape. Some other ones on the same highway aren’t.
Shero may not be wrong about the “other ones.” Not so long ago Carolina owner Tom Dundon lamenting the lack of goals out of his team to a point where he has proclaimed the team will not draft defense early if it was up to him. (Pro-tip to Canes management: he signs the checks, it is up to him.) Ottawa’s off-ice stories all season reflects an organization that has rot at the very top (Eugene Melnyk) and it has impacted the team, who the Devils just recently passed in the standings. The most recent and arguably most bombastic example comes from the more recent profane rant from Dallas CEO Jim Lites about Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn not being good enough as the Stars barely hold onto a playoff spot that ended with a not-so-subtle message about GM Jim Nill (reported here and uncensored by Sean Shapiro of The Athletic). If nothing else, there is no drama or suggestion that ownership and/or management are unhappy. At least not in public.
Plus, the Devils have a lot of cap space and flexibility. All of the tearing down Shero did since becoming the Devils GM in 2015 has left them with more space than their using as well as a fairly young team with a stronger group of prospects in the system. The Devils’ situation would be a lot more dire if they were like Detroit or Los Angeles. Neither of those teams were expected to compete for a playoff spot this season and they could be heading their way to the bottom. Yet, Detroit has the most money on the books in the league and L.A. has the fifth most. Both teams are relatively old and they are only recently re-stocking their system with more talented prospects. They will need to be creative and/or make some really bold moves to get themselves out of their cap issues as they try to re-build. It may take a couple of seasons for them. The Devils at least do not need to endure that pain.
Most of all, this is largely Shero’s team. There are only three players in the organization that were not drafted under Shero, not signed or re-signed by Shero, or not acquired by Shero. They are team captain and defenseman Andy Greene, center Travis Zajac, and goaltender Cory Schneider. While two of those players are central to the issues Shero has to deal with sooner rather than later, three players are not the only reasons why the Devils are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference right now. The rest of the players, Shero had a hand in keeping around (example: Damon Severson) or picking up (see: Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, Sami Vatanen). On top of that, the coaching staff, the scouts, the trainers, the support staff - that was all changed by Shero. While Shero has not spent a lot of money on players, ownership has allowed Shero to change a lot of the organization on and off the ice on top of making changes (for better or worse) to the Rock. That takes commitment too, so I do not get the sense that the Devils ownership has not allowed Shero to do as much as he likes.
However, I question whether Shero’s driving at 75, to continue his metaphor. OK, so the team is still re-building. I cannot honestly I say I like getting that message. Sure, it may be true and I understand that progress is not always on an upward, linear-like path. Yet, going from making the playoffs to having a less than 10% chance (as per Moneypuck) as of December 30, 2018 is a real let down. Especially after doing a whole lot of not-much in the offseason to improve the team. This is not such a tight conference where a couple of wins can put the team back in contention. This is a league where points are earned every night and so it is not enough for the Devils to get some victories; they need help to move up. That is why it is very hard to see the Devils making a run up the standings. I would love it if it happens but I have not been given any evidence to believe that they could. At the same time, I do not think the team should just pack it in for 2019 and tank their way to the bottom. I have 10 reasons why not in a separate post about that.
But even if Shero does go with a tank or if the Devils push really hard for a playoff spot, there are several decisions Shero will have to make in the 2019 portion of this season to provide a better future for the organization. Even if this ends up as a lost season, Shero can make it a constructive one by addressing the following five big issues:
This is the most immediate situation roster-wise, the most important, and the most problematic. As of this writing, Mackenzie Blackwood had a great performance and earned his first ever NHL shutout against Carolina. This is after he had a great 40-save performance in Boston, a place the Devils have not won at since 2013. All things being equal, Blackwood has earned more minutes and more appearances at the NHL level. It remains to be seen whether he’s just a call-up having a couple of great games like Scott Wedgewood or Ken Appleby; a fill-in who can do well for an extended length of time like Keith Kinkaid or Scott Clemmensen; or truly the next top goalie for the New Jersey Devils organization. The only way to find out is to have him keep playing and to closely analyze how he performs.
The problem is that the Devils are about to have three active goaltenders on the roster soon. And two of them need games just to see if there’s anything to salvage.
