With only a few minor signings during Free Agent Frenzy, the New Jersey Devils will look largely the same come October. Considering that this team is pretty young overall, and some of the better starters should only be improving, it is not the worst move in the world. Cap space can be really tough to get back, so spending it wisely is super important.
However, you have heard all of this already over the past week, as we have dissected here and others elsewhere the consequences of staying put and instead building almost solely from within and from the draft. What I really want to point out today is that despite making the playoffs last season, and really entering contention for the first time in several years, Ray Shero and Co. are still playing the long game with this organization.
It could be easy when making the postseason finally, that your mindset changes and you immediately start thinking of becoming a buyer in free agency and in trades, looking to fill holes to turn a first round exit into a Stanley Cup contender. Shero, however, clearly has not taken that approach. When he took over for Lou Lamoriello in the 2015 offseason, it was with the mindset that this team was in a rebuild, and he needed to see that rebuild through.
Well, what his actions (or lack thereof) in free agency show all of us is that he still feels that way. He does not now all of a sudden think the rebuild is over, and that New Jersey is a perennial contender. His focus has not shifted away from his initial goal, his initial game plan. He knows that to build this organization into a yearly playoff contender, as it was for two decades prior to his arrival, he cannot simply go for quick fixes. Sadly, that is what happened here in New Jersey in the latter half of the 2000s, which led to the decline into the basement of the NHL for a half decade. Ray is being very cautious to not make those mistakes.
And as mentioned elsewhere, some of the contracts given out over this past week have pitfalls all over them. Many players were overpaid, both in term length and average annual value. If Ray did that here, we might be happy that he feels this team could win the Stanley Cup as early as this year, but it would leave the future very much in doubt. Three years from now, if that Cup never came, the organization all of a sudden would have been inundated with albatross contracts that ruin teams. That is not the answer at all.
Now, I totally understand the frustration with doing nothing. You know what does not produce at all, on the ice, at any time? Cap space. It sits idle, always. And when your team has somewhere around $23 million in cap space, third most in the NHL right now, that is frustrating indeed. It is like being the Oakland A’s and their sub-$85 million payroll and having to compete against the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants, who both currently have payrolls over $220 million. That is just insane. And while not as pronounced given a salary cap in the NHL, when teams spend to the cap and above like Chicago and Los Angeles, among other teams, have done in recent years, it becomes tough to compete when your organization lets tens of millions of dollars in cap room do nothing. And when you consider that New Jersey almost certainly won’t do much more between now and training camp, when perhaps some new players are brought in on a tryout basis, they will enter October with almost a third of their total cap not being used. How much harder does that make it to compete?
But in the end, this just reinforces even more that Shero is playing the long game with this organization. He knows this, he knows that NJ will most likely enter the season with a boat load of money unused, despite being a playoff team a year ago looking to take a step forward. He also knows that a huge step backward for this team, back down into the bottom 10 of the league, would be unacceptable. Therefore, he is taking a gamble that the young players on this team will continue to improve and get better, and as a consequence this team overall will improve and will remain competitive for a playoff position.
When will he decide to start spending more money? Good question. But knowing how Ray has attacked this rebuild so far, you would think he will only do so when he feels a piece fits perfectly into this squad.