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Devils Rebuild Retrospective

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The Devils are entering their prime contention years. The overlap of the players acquired at the beginning

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Rewind to May 4th, 2015 ... the day that Ray Shero was named GM of the Devils. We can quibble over exactly when the directive from the top came down, but, to me, replacing the person in charge is a pretty clear starting point for a rebuild. Tomorrow, Gerard will talk about the more pressing concern — where we go from here — but today, I’m wanted to look how we got here. This will entail a retrospective on each of the 4 years of Shero’s reign, starting with 2015-16. There will be some overlap here with John’s excellent review of all Devils drafts from 2009-2018 , but I will also not limit this strictly to the draft.

2015-16 Retrospective

After arriving, Shero made a few small moves like extending Jordin Tootoo and recruiting Sergey Kalinen, a debatably larger one in selecting John Hynes as the head coach, but his first big splash as GM came at the entry draft where he gave up a 2nd and a 3rd pick (would become Ryan Gropp and Rem Pitlick) to the Ducks in exchange for the underused 24-year-old scoring winger, Kyle Palmieri. Since that trade, Palmieri has scored team-leading 107 goals in red and black, 37 ahead of second place, Taylor Hall. He’s scored 24 or more goals every year he’s been here. The Devils have 6 player-seasons of 24 or more goals in that time — Palmieri is 4 of them. Gropp and Pitlick have played a combined 1 NHL game.

After that the Devils would add a few interesting pieces in a year with depleted picks. All 5 of the picks (Pavel Zacha, Mackenzie Blackwood, Blake Speers, Colton White, Brett Seney) have played NHL games and so it’s difficult to describe this class as a failure. As I discussed in the piece about the big RFAs, Pavel Zacha has actually been a fairly average 6th overall pick, but considering the next 4 picks were Provorov, Wereski, Meier, and Rantanen (with Debrusk, Connor, Barzal, and Chabot all not long after) this feels like a clear missed opportunity. However, Mackenzie Blackwood was excellent this season — finishing 14th out of 67 qualified goaltenders in GA%- — and if he turns out to be the long-term answer in net, I think that gets close to making up for the lost expected value of Zacha.

Shero then did a lot of talent-sifting — Bryce Salvador, Mark Fraser, Martin Havlat, Scott Gomez, Steve Bernier, and Dainius Zubrus all departed through various means, and Adam Larsson was given a 6-year deal. There were also a few short-term flips — Stempniak begat a pick that was used in a trade to acquire Mirco Mueller and Marian Studenic, and Gelinas was signed and then traded mid-season for a pick what would become Fabian Zetterlund.

The lone mistake, to me, was the John Moore 3-year signing. Even that one wasn’t inherently a bad deal — $1.67M AAV is difficult to complain about — but he was severely overused during his tenure. This year, Moore was a 3rd pairing guy during the regular season and has been a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs, while his former partner Severson ascended to 1st pairing status and had the best year of his career.

All-in-all, my opinion of this season with regards to the rebuild has improved with time. Shero inherited a completely barren bad contracts, depleted draft picks, and a barren prospect pool. He ultimately improved all 3 areas.

2016-17 Retrospective

This draft was strange as it saw the Devils acquire much more value in the later picks (Joey Anderson #73, Yegor Rykov #132, Jesper Bratt #162, Jeremy Davies #192) than in the early rounds (Michael McLeod #12, Nathan Bastian #41, Brandon Gignac #41). Overall, this was probably, again, an above average draft. McLeod feels like a disappointment because he’s the first 1st-rounder that was 100% Shero, but, at #12 overall, he was far from a sure thing. Had we gone Charlie McAvoy (#14) then we certainly would be in a much better position, but he’s possibly the only 1st rounder picked after that would have really moved the needle.

Talking about the draft, here, is obviously burying the lede transaction of the 2016-17 offseason: the one-for-one trade of Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall. This has become infamous due to a combination of factors including Pete Chiarelli’s overwhelming incompetence, Edmonton’s struggles to generate any offense outside McDavid and Drasaitl since the trade, and Taylor Hall’s Hart-winning 2017-18 campaign. It didn’t seem like a great trade at the time, but it’s certainly looked even worse since. In the year of the trade, Hall was 74th out of 230 forwards (1000+ minutes) in GAR (68th percentile) and Larsson was 44th out of 156 defenders (1000+ minutes) in GAR (72nd percentile). This is thumbing the scale a little with positions and recency bias — Hall had a career GAR/82 of 10.2, almost twice that of Larsson’s at 5.8. Regardless, Shero capitalized on a prime example of buying low and selling high, acquiring the best forward in Devils history for a slightly above average 2nd pairing defender.