The first is Cory Schneider. Schneider went on injured reserve due to an abdominal issue. He has been working out off-ice since this past Friday, though. A team cannot keep a healthy player on IR so he will have to be active at some point in 2019. I can understand why fans are not anxious to see him return. He’s been utterly abysmal in 2018-19. The coaches smartly limited his action to just nine appearances and seven starts. However, with his substantial contract, it is not easy for the Devils to jettison his contract. Not that the Devils have any concerns with their cap, but he has another three seasons on the books at $6 million per season. That’s a lot of money for some incredibly bad goaltending. While the team could buy him out after this season, that’s a lot of money for ownership to spend plus it would yield a cap hit of $2 million per season for six seasons. Ideally, if Schneider can play much better going forward, then this is not an issue to consider. However, the team cannot be sure whether Schneider can turn it around without playing him and he has done nothing so far this season to make people think he can or even should. Unless the decision is to tank 2019, putting Schneider in games would make it that much harder for the team to succeed.
The second is Kinkaid. Kinkaid was great from February to April (pre-playoffs) 2018. He was great for the first four games this season. Since then, he has been an undeniably below-average goaltender. If Schneider was anywhere close to Kinkaid’s level of performance, then there would be a split in appearances instead of Kinkaid having 29 appearances and 27 starts out of the team’s 37 in 2018. Even with the hot streak of his first four starts, Kinkaid’s overall save percentage is a bad 90.1%, his even strength save percentage is a bad 90.6%, and his goals saved above average (per Natural Stat Trick) is a bad -6.65. Even his biggest fans have to admit that these are terrible results. Yes, Kinkaid has backstopped the team to wins and has had some very good nights in this season. Those have been few and far between. If nothing else, we’ve learned that Kinkaid is not a starter or a #1A goalie in the NHL. His most recent two starts ended early with Blackwood replacing him, so I suspect the staff has given Kinkaid a shorter leash in recent weeks. Yet, like Schneider, Kinkaid has to prove he can contribute and he can only do that if he is given the chance - despite how risky that may be.
So that’s the goaltending situation: a soon-to-be-33 year old Schneider, who is banged up and has been among the worst goalies in the entire NHL this season; a 29-year old Kinkaid, who has been given opportunity after opportunity to show he can handle a larger workload and has failed; and a 22-year old Blackwood, who has looked great in four appearances and that’s it. This is definitely not an ideal situation.
While the Devils are not in dead last in 5-on-5 save percentage, being in the bottom ten in the NHL at 91.08% is a big reason why they are where they are in the standings. If Shero gets this right and figures out a way to get at least league average goaltending in 2019, then that alone could provide a lot for a bounce-back season in 2019-20. Or at the very least, the Devils would not be blown out as much as they have been this season. Of course, if Shero gets it wrong, it will undercut the “re-build” as a whole and limit what the Devils can do going forward.
What’s more is that this is a position that is difficult for a GM to get it right. Some recent examples come to mind: Colorado thought they would get a heir apparent in Philipp Grubauer, who did well behind Holtby in Washington last season. They traded for him in June 2018 and signed him to a three-season, $10 million contract. He has not been good enough to challenge Seymon Varlamov. Carolina saw what Scott Darling did in 2016-17 and signed him to a four-season contract worth $16.6 million in 2017. Darling stunk in 2017-18 and he is currently buried in the minors and the Canes are working with Petr Mrazek and waiver-pickup Curtis McElhinny in net. The Philadelphia Flyers organization has been stuck in a nasty cycle in finding goalies, seeing them go on runs, give them deals and make them their main man, and watch said goaltender falter to repeat the cycle. Some of them - Sergey Bobrovsky - have went onto better days. The point is that this is a position where it is hard to figure out who is legitimately good enough to warrant a contract and be relied on as the team’s #1 (or #1A) goalie. A mistake can be really costly. And even if the team buries the player in the AHL, they then still need someone to play goaltender and well enough for the team to succeed. This is Shero’s toughest position to deal with at the moment and it is easy for whatever decision to go awry.
This is a two-part issue for Shero. The first is figuring out what to do with the three goalies they have. There is a little time to figure it out as Schneider is not yet off IR and will likely get a conditioning stint with Binghamton. If the approach is to let 2018-19 die out, then running with Kinkaid and Schneider as an extended try-out may be best while Blackwood can be an on-call #3 goalie if/when injuries arise. Shero could try to bury one of Kinkaid or Schneider in the minors or even attempt to trade one of them to give Blackwood more minutes. Of course, this would mean Blackwood would have to prove he is actually a viable NHL goaltender. So far, his four appearances are looking good that he might be - but we’ve seen this before and it does not always pan out that way.
The second is figuring out who the goalies of the future are. Whether Shero lets Kinkaid walk this summer (I would) and/or Shero gets the OK to buy out Schneider’s contract (I could see it happening), someone else needs to take the crease. Even if Blackwood is for real, that’s only one goalie. The free agent market for 2019 has Bobrovsky potentially being available as well as Varlamov, and a seemingly rejuvenated Robin Lehner as the best options. There are not a lot of good long-term options and throwing another big contract at a goalie is a big bet that could blow up in Shero’s face.
