Before the New Jersey Devils were embarrassed by Our Hated Rivals last Saturday, Pierre LeBrun reported that general manager Ray Shero is listening to trade offers Taylor Hall. Before the Devils hosted and lost to Las Vegas, the team announced that John Hynes was fired and assistant coach Alain Nasreddine was named as interim head coach. On Wednesday, Eliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts article at Sportsnet revealed that Miles Wood is on the trading block. With no plans on hiring a full time head coach at the moment, Shero looking to deal more than just pending big-money UFA Hall, and the Devils sitting next to last in the Eastern Conference standings, it is becoming clearer that the Devils could be entering their third season of tanking under general manager Ray Shero.
I hate the fact that I am writing that in early December. I expected way more from this season and it is a massive disappointment that the team has earned their way to this point. The only ones who like this development are the haters and losers, of which there are sadly many. However, I have to call it as I see it. So let us discuss it through this post.
Tanks and Shero
A quick summary of the last five seasons reveals that this is #3 for the Devils. When Ray Shero was hired, a majority of the fanbase expected and even welcomed the notion of Shero tearing down the old roster and building anew. I do not think any Devils fans miss a lot of the 2015-16 roster. While they may have over-achieved a little bit, the bottom fell out in 2016-17. With few additions and selling at the deadline, you could call that the first tank job under Shero. The result was the team winning their first #1 pick in the NHL Draft as the Devils in the NHL Draft Lottery. They correctly chose Nico over Nolan. The Devils seemed to be on the right path as the team achieved their first playoff spot since 2012 in the 2017-18 season. They followed that up with a terrible first half in 2018-19 and a second half beset with so many injuries that it could not not be terrible. Call it Tank #2. The only good thing to come out of that crummy run of hockey was another draft lottery win. The Devils won the right to draft The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, first overall and they did just that.
They did even more. Shero swung a big deal for P.K. Subban on the second day of the draft. After years of staying mostly out of free agency, Shero inked Wayne Simmonds to a one-season deal for $5 million. Shero traded picks to Las Vegas to get the rights to Nikita Gusev and promptly signed him for two-seasons for a total of $9 million. Adding Hughes, Subban, Simmonds, and Gusev to a burgeoning roster that also would have a fully healthy Taylor Hall made fans very excited for 2019-20. I was very excited. I was very pleased with what Shero did. I was expecting them to compete for a playoff spot. I thought they had the talent to do so. 26 games later, the Devils are in such a deep hole that it would take a near-miracle for the team to get back into playoff contention. (And how they lost some of those games have only amplified the disgust from the fanbase but that is a bit beside the point.)
This is not hyperbole. Back on November 15, I wrote about the proverbial mountain the Devils had to climb. Based on past seasons, it took 93 to 98 points for a team in the East to make the playoffs, or a standings point-per-game rate of roughly 1.13 to 1.20. The Devils’ current per-game rate of standings points is a mere 0.81. The Devils would need to earn 71 to 76 points in their remaining 55 games, which would require a per-game point rate of 1.29 to 1.38. In other words, the Devils need to play like one of the best teams in the NHL over the next three-and-a-half months. Short of Nasreddine being a secretly amazing coach and the roster doing a 180 in their on-ice performances, this is not likely to happen. Nothing in the preceding 27 games suggests to me that they can do this at all. Especially after Hall and others are traded away.
This is why I think the Devils is looking at Tank #3. Given how much was added in the 2019 offseason, it cannot be seen as anything but a failure. I fully understand the reasoning behind it back in 2016-17. The team needed to be torn down. But since then, this has largely been Shero’s team, Shero’s staff, and Shero’s organization. There have been wholesale changes from the roster to scouts to coaches to analysts to others in management. The result so far: One playoff appearance, one playoff win out of five playoff games, and no real confidence that the Devils will be back there anytime soon. I do not have to wonder why so many fans boo the team off the ice and are unhappy to a point of apathy about the Devils. The Devils have honestly earned much of their criticism. This includes Shero and I think more and more fans are picking up on that.