Shero also cemented the success of his previous victory by signing Kyle Palmieri to a fairly team-friendly 5-year deal that locked him in for his entire prime. He also signed Ben Lovejoy who, after being clearly overmatched in his first season on the first pairing, went on to be a highly efficient third-pairing defender and historically prolific penalty killer.

Shero also showed off his willingness to go at waived players — a feature of management he’s continued to demonstrate since — by grabbing P.A. Parenteau and Stefan Noesen. Parenteau would be flipped for a 6th rounder (which was poor value IMO) that would be traded down for 2 picks: Matthew Hellickson and Yegor Zaitsev. I don’t think either of them have an NHL future, but converting literally nothing into two picks is good GMing — especially for a team that’s been as strong at drafting late as we have lately.

With regards to the impact on the rebuild, I could have pretty much eliminated every word of this section except for “one-for-one trade of Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall” and the conclusion would have to be that this was unambiguously a key season to the rebuild. This would be proven irrefutably in the next season.

2017-18 Retrospective

This season was all about the draft. Not only did the Devils correctly choose Nico Hischier over Nolan Patrick with the #1 overall pick, but a lot of their old deals finally came to fruition.

If you dial back the clock sufficiently, this draft saw Peter DeBoer (compensation), Eric Gelinas, Lee Stempniak, Vern Fiddler, and PA Parenteau become Mirco Mueller, Marian Studenic, Evan Cormier, Matthew Hellickson, Yegor Zaitsev, Fabian Zetterlund, Reilly Walsh. It’s not clear if there are any true game-changers in there, but you’d have to think that between Mueller, Studenic, Zetterlund, and Walsh there is something in the next few years worth more than what we gave up — the players we relinquished played 2 games combined this year, both by Stempniak.

But circling back to Nico Hischier, he was an immediate sensation — I wrote as such here — and improved this year — which Mike wrote about here. According to Evolving-Hockey, Hischier has been worth 28 goals above replacement, a figure that ranks 28th among ALL NHL SKATERS in that time. Reminder: he’s still not old enough to drink. It’s hard to really explain how good this is but I’ll do my best. He’s nestled right between Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron on this, his even-strength impact is just past Hall and Crosby, and his GAR/60 is 17th overall (1500+ minutes) just between Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov. For reference, Nolan Patrick has been worth 5.2 goals, which is 358th in the NHL. This correct decision can hardly be overstated.

Post-draft, after buying out Mike Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelley, the Devils again went out and used their mid-round picks to get a commodity for the here-and-now: Washington forward, Marcus Johansson. While he underperformed pretty embarrassingly for the Devils, he had a hot couple weeks headed into the deadline and fetched ___________. But Shero wasn’t done this offseason.

Damon Severson got a 6-year $25M extension which, althogh looking pretty bad early, seems to have somewhat evened out after a rebound season. People here really liked it when it happened, it looked like it could become an albatross in 2017-2018, and now it seems to be more or less appropriate. But in 2017-2018, the Devils really needed the defensive help. So Shero went back to the Anaheim well where, paradoxically, they were now overflowing with defenders and starved for forwards. The Devils gave up fan-favorite Adam Henrique for defender, Sami Vatanen. This was lauded as a pretty fair hockey trade at the time, and the needle hasn’t moved much since. Their GARs have been 2.7 (Henrique) and 1.3 (Vatanen) so it looks like the Ducks might have won out a bit, but Henrique’s contract now makes him overpaid so if we can avoid doing the same to Vatanen, I’d say we actually make out well there — even if it was acccidental.

That brings us to what was, in my opinion, the first significant error in the rebuild — the decision by Shero & Co. to “go for it” at the trade deadline. The Devils gave up a defensive prospect in Yegor Rykov, plus a 2nd rounder and a 3rd rounder to get two players that would be gone come July 1st. Maroon helped, Grabner didn’t. Was the marginally increased probability of getting mopped up by Tampa in 5 as opposed to missing the playoffs worth giving up those assets?