As stated earlier, goaltending is most immediate situation roster-wise, the most important, and the most problematic that Shero must address. As this is Shero’s team, this could be the issue that helps secure Shero’s spot as Devils GM for years and years to come or it could be the one that leads to a departure in the future. Good luck.
The Defense - Especially the Left Side
Shero has understood the importance of right-handed defensemen. He gave Damon Severson a big extension. He traded useful secondary forward Adam Henrique for Sami Vatanen, who is not a cheap defender. His biggest free agent signing to date was Ben Lovejoy. He made a deal to get Mirco Mueller, a left-handed defenseman who can play both sides. Among his few signings in 2018 were Eric Gryba and John Ramage, both right-handed defensemen. Shero even signed Adam Larsson to a big contract - and found out he was worth Taylor Hall. For the immediate future, the right side on defense is set. Even with whatever foibles you may have with Severson and Vatanen, they both provide an offensive element to make up for any defensive miscues. As for Lovejoy, he can easily walk this summer as the Devils can just slot Santini in his spot. At least for 2019-20, the right side is set.
The left side is a bigger issue. Mueller has not secured his spot in the lineup this season. He has been scratched in favor of KHL veteran Egor Yakovelv, who has more recently joined Mueller on the scratch list. In recent games, the coaches have went with Vatanen playing on his off-hand in his spot and Santini next to him. Obtaining Will Butcher was a good get but the coaches have not been willing to give him a bigger role this season. Andy Greene remains the team captain and is among minute leaders among the Devils’ skaters. Yet, I wrote about how he was declining back in July and he has done little to show otherwise in 2018-19. He has some of the worst 5-on-5 numbers among Devils regulars on defense this season. For better or worse, the coaching staff still leans a lot on Greene to defend against the other team’s best players. Yet, it is not 2011-12 and Greene is not the boss in the back end like he was then. To review: Butcher remains on a third pairing, Mueller and Yakovlev have not been good enough to be regulars to a point where Vatanen is playing out of position, and Greene is getting rolled on night after night. This is the area on defense that needs to be addressed from a positional standpoint.
From a quantity standpoint, Shero could just re-sign Butcher and Mueller to new deals as they are pending RFAs this summer and call it a day. From a quality standpoint, he will need to do more. The biggest need is to find a Greene replacement. Someone who can play lot of minutes in defensive situations and kill penalties without taking too many of their own. That’s easier said than done, but it’ll be easier to do this now instead of doing it in 2020 after suffering an even older Greene for another season as his contract ends.
What’s more is that there are few pending UFA defensemen who can play the minutes really well, and the two best free agent defensemen are right-handed. I suppose Shero could throw a ton of money at Erik Karlsson (or Anton Stralman?) and then trade Severson or Vatanen to get this left-handed Greene-replacement. I think Shero could try to be more a little proactive. This is another area where a trade to get even a left-sided version of Vatanen would be welcomed. Basically, anyone to push Greene down a bit so the team can prepare for life after Greene, who I think likely moves on after his current contract ends. I think it would also be smart of Shero to help convince the coaches to give Butcher at least some more minutes to see whether he can handle it. I’m not saying Butcher is the Greene-replacement, but knowing he can handle 18-20 minutes regularly may mean the coaches can give an easier role to Mueller or Vatanen and not play Vatanen off-hand.
The X-factor is prospect Ty Smith, who had a long stay in training camp this season. It would not be impossible to think he could make the New Jersey roster in 2019-20. I would think it would be asking way too much to be a top-four defender right away. If Shero wants to make room for him, that’s one thing; but I think he can make something happen in 2019 to improve that side and, by extension, make the defense a bit better going forward.
The Devils activated a one-year option on John Hynes’ contract back in February 2018. This means that Shero needs to consider the future of Hynes.
Hynes has received plenty of praise from the players and Shero from his own candid remarks reported in The Athletic a few weeks ago. While the Devils are not getting creamed in 5-on-5 play and their PK work is great, it would fair to say that the defense and the power play in particular has taken some big steps back.
While Alain Nasreddine and the players remained from last season, the skaters have been getting mixed up in terms of who is covering what and how on defense. Which has contributed in plenty of goals against and shifts where they just get pinned back for a while. The Devils are no longer this stingy team that opposing offenses have trouble with. The forwards are supporting the defensemen and there are times on a given night where they are on a different page as to who is in man-coverage and who is in zonal coverage. Even if the Devils are good at limiting high-danger chances, that’s just about it in terms of successfully limiting opponents.
