Firing of Ray Shero was impulsive, impetuous, and idiotic
As the NHL prepares for its annual trade deadline feeding frenzy, the Devils seem rudderless… steering into dangerous waters with no one in the pilot’s chair. It is reminiscent of the scene near the end of the cinema classic Jaws: right after Quint is gobbled up by the shark. As their undersized boat founders on the gently rolling seas and the Great White lurks somewhere below, Hooper and Brody stare at each other thinking, “what the hell do we do now?”
While not quite as dramatic as the Spielberg classic, a rookie interim GM, an owner with a quick hook, and a Hall Fame advisor with no experience running a hockey operation may very well be thinking the same thing about now. With not only the 2020-21 season, but the ability to be a viable contender for the next few years quite possibly in balance, let’s take a closer look at just what happened to the SS Jersey Devils.
Call it Jerry Jones Syndrome
When Joshua Harris set down his Wall Street Journal last month and turned on Sportscenter, he saw rich guys pulling a lot of strings. It was “silly season” in the NFL, when big-time coaches were hired and fired, courted and condemned. The principal figure was the ubiquitous Jerry Jones, the Owner-GM (gulp) of the world's most valuable sports franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, ungracefully ending his torturous pas de deux with coach Jason Garrett.
So, after checking the latest standings and seeing his Sixers sitting comfortably in the top third of the NBA, the sorry state of the New Jersey Devils — 30th place as of mid-January — caught his eye. While we do not know the details of the shenanigans — whether Shero was offered a “win now” ultimatum (as if there is one) or was simply given his marching orders — we only know the result: Ray Shero, architect of the total rebuild of the Devils organization following Lou Lamoriello’s departure, and one of the most respected executives in the NHL, was out.
The move came out of the blue. There is no replacement. The search for candidates had not even begun. The only person in the organization with any hockey knowledge looking for a successor is Martin Brodeur, who despite the excellence of his Hall of Fame career must be considered a management neophyte with just three years of assistant GM experience that wasn’t really a fit. The interim GM is Tom Fitzerald, whose only jobs in hockey have been as assistant to… Ray Shero!
Where we are now
This is organizational Dysfunction with a capital “D”. What will Fitzgerald, who has worked under Shero with both the Penguins and the Devils since 2007, do that is different than Ray — except be more willing to take orders from Harris? Josh Harris, college wrestler and equity fund billionaire, knows about as much about hockey as the average person watching a Sixers game. He bought the team with partner David Blitzer just to have a stake in the game, between purchasing the Sixers and a portion of Crystal Palace in EPL. Harris surely doesn’t know that “Hockey GM” has become just about the most complex job in professional sports, in charge not only of the product on the ice, but the junior, pro and European scouting staff, minor league coaching and management structure, ever-more-complex salary cap machinations, expansion draft preparation, trades, and free agency.
So now the Devils sit with an interim coach, an interim GM, and most surely no long term plan for the future. How much authority does Fitzgerald have? And really, what would he do that his friend and mentor Shero wouldn’t? If Harris wants the team to move in a different direction, why install the one person in all of hockey who is most likely to follow along with exactly what Ray Shero has done? It boggles the mind.
Lou Lamoriello is a deity with the Devils, and deservedly so for his unparalleled 28 year run from 1987-2015. That said, the tight fist and family-business style approach that had served the Devils their three Stanley Cups was showing its age. The Devils’ core players were aging, the draft had been barren for years, the minor league affiliate had won two playoff games in a decade and organizational assets were bare.
Replacing legends is never easy. Look to the Premier League and the struggles at Manchester United and Arsenal after the decades-long reigns of Sir Alec Ferguson and Arsene Wegnger ended. Against this standard, Shero has done an impressive job. He rebuilt the scouting department, turned the team from one of the oldest in the league to one of the youngest and quickest, and by all accounts updated the Devils organization to 21st century functionality.
That the team has not disintegrated following the purge at the top is a testament to the strength of character of the men Shero put in place, both on and off the ice, since his hiring four years ago. If a team is poorly managed from the top-down, you can bet that they would have tanked given their rudderless condition.
If anything, the last month has proved that the team Shero created is on the right track — that some combination of new players, Taylor Hall’s contract distraction and John Hynes’ coaching constraints were holding back the natural flow of the team in 2019. The Devils are learning consistency, building a never-say-die attitude, and becoming offensively opportunistic. Yes, there are serious defensive flaws with the team’s construction, but defensive players are a lot easier (and cheaper) to fit into a team than offensive cohesion.
With Nico Hischier’s coming of age, the acclimation of Nikita Gusev, the initiation of Jack Hughes, and a top-5 pick arriving in June, the Devils are still well positioned to turn the corner while a quality veteran supporting cast can still be of use. Can Tom Fitzgerald keep his buddy Ray on speed dial on a burner phone, clean up the shards from Harris’ hand grenade, and engineer the delicate tango of inserting enough defensive stability and grit into the lineup for the Devil to compete for a playoff spot in 2021? Or will some new voice have his own designs on what a hockey team should look like, hire his man as coach and start another open-ended rebuild? Will the threat of more Josh Harris meddling cause the best GM candidates to hold their noses as they quickly pass by the mess?
Of course, these questions will have no answers for the time being. The only thing certain is that the odds that the Devils’ tender but talented young team can be steered and cajoled into an upper-echelon NHL squad are considerably worse now than they were before Josh Harris made like Jerry Jones and sent the dedicated, experienced, and professional Shero on his way.
Good luck finding another manager as skilled.