Analysis of Ray Shero's "Picks for Players" Trades

In 2018 I transitioned from sports writing to fiction writing, but I miss writing articles about hockey. I suppose that’s why I’ve written this article, though I wanted to know the answer to the following question for a while: did Ray Shero’s Patented Picks for Players trades help or harm the Devils?

Well, you’re going to have to read to find out. (And once you’ve finished reading, presumably you will draw a different conclusion and tell me how stupid I am. I expect this. I welcome this.)

The trades below fall into two subsections of the same category. Every trade involved draft picks exchanged for immediate NHL help in the form of a roster player. Occasionally, one of the Devils drafted prospects were included in the transaction, though this proved rare. I divided the trades into two subsections largely to identify the context around them. The first trades outlined are general "improve the roster with extra picks" moves.

The second group consists of the Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon trades. The Devils were making a playoff push at this time and parted with picks to make the team better in the short term.

I look at the picks Shero parted with, the players selected by those picks, and some of the other options available within 30 spots of that pick.

I don’t cite what Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, Mirco Mueller, and company add or don’t add to the team beyond cursory evaluations. In-depth articles have already been written.

Then I talk about my conclusions at the end, which consists of my opinion only and may be gleefully skipped by those who don’t care.

All right, let’s get started.

Long-term Make the Roster Better Trades:

To New Jersey: Kyle Palmieri

To Anaheim: 2015 2nd round pick (Ryan Gropp) and 2016 3rd round pick (Rem Pitlick)

The Devils’ 2nd round pick to Anaheim had a wild ride, getting traded several times and eventually ending up with the New York Rangers. They selected Ryan Gropp. The Devils acquired this pick as part of the Jaromir Jagr trade to Florida.

Notable players selected within 30 spots below the 41st overall pick it became include Mackenzie Blackwood at 42, Erik Cernak at 43, Rasmus Andersson at 53, Oliver Kylington at 60, and Jeremy Bracco at 61. Cernak is a top-four defenseman—but probably becomes our best defender if added to our organization. Bracco is a powerplay specialist yet to make his way to the NHL due to Toronto’s depth at wing.

The Devils’ 3rd round pick in 2016 was also traded more than once, eventually ending up with Nashville. They selected Rem Pitlick 76th overall. This was the other pick New Jersey acquired in the Jaromir Jagr trade. Standouts selected within 30 spots below the 76th pick include Victor Mete at 100 . . . and that’s pretty much it.

Overall, Kyle Palmieri has been New Jersey’s best goal scorer since the trade was made. Having Cernak and Mete would improve the defense moderately at a high cost to the offense. This one’s a win.

To New Jersey: Beau Bennett

To Pittsburgh: 2016 3rd round pick (Connor Hall)

This pick was used by the Penguins to select Connor Hall. The Devils previously acquired this pick by trading Marek Zidlicky. The only standout selected within 30 spots below is Victor Mete, whose own merit is debatable.

Beau Bennett was Beau Bennett. Analytically above-average but below-average in things like scoring, his time here was riddled with injuries and inconsistent play. New Jersey didn’t exactly miss out on any blue-chip prospects, however.

To New Jersey: Mirco Mueller, 2017 5th round pick (Marian Studenic)

To San Jose: 2017 2nd round pick (Mario Ferraro), 2017 4th round pick (Brandon Crawley)

The trend continues: the 2nd round pick sent to the Sharks for Mueller changed hands several times, as New Jersey originally acquired it and a 2016 4th round pick from Boston in exchange for Lee Stempniak. The pick became the 49th overall selection and was used by the Sharks on Mario Ferraro. There are actually a number of intriguing prospects taken within 30 spots below of this pick, including Max Comtois at 50, Jérémy Lauzon at 52, and goaltenders Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (54) and Michael DiPietro (64). As all these players are still prospects, it’s difficult to say whether or not any will become impact players in the NHL. The Devils did already have Blackwood in the system at this time, but DiPietro or Luukkonen would immediately be our best goaltending prospects if they were in our system.

Once again, the 2017 4th rounder in this deal was traded a bunch, and (once again) ended up with the Rangers. They used the selection, 123rd overall, on someone I’ve never heard of before (Brandon Crawley). And—yes, I know, once again—this pick was originally acquired by the Devils for trading Vernon Fiddler. You remember Vernon Fiddler, right? Right?

Standouts selected within 30 spots below the 123rd pick include Sebastian Aho (no, the other one) at 139 and Jakub Galvas (150). These players are not NHL regulars, but at just 20, there’s time to prove otherwise. Aho, an Islanders defenseman, has played 22 NHL games but has excelled with AHL Bridgeport.

The Devils used the Sharks’ 5th round pick to select Marian Studenic at 143 overall.

This one looks bad in hindsight. It is just hindsight, of course, as it made sense at the time and was seen in light of the successful Palmieri trade. Unfortunately, a number of good prospects were up for grabs around this spot that would be near the top of the Devils’ pool if they had been selected in 2017.