The power play changes (and non-changes) brought by new assistant and former Binghamton head coach Rick Kowalsky have not yielded more offense and it has held the Devils back in several games this season. The Devils have seemingly utilized a drop pass more on breakouts to little gain. The Devils’ 1-3-1 formation is often static so instead of a 5-on-4 situation, the puck is being handled by just three of those five Devils. The two-man advantage situations still utilize a ‘M’ (or a ‘W’ depending on your perspective) look that keeps two Devils on the goal line - meaning the penalty killers just have to worry about the three facing at the goal. He has not been an improvement over Geoff Ward.
And since we’re talking about the staff, can anyone look at Schneider’s numbers and Kinkaid’s numbers and conclude that goaltending coach Roland Melanson has helped?
The bottom line is that other teams with records similar to the Devils have already fired their coaches and are looking for new solutions. There is enough to justify Shero to fire Hynes right now or fire assistants right now. The record is not only bad and there have been more than enough losses where a Devils team down a goal or two or even tied with a team acts as if they’re down by four and give up on a game. There have been more than enough decisions by Hynes and the staff blowing up in their face in overtime situations and other games. If Shero decides right now that Hynes isn’t the guy, then we cannot say it wasn’t earned.
However, with the season being what it is and Hynes’ contract coming to an end, that may not be so necessary. It may be easier to just let him go at the end and work on getting a new head coach and staff this Summer. However, if the decision is to keep Hynes because the players support him and management agrees with him and he works well enough with Shero, then so be it. But there would almost have to be new assistants. It is clear that the strategies and preparation of the team has been lacking in 2018-19. At a minimum, how the Devils are coached needs to be re-evaluated and a decision has to be made about Hynes. Of course, if the Devils do move on from Hynes for whatever reason, then they need to find a new head coach.
Scoring Beyond the Top Line
Taylor Hall is not a problem on offense. He is the team’s offensive leader and is once again among the top 50 scorers in the NHL. Kyle Palmieri has been streaky but his 19 goals in 37 games mean he is not a problem. Nico Hischier may stand to shoot a bit more but he is otherwise helping drive the play and has handled the top line role - all before he is even 20. He is not a problem.
The problem has to do outside of the top line. There aren’t enough consistent threats. There is not a lot of scoring. Basically, an opposition team can focus on stopping Hischer’s line and not screw up too badly against the rest. The forwards do not have too many people lagging behind in the run of play but they also lack anyone to really drive things outside of Hall and Hischier in 5-on-5. Check this out from Natural Stat Trick: When Hall-Hischier-Palmieri is on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils scored 65.6% of the goals. When those three are all off the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils only score 41.4% of the goals. That’s a stark difference. That means the Devils need offense beyond those three.
There are a few bright spots from a production perspective in Blake Coleman putting up 11 goals, Travis Zajac having 10, and Brian Boyle having 9 goals already. However, that production has not been consistent, it does not always come in 5-on-5 (Boyle has 5 PPGs). And others in more prominent spots in the lineup have not produced a lot in general. Namely Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and Marcus Johansson.
Zacha’s lack of results has led to a brief demotion and has since found the scoresheet for six goals and an assist (and a shooting percentage of 11.5%). That’s not a lot but it’s something. Bratt, who missed the beginning of the season, has flashed his skill and quickness but he’s shooting at a woeful 4.4% and has two goals. Johansson has six goals and a better looking 8.7%, but that’s boosted by one power play goal and two extra skater goals. At 5-on-5, his shooting percentage is a mere 5.66%. Wood has played his way down to the fourth line and looks more like the player in his rookie season than he was last season. He has just three goals and a shooting percentage of 3.3%. It is possible that some of this works itself off. I do not think Bratt, Johansson, and Wood will keep shooting with low percentages. Then, maybe they would provide the offensive support the team needs to add to what Coleman, Zajac, and Boyle have chipped in plus what the first line does night-in and night-out. It would be better if Bratt, Zacha, etc. were driving the play more to at least contribute aside from points on the scoreboard. But they’re not getting killed either.
This is the area of the team where Shero probably has the most room to maneuver. Boyle and Johansson are potential UFAs and are probably the most attractive assets on the team to move if the team does indeed sell at the trade deadline. The free agency market has more of a selection for supportive forwards. There are even options to get another star forward. Artemi Panarin may be hitting the market so if Shero wants to swing big for a star, he can do that too (and have him stop scoring so much against the Devils). With the recent rant from Dallas management, I would have to think one of Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn may be available.