I would also like to think ownership has already picked up on it. To go from making the playoffs in one season and then playing for lottery balls in the following two seasons after tearing down the old regime is a bitter pill to swallow. I can understand Gerard’s argument to clear the house again. I can agree with him that the coaching staff will likely be replaced wholesale if/when a new head coach is hired. I do not agree that Shero should move everyone possible, though. If that is the plan, then ownership might as well look for a new GM. I do not expect ownership to be fine with a fourth tank in six seasons should 2020-21 go horribly awry again or not be set up for any kind of success. I do not expect them to be fine that the team did not maximize their chances in the window of Hischier’s entry level contract (ELC) and one out of three seasons of Hughes’ ELC either. It is also not a good way to build a team to be successful either. To steal a phrase from Ben Massey, a team cannot just amass a bunch a high draft picks and BAM! Stanley Cup! Should Shero want to remain GM of the Devils even if this season is all for naught, then the team needs to have a very quick turnaround. To do that, Shero needs to get a lot done and done right. Good luck to Ray Shero.
So we’re likely going to see a tank happening, intentional or otherwise. What the Devils should do to get the most out of it if only so 2020-21 would not be another lost season? Here are some thoughts on what I think Shero & Co. should do about that.
Tanking with a Purpose: Regarding Hall
The first step would be to move Hall. I would even recommend moving him quickly. The last thing the Devils need is for Hall to get injured in what will likely be a meaningless game. According to Friedman’s recent 31 Thoughts article, there is plenty of interest from teams in the Western Conference. That is good. The last thing the Devils need is to trade him to a team they will see three to five times in a season and will compete with in the standings. That there are multiple suitors (Colorado, Arizona, Edmonton, Dallas, and St. Louis among them per Friedman’s article) does give Shero some leverage even though it is not a secret that he is available.
And the deal could be quite sweet if done early. Already, there are a myriad of articles around The Athletic and SB Nation about what it could take for a deal to get done. My initial preference would be with Colorado. Mile High Hockey’s Tom Fisher thinks they should go all in and I think Colorado has the assets the Devils could use. Plus, Colorado can afford Hall’s cap hit right now so the assets can all be futures. New Jersey does not need to take any salary back in case there is a player they would want now. In general, they should not be seeking such players unless they find a rare player that A) the Devils want to build around and B) a team will want to give up despite being worthy of being built around. I think it would be more fruitful to obtain an extra first rounder - with conditions regarding Hall’s future signing, of course - and a prospect close to the NHL instead of finding a roster player.
Given the rumor from Renaud Lavoie at TVA Sports (article is in French), Bowen Byram and a first with conditions would be a very good get for Hall. The Devils would immediately add a defenseman who could be NHL-ready next season and be a very good defender one day, they would get a first rounder, Colorado beefs up their chances to contend while Nathan MacKinnon is on a favorable contract, and Hall would get to be on a contending team that could do some special things given who they have at forward. I call that a win-win. We’ll see if it happens - it is just a rumor after all.
Amid all of these talks, the Devils would be wise to identify who should play in Hall’s spot at left wing. Someone has to play there after he is dealt, after all. They already have started that process by trying Jesper Boqvist with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri. I do not think that has worked initially. It may be worth it to keep trying since the team may be moving another left winger in Miles Wood, who is definitely not worthy of big minutes, and I do not know about the long-term viability of Blake Coleman. With nothing to really play for, the team could do worse than giving a rookie a bigger role than usual than to have a veteran kind-of, sort-of, not-quite-really fill in.
Tanking with a Purpose: Regarding Other Deals
That Friedman specified Wood as being on the block makes me think the Devils could sell more than just whoever is a pending UFA for this summer. In a way, this is good. As easy as it would be to just ship out anyone who will be out of contract in July, Shero should be using the rest of this season to identify who should really stick around on this team. That means making some real close looks at the non obvious choices, excepting Hischier, Hughes, Blackwood, and most of the other players still on their entry level contracts.
I would suggest that those kinds of trades not necessarily be for futures only. For Hall, sure. The likelihood of getting a first line left winger back for Hall is slim to none. In the case of someone like Wood, I think it would be OK to get a player back. Someone has to play when these players are moved. Hall’s role will likely be too big for any available player to fill. Wood’s role is more easily filled. Even if it is an expiring contract for an expiring contract, it would at least give a different look and someone else to analyze about whether they should be a part of the team for the next year or so. If the Devils want to avoid making 2020-21 a lost season as well, then all of the deals cannot be for draft picks and prospects alone. Most of them can be, but there need to be some NHL players coming back or Shero is either going to have to spend a lot of money on July 1, 2020 just to fill the roster and/or put a lot of faith in some of the men in Binghamton to step up. We have seen the latter in 2018-19, by the way. I wish to not relive it.