A loss. But everybody knows that by now.

To New Jersey: Marcus Johansson

To Washington: 2018 2nd round pick (Martin Fehérváry), 2018 3rd round pick (Linus Karlsson)

The 2nd rounder New Jersey traded to Washington ended up as the 46th overall pick, which the Capitals used to select Martin Fehérváry, a Slovakian defenseman currently playing with the Hershey Bears. Apparently, this pick was originally Florida’s and acquired by the Devils for taking on the contract of Marc Savard.

Notable selections within 30 spots below of 46 overall include Akil Thomas at 51, Benoit-Olivier Groulx at 54, and Filip Hållander at 58.

The 3rd rounder got traded. A lot. Eventually, San Jose used the 87th pick to select Linus Karlsson. Right. I won’t pretend to know anything about him, but his stats look all right, I suppose. Within 30 spots below the 87th selection include an underrated if marginal prospect in Aidan Dudas (113). At 118, so one spot outside my arbitrary cutoff, is defenseman Mac Hollowell, whom Leafs fans seem to think fairly highly of.

Marcus Johansson had a rough ride in Jersey, and it’s not his fault. From receiving a Superman elbow from the NHL’s favorite pest to a number of other concussions, Johansson never took off here—or anywhere since, honestly. I can’t fault Shero for trying this one. Again, in light of the Palmieri trade, this looked good and it occasionally worked for the Devils.

Until it didn’t. Akil Thomas would be nice to have.

To New Jersey: P.K. Subban

To Nashville: Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies, 2019 2nd round pick (Bobby Brink), 2020 2nd round pick

That 2nd rounder was flipped by Nashville—presumably when Arthur Kaliyev was taken one spot earlier—to Philadelphia. The Flyers used the 34th selection on Bobby Brink, who is tearing up the NCAA as a freshman with 24 points in 28 games.

The 2020 selection, obviously yet to be used, will be somewhere between 32 and 38 overall. Davies is a fine prospect. Santini isn’t missed all that much, if at all.

Subban is, unfortunately, having a rough season in most metrics. This one hurts perhaps the worst because of the recency, the volume of picks and prospects on the move, and how abysmally it’s worked out for P.K. in New Jersey. I’m a fan of P.K. the Person. P.K. the Player is leaving a lot to be desired.

To New Jersey: Nikita Gusev

To Vegas: 2020 3rd and 2021 2nd

New Jersey fans know what Nikita Gusev adds. He’s great. We’ll see who is selected with the future picks, especially if the Devils aren’t a better team by 2021. Missing out on another high 2nd rounder will hurt in the long term.


Deadline Trades

To New Jersey: Patrick Maroon

To Edmonton: J.D. Dudek, 2019 3rd round pick (Alexander Campbell)

The 3rd rounder became the 65th overall pick, ended up in Nashville’s coffers, and was used to select winger Alexander Campbell. Somebody the Devils could’ve had with this pick is under-the-radar Anttoni Honka, selected by the Hurricanes at 83 overall.

Dudek is currently playing in the ECHL for Edmonton’s organization.

Meanwhile, Maroon scored 13 points in 17 regular season games en route to the Devils’ first playoff appearance since 2012. He wasn’t so great in the playoffs, but the Devils weren’t so great in the playoffs.

To New Jersey: Michael Grabner

To New York: Yegor Rykov, 2018 2nd round pick (Jonathan Tychonick)

The 2nd round pick became the 48th overall selection, was dealt from New York to Ottawa, and was used on Jonathan Tychonick. Tychonick is a defenseman playing for the University of North Dakota; he has 11 points in 22 games in his sophomore season. As previously stated, Thomas, Groulx, and Hållander are interesting players that were taken close to the 48th overall pick.

Rykov is an older, fine, and unspectacular AHL prospective defenseman the Devils are not missing in their pool.

Acquiring Grabner made sense. He’s the embodiment of the "fast, attacking, supportive" hockey Ray Shero and John Hynes desired. But Grabner was bad with the Devils. He hasn’t been great with Arizona, either. This trade makes sense because of the playoff push, but it was expensive at the time and looking back. Grabner scored 5 points in the regular season and playoffs with New Jersey.

The Analysis Part

Let’s say the Devils—very improbably, perhaps impossibly—hit on every one of those picks. They would have a top-four defenseman in Erik Cernak (at the cost of Kyle Palmieri, mind you), a bottom-pairing defenseman in Victor Mete, a top goaltending prospect with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen or Michael DiPietro, defenseman Sebastian Aho instead of Marian Studenic, junior standout Akil Thomas, Benoit-Oliver Groulx, Aidan Dudas, standout NCAA freshman Bobby Brink, and Anttoni Honka. That’s not counting whoever could be drafted with the future picks (two 3rds and a 2nd) dealt in the Subban and Gusev trades.

It’s not fair. It’s an impossible standard to set. But hush—this is my article.