If there’s some “Taylor Hall will be more likely to stay if we made the postseason once” logic behind that move, then maybe it makes sense. Any other explanation — including “the fanbase deserves it” — is insufficient in my opinion. As such, this was, to me, the worst year of the rebuild. Other than the draft, this season saw dedicating 6 years to a defender with a career GAR of -7.2 (2nd worst in Devils analytics history behind John Moore), losing a little value in trading Henrique for Vatanen, swinging and missing on Marcus Johansson, and giving up 2 picks and a prospect for half-year rentals. If you consider the rebuild to be “behind schedule” ... 2017-18 was why.

2018-19 Retrospective

The Devils re-signed Blake Coleman to a 3-year deal on what would turn out to be a bargain, Miles Wood to a 4-year deal that he’s still trying to earn, and Steve Santini to a 3-year deal, because ... *shrug emoji*. Those contracts were great, undetermined, and pointless respectively.

Then came a pretty quiet draft that included only 1 selection in the top 100 picks due to trades. That pick was Ty Smith, defender out of the WHL. This season according to prospect-stats, Smith was 2nd in 5v5 eP1/60 among all WHL defenders, 5th in total P1/60, and 2nd in total P/60. He was as consistent a producer as the WHL had to offer on the blueline. His negative 5v5 GF%Rel is perhaps a cause for concern seeing as he was on the 3rd highest-scoring team in the league, but early results are largely confirming that Smith is a the strong defensive prospect we thought he was.

The rest of this draft is a whole lot of nothing. As was the rest of this season. I’m going to list all of the positives right now: 1) Blake Coleman was a revelation, 2) Nico Hischier established his status as a premier NHL forward, 3) Mackenzie Blackwood had a very encouraging debut season, and maybe 4) we got Kenny Agostino for free who filled in competently in a top 6 role. Other than that, what happened on the ice was almost entirely either disappointing, or as expected.

What it did give us a chance to do was right the previous seasons wrong and turn a bunch of guys that we didn’t have the rights to next year anyway into 5(!) picks and Connor Carrick. I was on record as saying that the Devils would be good again last season and that 2018 wasn’t lucky. I stand by the arguments, but I didn’t really incorporate the fragility of our success — it hinged on Taylor Hall’s excellence (injured) and Kinkaid’s hot stretch (became terrible). The 2018 performance wasn’t overwhelming lucky, but it was not robust against small unlucky occurrences.

I think that the 2018-19 season has to be viewed as a largely positive thing for the rebuild. I know that might be controversial, but what happened here that really sets the rebuild clock back at all? Blackwood was good (I can’t overstate the importance of this). Hischier was good (or this). Bratt was good. Hall was fine before being injured. Butcher and Severson rose to their respective tasks. And we probably got just as many surprises (Coleman, Rooney, Agostino) as disappointments (Vatanen, Kinkaid, Wood). I think all of the most important features of the rebuild either rose their stock, or kept it the same in this season. Considering that, despite that, we were still bad enough to be rewarded the #1 overall pick, that has to be viewed as a rebuild “win.”

Headed into next year the Devils will have, not only a #1 overall pick, but also 6(!) other picks in the top 100 — picks 34, 55, 62, 70, 80, and 96. Either the prospect pool will get a massive shot in the arm, or, more likely given his history, Shero will flip some of them for an NHLer. With newly minted analytics department headed by respected public analysts Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane, Devils fans have to feel good about this asset overload.

Commentary

Overall, given what he inherited, I don’t think there’s a whole lot more that we could have expected from Shero so far. Even the “mistakes” he’s made I can justify. Maybe he went for it in 2017-18 because of morale. Maybe he extended Hynes because he thinks the team wasn’t ready yet and Hynes has overachieved the talent level of the team.

Shero has been the model of patience and frugality during this rebuild. He’s consistently added talent through waivers and PTOs, has been fine in drafting post-Zacha, and hasn’t gotten buried by any big UFA contracts — opting, instead, to add talent through trades for cost-controlled players. He inherited

Is this the end of the rebuild? What is the timeline for Cup contention? What events could impact the rebuild clock? These questions and more, tomorrow on All About the Jersey.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and, as always, thanks for reading!

References

Full history of all moves made since Shero’s hiring via ProSportsTransactions

Devils payroll at time of hiring via Spotrac

I also periodically used Hockey-Reference, CapFriendly, and Evolving-Hockey in this piece.