Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald will serve as the interim GM, and he will “receive support” from Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, who is serving as an adviser to hockey operations, according to the team.
Midseason GM firings are rare, but the Devils are having that kind of season. Here’s what led to the firing and what to expect from Fitzgerald, Brodeur & Co. in the short term and long term in New Jersey.
The team made the decision to fire Shero at the midway point of the season. Why now?
Kaplan: There wasn’t exactly an impetus. It appears ownership got fed up with the Devils being directionless. Ray Shero didn’t have a contingency plan after most of his summer moves didn’t work. He didn’t have a contingency plan for when goaltending didn’t hold up (for the second straight season), for when he traded Taylor Hall or for when he fired John Hynes.
The Devils were stuck in neutral after each of those moves, and it became clear this was a team that didn’t quite know what it was or where it was going. Shero wouldn’t admit that the Devils are entering a rebuild. However, the return from the Hall trade suggested that was the way the team was headed. I don’t think ownership was particularly impressed by Shero’s handling of the Hall contract talks, either; Hall is a player ownership really, really liked.
Was there anything particularly egregious that happened since the firing of John Hynes?
Wyshynski: Shero’s trade of Hall happened 13 days after Hynes was fired in December and months ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Obviously, moving Hall at a time when he was healthy and the Devils’ season had slipped away was paramount for Shero, and in that latter case, the timing seemed to indicate the team was fully in tank mode. Then a funny thing happened: Following a seven-game winless streak that bridged the end of Hynes with the beginning of interim coach Alain Nasreddine, the Devils went 8-4-2, including back-to-back wins over the Capitals and Lightning. Did this uptick cause a philosophical difference between Shero and ownership?
“We’re very committed to winning. We weren’t winning enough,” said team co-owner Josh Harris on Sunday.
What we know from Harris is that there wasn’t one incident that led to this decision. So we can only surmise that ownership felt Shero’s swing-and-miss last summer — and the team’s one playoff appearance in five seasons — eroded its confidence in him to lead the organization out of this abyss. And with the trade deadline and a critical draft looming over the next six months, why keep Shero around if he was a dead GM walking?
How was the return for Taylor Hall viewed around the league?
Kaplan: The return was viewed as fine. It wasn’t great. But it also wasn’t as bad as some cynical Devils fans might lead you to believe. The truth is, the market for rental players just isn’t what it used to be. At this year’s trade deadline, you’re going to see a lot of GMs look for players who still have term on their contract. When Hall’s camp told teams he wasn’t looking to negotiate a long-term extension at the outset, a few suitors dropped out.
Shero wanted to get the deal done as soon as possible because Hall is a player with injury history, and Shero couldn’t afford to lose him for nothing in free agency. Defensive prospect Kevin Bahl is the player Shero was most excited about in the deal. If Bahl turns into a player, all will be fine. If he doesn’t pan out, well, history won’t look upon this deal too kindly.
Tell me about interim GM Tom Fitzgerald.
Wyshynski: The 51-year-old Massachusetts native played 1,097 games in the NHL from 1988 to 2006, most notably with the Florida Panthers team that made the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. As he said on Sunday, Fitzgerald owes his managerial career to Shero, who hired him as the Pittsburgh Penguins director of player development in 2007. Fitzgerald was an assistant coach with the Penguins in 2009, when they captured the Stanley Cup. Shero promoted him to assistant general manager in 2009. Fitzgerald remained in that job when Jim Rutherford took over for Shero in 2014, but then left the Penguins to work for his mentor with the Devils.
Fitzgerald has been considered one of the rising stars among assistant GMs in the NHL, and he was a finalist for the Minnesota Wild‘s opening in 2018 that resulted in their ill-fated hiring of GM Paul Fenton, who was fired after one season. While Fitzgerald is an interim GM this season, it is clear he will be a candidate for the GM job. He ran the Devils’ AHL team under Shero, so Fitzgerald has a good sense of the organization’s depth. While promoting from within has its drawbacks — if it hasn’t worked in the past five years, why elevate someone who was partly responsible for it? — there are examples (such as Brian MacLellan of the Washington Capitals) of the deputy taking over for the sheriff and cleaning up the town. “We’re very comfortable with what Tom is going to do this season,” Harris said.
What is Martin Brodeur’s role now?
Wyshynski: The Hall of Fame goalie is a Devils legend, but he famously retired as a member of the St. Louis Blues — with whom he served as assistant general manager (and occasional goalie guru) for three seasons, before returning to the Devils in 2018 to become their executive vice president of business development. He jumped off the path to what many assumed to be a general manager’s job in the NHL because he felt that lifestyle was akin to that of a player, and Brodeur wanted a schedule that would allow him to spend more time with his five children. But with Shero out, the Devils asked Brodeur to use his training with the Blues, and become an advisor to the hockey operations department.
