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After Fitzgerald’s 2021 Moves, the Clock is Ticking

While the 2020-21 season ended with the whimper of more selling, Tom Fitzgerald changed gears and went all out to ensure a competitive future. His job might now depend on this season’s success.

2021 NHL Draft - Round One
All eyes on Tom Fitzgerald
Photo by Andrew MacLean/NHLI via Getty Images

The end of a rebuild is a beautiful thing for a fanbase. After years of languishing and Draft-stockpiling, fans finally have the opportunity to see their team play well and attempt to compete for a playoff spot. For New Jersey Devils fans, they have not been a year-to-year competitor in roughly a decade. After the second Taylor Hall trade and the firing of Ray Shero, it appeared that the Devils were in for another bad run of years. In trading long-time veterans Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri, Tom Fitzgerald signaled once more toward another rebuild of sorts.

However, Fitzgerald did something in the 2021 offseason that Ray Shero never really did - he used his cap space to spend big in free agency. Inking Jonathan Bernier and Dougie Hamilton at the beginning of free agency and adding Tomas Tatar later on, Tom Fitzgerald vaulted the Devils much closer to contention. This was especially interesting to me following his decision to sell off remaining veterans near the end of the shortened season.

While Fitzgerald made the team much more interesting to watch, his decision to make a free agency splash will intensify the focus on his job performance. Because Fitzgerald will be under more scrutiny, I expect that ownership will be tougher in their evaluation of him. In that sense, Fitzgerald may have just lost a year of cushion regarding his job safety. First, the negative.

Why Fitzgerald Should Be Nervous

Every mistake that Fitzgerald makes harms the Devils’ Stanley Cup Window. While the trade of Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri received great value in return, what did Fitzgerald do with that gained value? He selected Chase Stillman, someone he probably could have gotten in the third or fourth round. As a result, he killed any surplus value created by his trade of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the Islanders. In Palmieri’s case, Fitzgerald smartly replaced him with Tomas Tatar. As for Travis Zajac, Tom Fitzgerald seems to be taking the wait-and-see-approach, gauging if one of Michael McLeod, Jesper Boqvist, or someone else can take his spot as the third line center. On Friday, Mike wrote an article on this exact issue, in which he said:

Given all of that, if I’m looking for something that could pose an obstacle for the Devils returning to the playoff conversation this year, a thin depth chart down the middle has to be near the top of the list.

Tom Fitzgerald has not been amazing, in my eyes, at managing the team’s assets. This has plagued him more in the Draft than anything else, but I imagine he had the opportunity to trade that pick for an established NHL player before he decided to select Chase Stillman three rounds too early. And while Luke Hughes, Dawson Mercer, and Alex Holtz may be one season of development away from playing a full NHL year, I think we would be lucky to see Chase Stillman play in the NHL before 2025 - and that’s not even getting to whether he does any good.

So the ticking starts.

But regardless of if Stillman works out, Fitzgerald dug himself a little bit deeper a hole to climb out of this offseason by trading away his forward depth before going on a spending spree. And with over $12 million in cap space despite that spree, it makes me scratch my head when I look at the breadth of his moves. Why select a project first rounder instead of trading for a player ready to contribute? While I would have been wary of giving Palmieri a four-year contract after his 2020-21 season, I would have liked to see Fitzgerald try to build on his current level of depth rather than play a misjudged long-game with Stillman.

Because not only did the Devils lose Palmieri and Zajac - they also lost Mikhail Maltsev and Nathan Bastian. They were, in a sense, necessary losses. Maltsev was necessary to acquire Ryan Graves, and Bastian was basically a league-mandated loss. But they are still losses to maneuver around, and I do not think it was prudent to not even make a single bottom six signing this offseason. From Evolving-Hockey, here was their RAPM last season:

Evolving Hockey

While these two are “replaceable,” it’s tough to successfully replace four NHL forwards with only one acquisition. One can only hope that Miles Wood and Michael McLeod mesh with another bruiser in the organization. When we look back at the end of this season, will we be questioning what Tom Fitzgerald was thinking with forward depth? Time will tell.

For this reason, I think the Devils may falter in their first season with Dougie Hamilton. This is not the end of the world for us as fans, but it may spell trouble for Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff. Injuries are bound to happen in hockey, and the depth chart is quite light if any of the Devils’ main producers go down this season. One of the things I thought made the Devils tougher to play against last season (at least before the outbreak) was the robust nature of their forward group. Losing that edge would be a tough blow for a young team.

Why Tom Fitzgerald Should Relish the Pressure

Tom Fitzgerald played 1,097 games in the National Hockey League. Nobody needs to tell him how to foster a competitive spirit, and nobody needs to get him to “want” to win. Fitzgerald was on the back burner in New Jersey for a few years as Ray Shero’s assistant GM, and he did not take very long to make an offseason splash - one I would argue was more valuable than Shero’s trade for Taylor Hall.

The stakes of his job are higher now than they ever have been with the Devils. While he was simply the guiding hand over a middling rebuild a year ago, he is now the driver behind a team that is quickly rising to competitiveness. And for what it is worth, the Devils have a great mix of young forwards in the organization who have not made the NHL. Between Foote, Mercer, and Holtz alone, Tom Fitzgerald may very well have his third line of the near future. The problem for him is keeping the team good enough so that he does not get fired before players like those three have a chance to develop and make the NHL.

And this is a warning to anyone reading this article - the Devils might be more fun to watch this year, but do remember how quickly this can all fall off the rails. And if a bad injury hits the Devils again, Tom Fitzgerald will have to be content watching his weakened organizational depth try to fill the empty spaces.

However, the core of this roster is extremely strong. I believe this to be true - and this offseason solidified that strength. But the time to compete is now, and every moment spent waiting for pieces to fall into place is time Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes could be learning how to compete in those late-season and playoff situations. The support on their lines are strong, but the support below them in the bottom six? Questionable at the moment.

I do not want to see Fitzgerald suffer the same fate as Ray Shero. This has been on my mind for a fair bit, and I worry that he is not “leaving no stone unturned,” as it were. But enough worrying - we get to watch this stuff in three weeks!

Your Thoughts

What do you think of Tom Fitzgerald’s roster construction at the moment? Do you think it will hold up over an 82-game season? Do you think Fitz will avoid Shero’s fate? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.