Why the Devils fired Ray Shero now, and what's next

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The New Jersey Devils fired general manager Ray Shero on Sunday, prior to their 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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.



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