Going into the offseason, the New Jersey Devils were flushed with cap space, draft picks, and other tradable assets. With a glaring need of genuine talent on defense and supplementary offensive depth (yet again), the consensus of Devils fans predicted that drastic changes were inevitable, and the organization would enter the coming season with (at least) somewhat of an improved look. While changes did occur, they weren’t necessarily to the degree that was largely anticipated.
Yes, New Jersey drafted Nico Hischier first overall, traded for Marcus Johansson, Mirco Mueller, and signed Brian Boyle. In addition to losing Beau Bennett to free agency and losing Jon Merrill in the expansion draft, Shero also bought out the contracts of Mike Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelly. While there was a subtle swap of old and new faces, the Devils haven’t significantly improved or regressed with training camp just weeks away. Throw in the question marks surrounding New Jersey’s bottom-six and the relatively static defense, it’s easy to see why you could consider this offseason a major letdown.
Between the expansion and NHL drafts, free agency, and array of tradable assets, it’s not like Shero had a shortage of opportunities to improve his roster. Fans, reporters, and analysts alike were certain the Devils would capitalize on teams looking to deal assets instead of risk losing them for nothing at the expansion draft. Names like Matt Dumba (Minnesota), Sami Vatanen (Anaheim), and David Savard (Columbus) were considered potential targets for Ray Shero. However, their teams wound up making deals with Golden Knights general manager George McPhee that cost them draft picks and other highly-touted, but more expendable assets at the expense of protecting their prized young defensemen.
Despite being quoted saying he was unwilling to use all 11 of his draft picks, Shero did just that. The Devils GM cited how he wouldn’t execute a trade solely for the sake of making one, and never received an offer that made sense. Granted Shero did send a second and fourth-round pick to San Jose for Mirco Mueller, but there was clearly a lot more work to be done on the Devils backend.
When you consider the returns teams received for top-four defensemen such as the Blackhawks (Hjalmarsson), Islanders (Hamonic), Golden Knights (Methot), and Wild (Scandella), it’s fair to say Shero could have easily ponied up a couple prospects, roster forwards, or draft picks to form an equivalent or more enticing package. Having said that, you have to figure the asking prices for the young defensemen I mentioned earlier were probably significantly greater than what the teams above received for their blue liners.
The vast majority of Devils fans took it for granted that with his expiring KHL contract, Ray Shero would flip winger Ilya Kovalchuk for assets. Kovalchuk, whose rights the Devils own until next summer, expressed interest in returning to the NHL this coming season. New Jersey had some degree of say in where he would wind up playing since he’s currently 34, and won’t be a fully unrestricted free agent until 2018.
Not only did Shero claim to not receive a serious offer for the Russian superstar, but Kovalchuk ultimately opted to sign with St. Petersburg SKA for one more year. This is something Devils fans should have seen coming if they took a better look at the big picture. While he’s unlikely to receive that multi-year contract he sought before turning 35, Kovalchuk will have the ability to sign wherever he wants without his rights being constrained by the Devils next summer. Other teams probably figured it was better to wait and sign Kovalchuk for nothing rather than surrender assets for his services, even if it meant waiting a year.
Many Devils fans got their hopes up more than ever about this summer’s big fish on the free agent market- Kevin Shattenkirk. Between New Jersey’s glut of cap space, glaring need for a top-pairing defenseman, and practically being across the river from his hometown New Rochelle, Shattenkirk and the Devils seemed like a perfect match. Some even speculated Shero would offer the 28-year old blue liner a deal too lucrative for him to refuse. In the end, Shattenkirk signed with the rival New York Rangers on a shorter deal for less money than he was projected to receive.
Shero offered Shattenkirk an equivalent deal in terms of length to what he signed for with the Rangers. Shero even noted how Shattenkirk wasn’t looking for maximum term in his next contract and despite reportedly offering more money, it didn’t outshine the star defenseman’s desire to play for the team he rooted for growing up. For some Devils fans, this was a somber reminder that the Devils simply aren’t a desirable destination for star-caliber talent, despite their glut of cap space and assurance of having a pivotal role.
Myself included, Devils fans had high hopes that this would be the most eventful offseason they’ve seen in years. I’m a firm believer that things do and don’t happen for a reason and while the season outlook might appear bleak for New Jersey, it’s always possible Shero could make a move or two between now and October.