On a steamy afternoon in late July, nestled in the heart of hockey’s dead period, the Devils shattered the hockey silence with a celebration masquerading as a press conference at Prudential Center in Newark.
Introducing new superstar defenseman P.K. Subban to the masses served as a victory lap, capping off a splashy and expensive summer orchestrated by general manager Ray Shero. The spending was meant, at long last, to push the Devils back toward Stanley Cup contention.
Subban emerged like a rock star in front of hundreds of fans as the team presented him with a custom-made wrestling robe. The two men most responsible for that franchise-altering trade, Shero and managing partner Josh Harris, stayed away from the hoopla. But make no mistake: They were soaking up the moment with the expectation that many more happy days would come.
“I’m incredibly optimistic and excited about continuing to work with Ray,” Harris had said three months earlier while giving the GM a contract extension. This was the partnership as both men had envisioned it.
Shero was an aggressive GM who had shaken up the NHL landscape this summer with a series of celebrated moves. Harris was a supportive owner who had not only given him the green light to spend more, but had approved a road map that, both men believed, would make the franchise relevant again.
But this week, not even seven months after bringing Subban to New Jersey, a starkly different scene played out in Newark. Harris stood in a cramped hallway of reporters and cameras on Sunday, offering few specifics as to why he had fired Shero earlier in the day — a decision that stunned everyone from the team’s players to the NHL world outside. The optimism he spoke about in the spring, summer and preseason was long gone.
How their relationship fell apart, according to several people with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes deliberations that led to decision, is a combination of factors.
First, of course, was the obvious: The team had fallen well below those preseason expectations and will miss the playoffs again.
But it was also due to a lack of an aggressive response from Shero when the team face-planted in six straight losses to start the season and just two wins in October. Shero fired coach John Hynes on Dec. 3 with the team well outside the playoff picture, but he still felt confident in his plan in the midst of a disaster of a season.
That wasn’t good enough for Harris anymore, and with Shero determined to stay the course, friction began to mount.
“Ray wanted to keep doing it his way,” one person with knowledge of ownership’s decision told NJ Advance Media.
Another person with knowledge of the call to fire Shero said Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer arrived at the decision 10 days before making the announcement. After toying with the idea of Shero riding out the season before making the change, Harris and company fired Shero on Sunday, impatient to make the Devils a winning hockey team again.
When Shero was hired as general manager in May of 2015, made in another stunning move to replace Lou Lamoriello after 28 years of running the Devils’ hockey operations, the new GM realized the daunting task he faced.
An aging and talent-starved roster needed a complete overhaul. A barren farm system lacked the short-term answers to make rebuilding easy. He needed to start from the ground up, and to do so, he needed patience.
Harris and Blitzer were more than happy to accommodate. They viewed Shero as an investment.
As Shero accumulated draft picks and added a pulse to the team’s prospect pool, he also maneuvered shrewd trades to increase NHL talent. Kyle Palmieri was added for a pair of draft picks in 2015. Taylor Hall arrived in one of the most lopsided NHL deals of the decade before winning an NHL MVP award in 2018. Shero also got lucky, landing two No. 1 overall picks, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes.
Yet that all translated into just one playoff appearance and one postseason win in four seasons, with a fifth season spiraling out of control. Even without the postseason results to show for his efforts, many still pointed to the job he did in getting the Devils in position to get there eventually.
“What New Jersey has built, they will reap the benefits for the next 10 to 15 years, the job Ray has done,” former Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “The place is filled with good people and good, young hockey players. … Especially when you look at what was there when Ray arrived. I saw a roster tweeted out (Sunday) of where the Devils were (in 2015). And he started over and built things the right way.”
Harris supported that vision for four seasons, but with another lost season more than halfway over, Harris and Blitzer weren’t ready to stomach more losing without change.
Shero’s summer moves added talent around Hall, intent on making the most of his potential last season in New Jersey before free agency, and those additions served as some incentive for Hall to stay. But they ultimately provided no traction in getting a long-term contract extension done for the former MVP.
No single event led to Shero’s termination, but given Harris’ personal stake in retaining Hall, it was fitting that trading the star left wing served as Shero’s final major move while running the Devils.
Harris made it clear since 2018 that he had a vested interest in keeping Hall in a Devils uniform. He called signing Hall to a contract extension following his MVP season the “highest priority” for the organization. With the window to negotiate with Hall approaching, Harris sat court side with Hall at an NBA playoff game between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers in April of 2019, personally adding his efforts to woo the star into a new deal.
All of that went for naught, with negotiations gaining no traction before Hall was sent packing to the Arizona Coyotes for two draft picks and three prospects in December while the Devils sat near the bottom of the NHL standings.
If the Devils had a successful season and Hall walked anyway, it might not have cost Shero. But losing him while also losing another season hurt his cause.
“I understand these things don’t happen overnight. Maybe we’ll know more down the road, but having said that, I think you take it at face value. Didn’t win enough,” said Ken Daneyko, a former Devils defenseman and current MSG analyst. “And they know that, coaches know that. Doesn’t make you a bad executive or a bad GM.”
The exact timing of Shero’s dismissal came as the biggest shock of the entire ordeal. If the Devils were going to fire Hynes in December while retaining Shero and letting him facilitate the Hall trade, many expected him to stay for the long haul.
The Devils also showed notable improvement under interim coach Alain Nasreddine. After losing the first five under his guidance, the Devils rattled off eight wins in 14 games. Harris’ announcement came between wins over the two elite teams, the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, in a 24-hour stretch.
That small surge wasn’t enough to protect Shero. When Tom Fitzgerald spoke for the first time as the Devils’ interim general manager, he mentioned multiple times the collaboration that would be needed to take the team to the next level.
Shero had a small circle of confidants within the Devils’ front office while running the show, Fitzgerald included. But according to people with behind-the-scenes knowledge, he didn’t do enough to integrate other opinions about how the Devils should handle their struggles in 2019-20.
Fitzgerald will be surrounded by people from all sides, including assistant GM Dan MacKinnon and Martin Brodeur, whose new official title with the team is Executive Vice President, Advisor to hockey operations.
Brodeur still has his close connections to management on the business side of the organization after working in that department for the past 18 months, so he can serve as a bridge to bring everything closer together.
One person with knowledge of the situation said Brodeur is not interested becoming the next Devils general manager. He made the clear transition out of hockey operations when he moved into a business role with the Devils in 2018, leaving his post as assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues. Brodeur is willing to have a role in the department, but not as the GM.
Brodeur will still be involved, especially in the short term as Fitzgerald and company begin to weigh the next steps for the franchise.
The Devils begin their pro and amateur scouting meetings next week, as the front office will begin to prepare for the trade deadline, the 2020 NHL Draft and an important offseason. So getting a new voice and a clear plan for a new direction served as a key sticking point. The timing might have seemed odd, but Harris and Blitzer had to give new management time to prepare for those crucial meetings.
“I’m going to need the help of a lot of people,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day, the support I’ve been shown in this organization so far with Josh and David, our leadership group with Hugh (Weber) and Scott O’Neill, I just don’t want to disappoint anybody. I need to be myself, as well. And I need to lean on my staff that Ray had put in place. There are a lot of good people.”
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