The Devils have a first line that is a legitimate first line that leads the team. I think the Devils have some of the pieces, so to speak, to provide more secondary scoring and more of a threat on offense beyond the top line. I don’t think the team should give up right away on Bratt, Wood, or others. But they do need more than what they have. Especially considering this other issue.
The Taylor Hall Situation
Taylor Hall has been a Superstar for this team. He is the first ever Devil to win a Hart trophy. He has 37 points in 33 games in this season and continues to be the Devils’ best player. His contract will end on July 1, 2020 and fans know full well that this is a big deal. Hall could easily walk without a contract by then. After suffering in Edmonton for so many years and having only one playoff appearance in New Jersey, a lost 2018-19 season may be enough for Hall to want to play elsewhere after his contract ends. The earliest Hall can sign an extension is July 1, 2019 and Shero will need to decide before then whether this is worth pursuing or not.
There are some great arguments to make for or against the Devils keeping Hall. They are worth their own posts. So I will stick to the main points. Whoever is going to get Hall is going to have to spend a lot of money for a 28-going-on-29 forward in 2020. It is not really a debate that he has had his prime years. It is also not really a debate that he is going to be able to contribute for a very long time. Even if/when the speed becomes slower, Hall’s vision on the puck, his stickhandling, his shot, and his passing will still be assets. He may not have another Hart-worthy season again, but is also unlikely that he will suddenly become a broken-down bottom-six forward in his early 30s either.
Hall has been the centerpiece of the offense and arguably the team in Shero’s current reign as GM. Even if the smart play is to move on, that would leave a massive gap on the roster. It is very hard to get a player of Hall’s caliber. It is even harder to do it just for price of one player, Adam Larsson, who is not at all missed in New Jersey. Getting a high enough draft pick for a prospect to hope that player is as good as Hall is one day is a very large hope. Getting a Panarin, Seguin, Benn, or some other big name in a trade or free agent signing could fill in a potential gap in the short-term. But those would likely carry the same risks that re-signing Hall would have - and the Devils already have a year-plus to talk business with Hall.
That’s the tricky part: Hall and his representation have a lot to say here. If they don’t want to talk, then there’s not much Shero can do. If the idea is to get paid a lot of money, then the Devils have an edge as they can offer one more year than other teams in a contract. But if Hall really wants to be a part of a contending team, then either Shero has to improve the Devils A.S.A.P. P.D.Q. and/or Shero has to consider moving him or having him walk to one in 2020. Of course, if Hall truly enjoys where he is and wants to be a part of making the Devils a contender, then he’ll be more willing to talk an extension. The point here is that Hall and his agent(s) have power here and Shero has to work with that. This is not like a video game where you just click a button, offer a giant amount of cash, and then hope the AI accepts it.
The power that Shero has is that he can determine whether an older Hall is something the Devils would need going forward in his re-build. He can make that decision in 2019 and she needs to before opening any talks of an extension. Rather than wait until 2020 to sell Hall on a cents on a dollar in a trade, if Shero believes that Hall is not going to be someone to keep building around, he could very well trade him in this season. (And if you want to take advantage of Dallas’ sudden outburst, Hall may need to be on the table.)
I don’t like the prospect of all of this. I think of the world of Taylor Hall as a player. He brought an element to the team that has not been seen since 2012. He’s one of the best Devils forwards in franchise history and he put up one of, if not the best, seasons in Devils history in 2017-18. He is a reason to keep paying attention to a team sitting near last place in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. But I understand that there is a larger picture, this is a business, and big decisions need to be made and supported with evidence and reasonable thoughts. While Hall will not become a free agent for another year and a half, the time for Shero to consider his future in New Jersey is in 2019.
Final Thoughts & Your Take
No one ever said being a general manager is easy. These are five big issues that he needs to address in this coming calendar year. There’s a reason why this is such a long post - there is a lot to consider for each issue. I will conclude by stating that I hope he gets it right in 2019. Even if I disagree with them initially and even if they are partial solutions in the short-term, I hope they all work out because it will mean the Devils are a better team for it. At the end of the day, I think we all want the same thing. We want this re-build to end with a Devils team that contend like the current top teams of the day like Tampa Bay, Washington, San Jose, and Toronto. I would like to not see the team go back to being awful in the hopes of winning a lottery for a big name prospect and put everything on his shoulders to make it work. While Toronto, Washington, and Tampa Bay have had successful #1 overall picks, they did a lot more than that to get where they are today. The Devils can take a step closer to that for 2019-20 and beyond through addressing these five issues.
What do you think are the biggest issues for Shero in 2019? What can he do to make the most out of another likely-playoff-less 2018-19 season? What would you do regarding these five issues and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading and have a Happy New Year’s.