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Should the Devils Keep Tom Fitzgerald as GM?

Today in AATJ’s end of season wrap up week, I take a look at the current GM situation. With Shero fired in January, the owners need to decide if Tom Fitzgerald will become the permanent GM, or if they should hire someone else to fill the job heading into next year. No matter what, they should decide sooner than later.

Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

On January 12th, in the middle of yet another failing season for the New Jersey Devils, the owners decided to fire GM Ray Shero. It was a warranted move, even if the timing was somewhat irregular. Ray was hired near the start of the 2015 offseason. In 5 seasons controlling the club, the Devils saw one playoff berth (barely), and otherwise, were never close. In the years under Shero that the Devils did not make the postseason, they never finished better than 7th in the Metropolitan Division. That is far from a successful resume. They did win the draft lottery twice, but that is really not what you want as a GM.

Now, we can all debate the timing of the firing. Shero had a chance to trade Taylor Hall and fire John Hynes mid-season before being fired himself. He also, of course, orchestrated the team’s draft in 2019. Now, Jack Hughes was the obvious pick, anyone would have made it, but the rest of the players could have been vastly different if another general manager was in place by that point. But alas, we will soon learn if Shero’s last draft class for NJ, outside of Hughes, makes any sort of impact.

Now, other than the players on the ice and the contracts negotiated, one of the more important residuals left by Shero is Tom Fitzgerald. Tom was named assistant GM under Ray a couple of months after Shero got the job in the summer of 2015. He has been with Shero, helping him to build this franchise for the previous five seasons. Now, the ultimate blame of failure for the team falls on Ray, he made the final decisions about player personnel, and he was the one who had the final say for the team in contract negotiations and in trades. However, through all of the failures, Fitzgerald was here, and he was working with Shero, so that obviously is something to keep in mind.

Nonetheless, when Shero was fired, Fitzgerald, a Shero hire and his right hand man for 5 years, became the acting or interim GM. Due to Covid-19 ending the season prematurely, he has not had much time to really make his mark known. However, he did oversee the team through the trade deadline this year, which was February 24th, so he did make some moves that we can look at and analyze. Considering that in this article, I am going to gauge whether he should be made permanent GM or not, let’s take a look at those moves (all trade data from Cap Friendly):

  1. February 16: Fitzgerald trades captain Andy Greene to the Isles for David Quenneville and a 2021 2nd rounder.

My take: I thought this was a great deal, and still do. I love Andy Greene, I love what he brought to this team in terms of a leadership presence and his grit on the ice. He was leaned on heavily in the PK, and far and away blocked more shots than anyone else on this team. That grit is something others should look up to and try to emulate. However, he is also 37 years old, and his play has been declining somewhat for a few years. To get that value for him was exceptional in my opinion.

  1. February 16: Fitzgerald trades Blake Coleman to Tampa for Nolan Foote and a first rounder in either 2020 or 2021.

My take: Another great deal in my opinion. To me, this is an instance of selling high. That is not to say that I think poorly of Coleman, far from it. He was a fan favorite for many reasons, and was one of my favorite players too. He is just someone easy to root for. But to get a first rounder and a quality prospect for him is something you absolutely have to do for a rebuilding team. 2 for 2 so far.

  1. February 24: Fitzgerald trades Wayne Simmonds to Buffalo for a conditional 5th rounder

My take: I forgot this trade actually happened, which is pretty embarrassing on my part. That obviously does not say much for it. However, you had to get something for Simmonds, who you’re almost certainly not signing again next year. And a 5th, which could have potentially been a 4th, is something. Simmonds only ended up playing in 7 regular season games for Buffalo, so I guess it remains a 5th, but hey, it isn’t nothing. Can’t say this is a great trade like the first two, but it was one that had to be made. If that was the market, then so be it.

  1. February 24: Fitzgerald trades Louis Domingue to Vancouver for Zane McIntyre

My take: Couldn’t care less.

  1. February 24: Fitzgerald trades Sami Vatanen to Carolina for Janne Kuokkanen, Fredrik Claesson, and a potential fourth rounder

My take: Hindsight clouds my judgement in this trade, but I think it was really poor that Tom did not get a pick out of this. Vatanen did not play for Carolina after the trade, and so the Devils get squat in terms of picks. It is simply Vatanen for the two players. Now, I happen to like Kuokkanen, I think he could reach the NHL level perhaps as a bottom 6 player, middle 6 if he happens to break out at some point (which I don’t see occuring, but I guess you never know). However, you now have a full perspective: for 2.5 seasons of Sami Vatanen, Adam Henrique was traded for Janne Kuokkanen. I can’t get that out of my mind to assess this trade with any more clarity or impartiality.

