Tom Fitzgerald took over a sinking ship. The Devils were spiraling and the biggest asset had already been shipped. He entered a trade deadline with very few marketable assets, before an offseason with no obvious direction, with a roster filled with holes.
So Fitz got to work. The most obvious, but one of the toughest moves to make was to trade captain Andy Greene. He has been a stabilizing force on the back end for NJ his entire career and was the longest-tenured Devil (tied with Travis Zajac). Fitzgerald moved him for a 2021 2nd rounder. He wasn’t actively shopping Blake Coleman, but when Tampa Bay came knocking on his door with a 1st round prospect and another 1st round pick in exchange for the productive, versatile, cap-controlled winger; Fitzgerald obliged, acquiring a pick (would become Mukhamadullin) and top prospect Nolan Foote. And we were still a week away from the deadline!
Wayne Simmonds was having a bad season, and Buffalo (for some reason) decided to take a shot on them so Fitz got another conditional 5th which will be realized in 2021. And Fitz’s patience paid off as he was able to find a deal for the player he most needed to trade — he traded Sami Vatanen to the Hurricanes for Frederik Claesson, Janne Kuokkanen and a conditional pick that would become Nico Daws after all the conditions were met.
The season came and went. Greene was a key part of the Islanders postseason, Coleman earned himself a Cup, and Fitz was on to the draft. He acquired 3 top round talents and one of the best goalies in the draft. The first rounders were the real story and were a mixed bad containing a need-based selection in Alex Holtz who can be the scoring winger Hischier and Hughes need for years to come, a clear BPA (best player available) in Dawson Mercer, and an off-the-board shot with Mukhamadullin.
While these picks all were made with need in mind, most of these picks are either under contract elsewhere and not able to make the jump, or probably wouldn’t be NHL-ready. So Fitz still had some gaping holes to fill. He needed to decide whether to fill these wholes through trades, free agency, or not at all — we don’t expect to contend anyway right?
To fill the chasm left by Andy Greene, Fitz made the Sheroen move of weaponizing his cap space in order to acquire Ryan Murray from the Blue Jackets — who has real potential to be an improvement on Andy Greene if he can stay healthy — for only a 5th round pick. He took advantage of Toronto in the same way, acquiring Andreas Johnsson in exchange for a decent, but much cheaper player with a much lower ceiling in Joey Anderson. And, most importantly, he addressed the biggest problem with the Devils over the past 4 years in signing 2x Jennings and 2x Cup winner, Corey Crawford, for an expensive, but short deal.
The reason I wanted to review all of this is to put my complicated view of him into perspective. I think Fitzgerald probably has to be happy with how things have turned out. I think he’s probably accomplished almost everything he’d have wanted to by this point. And I like some of the same components of his managerial approach as I did about Shero. Both knew that free agency is a spike pit of careless contracts. Both knew how to weaponize cap space to turn it into assets. And both regularly made pretty good value trades at the moment of the transaction.
It’s hard to tell if their draft approaches are different because the 1st round is the only place you could really determine big philosophical differences and Shero’s 1st rounds were all either decided for him, or could be considered in any draft philosophy. But I, personally, had some problems with Fitzy’s first round.
I think that Holtz is a good player and a legitimate choice there, but the ceilings from Perfetti and Rossi were clearly higher and both were available. I think Fitzy believes he already has two playmaking centers and so wanted to grab a scoring winger to complement them. Dawson Mercer was a good pick that I think was generally liked by most including you all. And then the Shakir Mukhamadullin pick that threw everyone. This was a huge reach and, given the limited sample of data on him, has to be largely (if not, entirely) an eye test gut shot. There’s a time and place for such decisions, and it’s not the first round. I’m sure some looked at his 6-point 14-game KHL 2021 season and thought maybe the Devils snuck one in past everyone, but his 0 goals, 1 assist, and -6 rating since the draft seems to more support the general draft consensus which is that he’s a raw talent in need of years of development. In general, it seems to me that Fitz was using the draft — the best opportunity to acquire game-breaking talent — as a means of plugging holes.
Part of the reason this is bad is because the draft is all about asset management and drafting by any method other than BPA is an arcane philosophy in 2020. Another interesting question to ask, though, is “why are we plugging holes in Shero’s team”? Do we think Shero’s roster was a success? If not why are we trying to replicate it? So, for that, we need to look at what things have Fitzy’s fingerprints on it that are fundamentally different from Shero’s? To me, the biggest thing was a development that began late in Shero’s tenure when Fitzgerald was getting more responsibility, and has carried through during his early reign — the need for big defenders. The jumped too early at Nikita Okhutyuk in the draft, disproportionately valued Kevin Bahl in the Hall trade, and then did the same with Mukhamadullin in the 2021 draft.
So, to me, it seems Fitzgerald is a very similarly-minded GM to Ray Shero, but he values big defenders to smaller puck-movers, and he might be more inclined to draft for need. In a year dominated by young defenders like Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes, and Cale Makar (all under 6’0’’) this is an interesting niche to carve out. Now, Fitzgerald has stepped into one of the youngest teams in the NHL, a decent core down the middle, top 3 prospect pool, and a trove of draft picks, so he might very well make us into a playoff team in a couple years. But, if these are some of the trademarks of his managerial philosophy, I’m curious if his vision for the future of the Devils is going to be any better than Ray Shero’s.
What do you guys think about Fitzgerald’s work so far? Do you think he’s done a good job at winning individual transactions? Do you think his vision for the future of the Devils is stronger than it was under his predecessor? What are you looking for him to do in the next few years?
Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below.