However, Shero should not be moving anyone who may have a buyer. The more Shero sells, the more will need to be replaced, and the more likely the team will not be able to turn things around quickly in 2020-21. As tempting as it is to say everyone is available except for Hischier, Hughes, and some others, Shero would be wise to keep some of this season’s players around for at least the short term. Blake Coleman
One potential target could be to find a goaltender. With Domingue being a pending UFA and Blackwood still being young, it really would not be a bad idea for the Devils to take a swing on a more established name. This also leads to a more important decision.
Tanking with a Purpose: Decide Whether Blackwood is The One
Is Mackenzie Blackwood a true starting goaltender for the New Jersey Devils? He is only 23 years old, he has not played a full professional season in the NHL, and he is a part of one of the most crucial decisions for Ray Shero. It does not seem fair to ask that of him, but life is not fair and as the last remaining goalie from 2017-18, the team needs to determine if he is someone they can lean on.
The Devils have been beset by bad goaltending for two seasons now. Not that a team with a sub-90% 5-on-5 save percentage or a sub 91% overall save percentage has no chance to compete. Peter DeBoer and San Jose have achieved it. John Quenneville and Florida are currently achieving it. But those are exceptions and not necessarily the rule. The Devils need to have better play from their goaltenders in order for them to compete in more games. That is easier said than done. But the Devils need to do it.
If nothing else, the 2019-20 season is not a lost one for Blackwood. It is imperative that he performs as well as possible. His entry level contract ends with this season and he has an opportunity to lock down a goaltending spot for the Devils. Should he perform above the league median in goaltenders, then he could command a spot for a while. Should he suffer - especially on medium-danger shots - then he could be on the outs sooner than we may think. Management should be paying close attention to how Blackwood performs more than the results. It will guide them as to whether they just need to replace Domingue with a solid backup or #1A goalie option - or if they need a true #1 option.
Should they go to the free agency market or even try to trade for one, they will have to take some kind of a risk. Teams with good goaltenders tend to not give up on them. And even goaltenders with excellent pasts can hit some rough spells after cashing in (see: Carey Price right now, Sergey Bobrovsky). It is an important position, yet a position where analysis has been found wanting given that position has so much randomness, perceived and otherwise. To that end, the pro scouts should be paying close attention to the goalies around the league - even the backup and #1A guys. They could be legitimate options come in July and the work done now to research them will pay off then.
Of all of the positions on the ice, goaltender is arguably the one with the biggest need. I echo CJ’s point about that. The stats back that up. And further inaction is not going to get it done. The first step is to decide whether Blackwood is the main one for New Jersey or not.
Tanking with a Purpose: Get a Head Start on Other 2020 Needs
Off the ice, the most crucial decision is behind the bench. The Devils will need a head coach for 2020-21. If Shero is certain it will not be Nasreddine, then the groundwork needs to be laid for identifying the next one as soon as possible. This means establishing how Shero would want the team to play, whether the coach in question will go along with that, and identifying other traits that related to game motivation and preparation. The interview process should also address what kind of assistants the potential head coach may prefer and whether that ties into how management wants the team to perform. The net should be wide enough to consider not just former head coaches but also lauded NHL assistants and even European-based coaches like Rickard Gronborg. The search should not wait until June or even April 7. It can start now. When Hynes was hired, the fans heard “Fast, attacking, and supportive.” One out of three was often filled. Shero has a chance to make it more accurate - should he want to go down that route.
Likewise, Shero and his people will need to also take care of the gaps in the projected 2020-21 roster. The Devils will need defensemen to potentially replace Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen. They will also need a right winger should Wayne Simmonds depart. The Devils will absolutely need a left winger assuming Hall does walk if he is not traded. As more players get traded, more holes will need to be filled. This will require the team to start looking at potentially available players this Summer and even by the trade deadline to fill in those holes. While no one may truly replace Hall immediately and if the market may not have a lot of great options at a position, someone has to play in those spots on the team. The remainder of this season can be about giving the B-Devils or young players a chance, certainly. But that has to go hand in hand with understanding other realistic options. This way Shero is fully prepared and, if needed, makes a trade for that player to help out in the future now. Again, they will not likely find the next Hall, but they could find a replacement or even an improvement over Wood, Simmonds, current-age Greene, and so forth. The larger point remains: Shero needs to get serious about addressing the real needs on the team now rather than later.