So there you have it. If you don’t look at his time as assistant GM, and only focus on his time as acting GM, those trades are what you have to go on. There is no draft class to judge him by, no offseason to take a look at. Those 5 trades are the body of work we have thanks to a shortened season. Now of course, I do think you have to take into account some of what happened under Shero and lay some of that blame on Fitzgerald, as he was the assistant GM and so had the ear of Shero that entire time. So he does start out at a little worse than neutral. But, given those trades now and the time he has spent as interim, let’s look at the potential directions the Devils go in and argue both sides of the coin.

The Devils Should Keep Fitzgerald

Overall, the trades that he made for this team leading up to and at the trade deadline have to be a positive. I might not be happy with the Vatanen deal, but the Greene and Coleman deals, and the general focus of these deals, are what this team needs. It is clear that Fitzgerald understands where this team stands at this point, and how to move forward. It is not like Lou Lamoriello circa 2013 and 2014 where he was signing older players trying to just retool, when it was pretty clear that a rebuild was in order. Fitzgerald understands that reality, and knows that the Devils organization needs to get younger, needs more picks, and needs to develop talent around the core players that are here. That can be seen with the trades that were made.

Furthermore, these trades also show that he is willing to do what needs to be done, regardless of the players involved. Andy Greene was the team captain, but he was also the first traded. There was no hesitance to move on from him. Coleman was a huge fan favorite and arguably was the best player on the team at the point of his trade. But once again, Tom was able to pull the trigger on that deal, and it was the right move. Having a GM that is able to think rationally like that, and to make deals regardless of player popularity both in the locker room and in the stands is important. That is not to say that he should ignore that popularity, because it does mean something. But he should also not be afraid to shop those players and get good value for them if that is what the team needs, and Fitz was able to make those difficult moves right off the bat.

Finally, this might be a weak argument, but Fitzgerald has an intimacy with this team and its direction that a newcomer just cannot get overnight. Having been here for years, he understands this organization, the players, the fanbase, the situation it finds itself in, and he can use that knowledge to his advantage. Bringing in someone new, they will have to learn all of that. They might want to make a name for themselves with a big splash early in their tenure, and it might be bad for the team. They might want to get the team back to relevancy too quickly, and they might make rash moves to do that that ultimately hurts the team and makes the rebuild even longer. If Fitzgerald should have learned anything over these last five years, it’s that he has to do this right, not fast. They might be the same, but they might not be either, and if that is the case, right always beats fast. And given the trade of Coleman specifically, but also Vatanen to a degree, Tom is clearly trying to do things right, not fast. That is laudable.

The Devils Should Look Elsewhere

The main argument against, in my opinion, is that Fitzgerald has been here since 2015. He has been the assistant GM for almost the entirety of what has been the worst period in franchise history since before 1987. I was born in 1987, I am 33 years old. Literally for my entire life, this 7 year stretch of Devils hockey has been the worst. And Fitzgerald has been here for 5 of those seasons, four of which were atrocious. How can you keep someone that had a hand in that?

I get that he was the assistant GM, he was not calling the shots himself. But he had to have some say in personnel decisions, he had to provide some advice to Shero that Ray acted upon. You cannot place 100% of the blame on Shero and none on Fitzgerald. I am not sure what the percentage of blame should be from a front office perspective. 90% Shero, 10% Fitzgerald? Even if it is only 10% blame on him, that is 10% blame for some awful hockey. And of course, you have to put it in context that this is coming off of 25 years or so of high quality hockey. The Devils were the pinnacle of what any franchise should look for: consistency. Then it all went into the trash, and now the Devils are regular basement dwellers in the Metro. If there is any argument at all for starting fresh with someone new, this has to top the list.

Finally, starting fresh with someone new brings in new perspectives and ideas, something that has to be needed at this point. Just look at Lou Lamoriello. It was obvious he needed to step down when he did, it was time to start over and move on, as much, if not more, for him than the franchise. And so he got a new start, a new perspective over on Long Island. And look what he has done over there. That team has been developing really well, and if the rest of the season played out, they could easily have made the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time in how long? Lou needed a fresh viewpoint with a new franchise, and the Isles needed someone with a new perspective and new ideas. That is something the Devils could probably use right now.