Could Brodeur eventually become yet another beloved franchise icon returning to run his former team, such as Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman? It ultimately is up to whether Brodeur wants to make that lifestyle choice.
They’re saying Fitzgerald is the interim GM. Who is in the mix for the job on a permanent basis?
Kaplan: Fitzgerald should get a really good look. He is a respected guy around the league — and has been considered for other league openings, as Greg notes. But more importantly, he will get some good face time with ownership during this extended audition. Another good candidate is Bill Armstrong, the assistant GM in St. Louis (no relation to Blues GM Doug Armstrong). And Columbus’ Bill Zito is usually mentioned anytime there is an opening.
Ownership might be looking for someone with GM experience. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if it calls Ron Hextall; it might even kick the tires on Paul Fenton. No, it didn’t work out for Fenton in his short stint in Minnesota, but we’ve seen examples of guys doing better in their second go-round. I could see a situation in which the Devils wait until the summer. There could be other firings at the end of the season, making some veteran GMs available.
With the trade deadline in 42 days, what should we expect out of Fitzgerald & Co. in the short term?
Kaplan: To be honest, I have no idea how much leeway ownership will give Fitzgerald or how bold he wants to be. There are three players on the roster he needs to worry about right now: pending unrestricted free agents Sami Vatanen, Wayne Simmonds and captain Andy Greene. There could be serious interest in any of those players at the trade deadline, and the team must figure out its plan for each of them. (Greene has a no-trade clause).
… and what about this summer?
Wyshynski: Harris made a point of mentioning the Devils’ cap space on Sunday. At the moment, they have $24.3 million of it open this offseason for 14 players under contract. With younger players such as defensemen Ty Smith and Bahl potentially offering cheap reinforcements on the blue line and NHL contributors such as Jack Hughes and Jesper Boqvist still on entry-level deals, they figure to have much of that cap space even after filling out the roster.
While it hasn’t ultimately been seen as a success, the spirit of Shero’s trade for P.K. Subban could be a guiding light for the Devils: Weaponizing that cap space to cherry-pick in-their-prime players with large cap hits from teams up against the ceiling or seeking a new direction. The Devils should get on a conference call with Sharks GM Doug Wilson, stat. Other than that, they have their own first-round pick and the Coyotes’ from the Hall trade (top three protected) in what looks like an absolutely loaded 2020 draft, with franchise player Alexis Lafreniere at the top. (Of course, the Devils are out here beating the Capitals and Lightning on consecutive nights, which doesn’t really help those lottery odds.)
What was the most critical error of the Shero era in New Jersey?
Kaplan: Not addressing goaltending this past summer. If the Devils had more certainty in net, they wouldn’t have struggled so mightily to begin this season; they wouldn’t have had to fire Hynes; and Shero would still have his job right now.
Wyshynski: The goaltending was certainly an issue, and Shero’s contractually obligated faith that Cory Schneider could find his game for the past four seasons was an anchor on the team’s momentum. But not firing Hynes after the first 15 games of the season, of which this heavily hyped team won just four, was a mistake. OK, the commitment to Hynes overall was the mistake: He was there for all five seasons, and the Devils’ only playoff appearance was due to Hall’s Hart Trophy-winning performance for a month and goalie Keith Kinkaid having the best three weeks of his life. By allowing this season to slip away so quickly, Shero might have cost the Devils any shot at retaining Hall and, in the end, his own job.
Grade the decision (and the timing).
Emily: The decision is a B+ because it really does feel like Shero lost a direction for this team, so a change needed to be made. However, the timing is suspect, because this time it feels like ownership is the one without a contingency plan.
Wyshynski: It gets an A- from me. I feel like we’re watching the tip of the iceberg bobbing atop the water, and underneath there is a lot of dysfunction and disorganization in this regime. On the ice, Shero’s moves last summer were made to maximize this team’s chances to win with Hall in his final season, and the first three months of it were an utter disaster. With Hughes, Subban and a ton of hype, the Devils had a lot riding on this season financially, and Harris and David Blitzer watched it flop epically.
But Shero didn’t leave this team rudderless: His two no-brainer top picks (Hughes and Nico Hischier) give the Devils a one-two punch at center for the next decade. They have some notable prospects in the system. But as the NBA team’s owners showed with the Philadelphia 76ers‘ general manager job, there is only so long they’re willing to trust the process through significant regular-season losses. If only there was a Jerry Colangelo type who could become chairman of hockey operations for the Devils. Someone who has done it all and seen it all in management. Oh, wait, that’s right: That guy left when they hired Shero. Fare thee well, Ray Shero. The trade to acquire Taylor Hall (it was one for one) will forever be one of the NHL’s biggest steals.