Tanking with a Purpose: Be Aware of the Top Prospects, but Don’t Bet Entirely on Lottery Balls
It has become a meme that Taylor Hall has this power to make his team win draft lotteries. The Devils’ goal should not necessarily be to have the best odds to win #1. Not only has last place not always won #1 in this short-lived and current era of the lottery, finishing 31st yields an 18.5% chance at winning first. Furthermore, the NHL Draft often has more than one great player that can contribute right away.
For 2020, the projected #1 man is Alexis Lafrenière. He is a left winger and he has scored bucketloads for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He has 59 points in a mere 29 games already this season and that includes missing a couple for a suspension. The projected #2 man is Quinton Byfield. He’s big, he’s a center, he plays in all situiations, and he was the unanimous top OHL prospect in OHL Prospect’s preliminary scout/media poll of OHL prospects. He is currently the only realistic competitor to Lafrenière for #1. After those two, there is some variation among the likes of Cole Perfetti, Tim Stützle, Marco Rossi, Lucas Raymond, Alexander Holtz, and Jamie Drysdale (a defenseman, the others are all forwards) that fill out most of the top ten. For more information and early looks at the 2020 draft, check out Steve Kournianos’ Top 125 at Sporting News and Sam Cosentino’s December rankings at Sportsnet. The point is that if the Devils do not win any of the lotteries for the top three picks, they are still likely going to get a great prospect for the future from #4 through #10. To that end, the Devils do not need to go out and make Detroit look like world-beaters to get a really, really good player in 2020’s draft. If they stay where they are in the standings, they absolutely will provided they do not go totally off the board like Detroit did in 2019. And even then, I think few should complain about Drysdale or maybe (this is a hard maybe) goalie Yaroslav Askarov.
By all means, feel free to throw up the hashtags of #Laughters4Lafrenière or #BeFailedforByfield or whatever. But by no means should you gnash your teeth should the Devils win some games down the stretch. Nor should you lament that the lottery balls send the Devils to fifth, sixth, or seventh overall. Even ahead of the World Junior Championships, it is becoming clear that anyone in the top ten or twelve in 2020 is going to be really happy with who they can select. To that end, the Devils do not have to try to be unwatchably bad to increase their odds for #1 by a couple of percentage points. They can afford to be at least be an entertainingly bad team and come out ahead. That way, the fans would not be turned off and turned away from The Rock and/or following the team online because the team feels they need a near-repeat of 2018-19’s horrid play to help their odds. If Nasreddine can keep the status quo going, they’ll be “fine” for the lottery. This can help the Devils focus for 2020-21 and beyond. And maybe set up some improvements ahead of next season.
The Unlikely But...
Is it possible that the Devils will rally around Nasreddine, the team will get hot, and find themselves in a position to still salvage 2020-21 and play for something by March or so? Yes. It is possible. Is it probable? No. Again, nothing in the team’s first 26 games suggests that this is a really good team that has been beset by bad luck, goalies, and whathaveyou. There have been too many miscues, turnovers, failures on the ice, and periods - especially third periods - where the team has botched their chances to get results and did not respond with the appropriate motivation and effort. That all stated, if the very unlikely does happen and the Devils battle back, then feel free to ignore all of this and enjoy the contention. As much as I would like to see it, I am not expecting it at all at this point.
I still hate the fact that I am writing a post like this in the first week of December. I hate that a cheap season from Hughes could be for nothing and Hischier’s cheap years also looks like it will end like this. Again, I have to call it as I see it and the Devils are staring down Tank #3. I have offered my thoughts about how they can do it with a purpose. It will require a lot of preparation and work by Shero over the next few months beyond just discussing and making deals. I want to know your take. Do you agree the Devils are looking at their third tank under Shero? What do you think the Devils should do for the remainder of this season to best prepare them for 2020-21? Will the seat get hotter for Shero if things do not look like they will improve for the future? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about all of this in the comments. Thank you for reading.