My Opinion

To me, the final decision also rides on one more question: if not Fitzgerald, who else could the team bring in? That is not an easy question to answer. As of now, the one name that has been thrown out there is Mike Gillis. The Hockey Writers wrote about the potential of him coming to Newark back at the very end of March. According to the New York Post, as seen in that THW article, Gillis was interviewed twice by the team before the lockdown began. So, who is he?

Gillis was the Vancouver GM from 2008 through 2014. He had a lot of successes in that time frame, the biggest of course being the team’s run to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011. A lot of that success can be pinned on Gillis, who made some shrewd moves to provide quality talent around the Sedin twins and the strong goaltending duo of Bobby Lu and Cory Schneider. He might have inherited the Sedins and the goaltenders, but they alone could not have gotten the Canucks to yearly playoff berths and a Cup Finals run without complementary talent, and that is where Gillis shined. He was eventually let go in 2014 after botching the issues that arose between Luongo and Schneider, and many believe he was a poor drafter, which led the team to decline somewhat after 2011, although they did make the playoffs and win their division in 2012 and 2013.

The main argument to bring in Gillis, one that I am all for, is that he is an analytics guy. Harris and Blitzer obviously are as well given how they’ve run the 76ers, and they want someone who is going to put a lot of focus on the numbers and analytics, and use that to drive personnel decisions. I like that, and I support that. However, the main argument against, in my opinion, is that he is a poor drafter. This is a major mark against him. Other than Bo Horvat, whom Gillis drafted with the 9th overall pick the Devils traded to him for Schneider, his record of drafting for Vancouver is below average, and that perhaps is the best way to describe it.

Other than Gillis, no other names gained any traction before the lockdown, and there has not really been any news since. I could throw out names, but it would be pure speculation at this point. So for the purposes of this article, it really comes down to keeping Fitzgerald or going with Gillis. In my opinion, between the two, I am hiring Gillis and letting Fitzgerald walk. I like and appreciate what Fitzgerald did at the trade deadline, and he clearly gets the direction that this team needs to head in in order to create a lasting competitive franchise once again. But I cannot just ignore how bad New Jersey was over the past 5 seasons when he was the assistant GM, and he has to take some blame for that. That does not mean that he cannot be a successful GM with Shero out of the way. Perhaps he disagreed with many of Ray’s decisions, and maybe he would have been more successful had he been GM instead of assistant. But that was not the case, and I cannot judge based on possibilities and what ifs. At this point, I am looking at what Gillis did in Vancouver, and I’ll take that. He had 6 years to learn, and much of that time came with a lot of success. And I love that he is an analytics guy, that is something I respect and I want to see from the Devils’ front office. He has been involved with the game since leaving the GM role in 2014, learning how analytics drive the game, and how to use that when running a team. I would be excited to see what he could bring to this team. And as I mentioned in the argument against Fitzgerald above, this team desperately needs a new perspective, and he brings that. That should not be understated.

But in the end, if the Devils do go the other way and retain Fitzgerald as full time GM, I cannot say I would totally hate the decision. I do like what he has done since becoming interim, and if the owners believe it has earned him a longer tenure, then I cannot rail against that too badly. Just because it is not the decision I would make, it does not mean it is a terrible decision. It might end up that way, but looking ahead at this point, I could see it working out. So I guess what I am trying to say is that while I would prefer if the Devils move on from Fitzgerald and any ties to the 2015-2020 Devils and hire Mike Gillis instead, I do not think it is a clearly obvious answer, and either direction can be successful. I mean hey, since the end of the 2008 season, Edmonton has hired 4 different GMs, and look at how that has gone for them. They might have been better served with more continuity.

(Note: I did not mention anything about Martin Brodeur becoming the next GM. From what I know, there is no real traction there, so I did not spend time on it. Of course, I think we would all be excited by the prospect, kind of like John Elway with the Denver Broncos, but there is just so much unknown with that, and it is so unlikely at this point that I thought it better not to focus on it this year. I hope he gains an expanded role in the front office moving forward, and that could be a springboard to a GM job one day. Perhaps if the Devils are still rebuilding a few years from now, it could be a good idea. I certainly would not be against it.)

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts on the Devils’ GM situation? Do you think they should look to retain Tom Fitzgerald full time, and remove the interim tag? Or, do you also think that they should look to move on more permanently from the Shero era? Would you like the Mike Gillis hire if it were to occur? Why or why not? And unlike me, do you have names you want to throw out there who you think NJ should hire as its next GM? If so, who, and why? Please leave your comments below, and thank you for reading.