What’s important to note is most of these guys don’t help the team right now. Erik Cernak becomes our best defenseman and the solid two-way force we’re missing, and Victor Mete is a slight upgrade on Mirco Mueller or whoever is playing left defense for the Devils these days. To have one of those players, however, the Devils would have had to not trade for Kyle Palmieri. So that’s probably a wash.

Here’s the biggest part: the Devils' rebuild 2.0 doesn’t look so dire with a cupboard full of players selected with those picks, whether or not any of them were used to take the better prospects within striking distance. Taylor Hall still gets traded. Surely gets traded, as without Palmieri and Johansson the team would’ve looked even worse. Without Palmieri, Johansson, Maroon, and Grabner the Devils do not make the playoffs in 2018.

So subtract the Devils' five playoff games (an experience I loved, don’t get me wrong) for—what, exactly? A (potentially) much better prospect pool. Only to still be two years away from being a playoff team, and fewer memories to show for our time.

Aside from the Mueller and Subban trades, which look much worse in retrospect, you can’t say Ray Shero bombed most of those trades. They brought in one of the league’s most underrated goal scorers in Kyle Palmieri, a couple of years of Marcus Johansson (whose injuries limited his potential success in Jersey), and the team’s first playoff appearance since losing the Stanley Cup in 2012.

Shero didn’t exactly nail those trades either. What we remember as the classic Ray Picks for Prospects swap boils down to a big success in Kyle Palmieri and a moderate one with Nikita Gusev. When they didn’t work out—well hey, that happens, he got Kyle Palmieri, right? But they often didn’t work out. Not always due to a mistake Shero made—Johansson often got injured and Mueller just didn’t deliver on his potential—but one of the kinds of trades that defined Shero’s tenure here rides high on Palmieri appreciation and not much more.

Something I noticed during my research is that most of the picks Shero used in those early trades weren’t the Devils' own picks. They were acquired in deals for aging veterans like Marek Zidlicky or Jaromir Jagr. He didn’t begin delving into the team’s own cupboards until the playoff push in 2018 and the 2019 draft. In hindsight, the 2019 deals were disastrous. (Not that I would’ve believed it at the time.)

The Devils under Shero’s management brought relatively good value from the use of those picks. But all this brings me to the crux of the matter: Shero tried to cheat the rebuild by adding older, more established players to supplement the young talent the Devils were drafting. But this ended up being a problem: the Devils missed on a couple of their high picks, taking Pavel Zacha and Michael McLeod early in the rebuild. This meant the reinforcements that were supposed to supplement additions like Palmieri and Johansson . . . well, they never showed up. Not enough, not in time.

Teams should generally operate on the timeline of their best player. The Penguins will always go for it so long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain with the team. That’s their timeline. Contending. And aging.

The Devils were split between two timelines: trying to get into a contending position behind Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri and building the young base around Nico Hischier. Consequently, by trying to split the difference, Shero’s team didn’t do either.

New Jersey would have been bad even if they had stood pat and used those picks on the best possible players available (with history as my unfair guide). The Devils likely would have lost Taylor Hall regardless, because without Shero’s additions there are no playoffs in 2018. And if they had used those picks, I’m not sure I could say with confidence that Shero and Paul Castron would’ve used them to their fullest potential. But they might’ve.

Where would that have put the 2020 New Jersey Devils? They’d be a bad team one or two years away from consistently good instead of three or four.

Wait, really?

So what was this all for? Why did I take my entire Thursday night to research and write this article? What did we learn?

Well, I think I learned that Ray Shero did the best with what he had, had some high highs (I didn’t even talk about the Taylor Hall trade in this article), had disastrous lows (I love P.K. Subban, but boy does that trade sting now), and was ultimately the wrong general manager for the Devils in 2014.

Shero was always this kind of GM. He wasn’t a builder so much as a finisher. By the time he took office in Pittsburgh, Crosby, Fleury, and Malkin—the pillars of their organization for a decade—were already in place. The core of the team was there. What Shero did so admirably was put the finishing touches on a roster close to contending. He succeeded, putting together a team that went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances and winning in 2009.

But the Devils didn’t have their future core in place. Their core had just deserted them. And while the Hischier and Hughes selections should be a credit to Shero in addition to his trades and other draft work, he failed to define the team’s core and culture. Shero’s tenure often sacrificed long term gain in favor of marginal short term success—or attempts (and failures) at success.

I guess this sort of turned into a post-mortem of his tenure as general manager of the New Jersey Devils. I didn’t write about other aspects of Shero’s job: the staffing, the drafting, the hockey trades, the eventual sells. He had successes and mistakes there too. I think that’s what defines the work he did here. Ray Shero wasn’t bad at his job. He just made one too many big mistakes in too many different areas.

And that’s all I have to write.

Let me know if I made any mistakes and please make your own additions in the comments! How do you feel about Shero’s tenure and his Patented Trade Technique? Would you have rather Shero use those extra picks (and have the team suck extra hard) or go about trading as he did?

by Caleb MacLochlainn


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