New Jersey Devils’ Silence in Free Agency Speaks Volumes

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: General manager Ray Shero of the New Jersey Devils looks on from his team's draft table during Round One of the 2017 NHL Draft at United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: General manager Ray Shero of the New Jersey Devils looks on from his team's draft table during Round One of the 2017 NHL Draft at United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images) /

While an apparent concern grows with the New Jersey Devils fanbase, the method in Ray Shero’s Free Agency Period has shown a dedication to his vision to build the proper way.

The New Jersey Devils didn’t get John Tavares; or Calvin de Haan. The team didn’t even get James van Riemsdyk.

That’s completely fine. While other teams in the conference improved, it should be believed that Devils general manager Ray Shero is not simply sitting on his hands. Has Shero ever done so with the Devils?

Free agency needs to be revisited for value. Not only for the New Jersey Devils, but the whole league.  This year was definitely interesting as a player of Tavares’ calibre has never, in this era, explored the market and not returned to their original team. Zdeno Chara and Scott Niedermayer may be the only ‘superstars’ to do so with any success, in 2006. I would not include Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to this as the Minnesota Wild have not been a top team in the NHL, and Parise has spend quite a large amount of that contract injured.

Most commonly, teams use free agency to try and bolster for a run to the Stanley Cup. The problem here is most players are overpaid and underwhelming in free agency. It’s been seen before: team signs big free agent and two years later is trying to trade him.

But what is free agency to the Devils? It first needs to be divided into two parts: the final years of Lou Lamoriello, and the first years of Shero.

The New Jersey Devils, post the 2012 Cup Finals, needed a lot of help. Losing Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and David Clarkson destabilized the forward group. Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, and Bryce Salvador were no longer able to effectively defend. The Martin Brodeur/Johan Hedberg pairing were quite long in the tooth. Add to that the lack of prospects that were ready, the Devils were forced to delve into free agency to fix massive holes as listed below:

2012 – Krys Barch, Bobby Butler

2013 – Damien Brunner, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Rostislav Olesz, Ryane Clowe

2014 – Mike Cammalleri, Martin Havlat, Scott Clemmensen, Jordin Tootoo, Sergey Kalinin, Vojtech Mozik

So how do these three years look for the Devils in retrospect? Outright terrible if we want to be honest.  Jagr was the only impact player signed, and even he couldn’t overcome bad teams. Ryane Clowe could have been fine if not for concussion issues, but we’ll never actually know how that would have turned out.

These players signed with the Devils to bolster a top-6 that ultimately needed a complete overhaul. At the time, Lamoriello was not willing to rebuild and this cost the team in the long run. So how did these players leave the Devils?

Lost to FA the season their contract ended: Havlat, Ryder, Tootoo, Mozik

Traded: Barch, Jagr, Kalinin

Contract Mutually Terminated: Brunner, Olesz

Retired: Clemmensen, Clowe

Bought out: Cammalleri

Claimed on waivers: Butler

In fact, only Cammalleri is still active in the NHL today.

The above players played 920 games for the Devils, scoring 161 goals and 383 points. In perspective, that’s 0.21 goals and 0.41 points per game. Taylor Hall has 59 goals and 146 points in 148 games for the Devils. That amounts to 0.39 GPG and 0.98 PPG.

More from Pucks and Pitchforks

So while a number of Devils fans are clamoring for Shero to make moves during free agency, we also want to look at his tenure to determine if this is Shero’s style. It’s clearly not how this team is being built.

Mike Morreale ,with, reported that Shero has no interest with major free agent signings, and would prefer to build from within:

"“In 2015-16, we could have signed older players to move us a little bit, but it didn’t make any sense to me,” Shero said. “I don’t want to be in year three or four knowing we’ve got these contracts that we don’t want or need. We want to build internally, create a culture and foundation, but we’ll see where we are and talk about potential trades and free agents.“[Spending to the NHL salary cap] has never been a question. But from a team standpoint, that would put us in a world of hurt. That’s not the way of building a team.”"

This is definitely on track with everything Shero said before. Build from within, fill small gaps from without. Of course, Shero will need to dip his toe into the waters to make sure the Devils can complete. These players will not be the core of the Devils. The core will be the ‘kid’ movement (Bratt, Hischier, Butcher, Coleman, Vatanen, Mueller)

Here is the list of players signed in FA who played 1 game for the Devils under Shero’s watch (not including re-signed players):

2015 – John Moore, Yann Danis, David Schlemko, Jiří Tlustý, Lee Stempniak, Yohann Auvitu

2016 – Ben Lovejoy, Vernon Fiddler, Karl Stollery, Kyle Quincey, Luke Gazdic

2017 – Brian Boyle, Brian Gibbons, Drew Stafford, Will Butcher, Jimmy Hayes

Shero definitely signed players, but not to be the team’s main production. Butcher, Boyle, and Lovejoy are the only players on this list still with the team this coming season.

The expectation is that only Butcher will remain after his contract he has now expires. Still, the trend with Shero that should be noted: either the FA signing are either young-ish players on a show-me-what-you’ve-got contract (Auvitu, Stollery, Gibbons), or older players that could be flipped for other contracts and/or draft picks at the deadline (Stempniak, Fiddler, Quincy, Boyle and Lovejoy).

The only ‘value’ lost was Moore. While suspect defensively, Moore was easily the team’s best technical skater and one of the few willing to get physical. The lack of offensive contribution this past season (outside of overtime) however made him expendable. Seeing the contract Boston signed, Shero was smart to let Moore walk. At 2.75 million for two years would have been acceptable; 5 years is a hard pass

Gibbons is a small loss, but never played the same after his mid-season injury. His pre-injury play was quite unsustainable as well. While his loss does impact the Devil’s depth scoring and penalty kill, players such as John Quenneville, Stefan Noesen, and Nick Lappin should be able to take the role well.

Stafford and Hayes never amounted to anything worthwhile. Hayes at least appeared to accept his status with the team and became a locker room/ team-first guy, but ultimately the team needs impact players, not flowerpots and pressbox fodder.

So where does our team get better? In Shero fashion, drafting and trades. Shero has built this team on drafting and trades, and that’s how it should be. Free agency should fill out a team’s depth, not put the major pieces in place. On the trade front, Shero has masterfully conducted a number of shrewd trades that have bolstered both the team’s top and bottom six. While some of these players are no longer with the organization, the dead weight cleared in these trades has also benefited the Devils in the long run.

(Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images) /

June 27th, 2015 – Devils trade a second in 2015 and a third in 2016 to Anaheim for Kyle Palmieri

This trade was an amazing trade at the time, and it still is three years later. Palmieri has come into his own as a top-6 winger with the Devils and scored 80 goals and 154 points for the Devils in 224 games. Injuries and a bit of streaky play have impacted his production but Palmieri has been worth those picks. So long as his health can hold up, Palmieri will be at minimum the team’s second line right wing for a number of years.

February 29th, 2016 – Devils trade Stefan Matteau to Montreal for Devante Smith-Pelly

While Smith-Pelly was never a world beater in New Jersey, his production (22 points in 71 games) vs. Matteau’s (5 points in 44 games)… right. This trade was a wash for both teams, but Shero did obtain the better player.

(Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images) /

June 29th, 2016 – Devils Trade Adam Larsson to Edmonton for Taylor Hall.

The Devils traded their best shutdown defenseman at the time for one of the best wingers in the game. Ultimately, Taylor Hall’s Hart Trophy winning season has settled most debate over if the trade was as valuable for the Devils as hoped, having helped the Devils reach their first postseason berth in 6 years.

June 17th, 2017 – Devils trade Boston’s second and Nashville’s fourth in 2017 for Mirco Mueller and San Jose’s fifth in 2017.

This is one of those trades that everyone looked at and said “OK… I guess it’s good.” Mueller was in and out of the Devils lineup due to injury, a logjam of NHL-ready defensemen, and his contract. Once on the ice, his play was quite nice. He’s not putting up Vatanen/Butcher points, but there were flashes of a solid defender.

July 3rd, 2017 – Devils trade Florida’s second and Toronto’s third in 2018  for Marcus Johansson of Washington.

Unfortunately, we aren’t sure how well this trade has worked out as Johansson spent most of the last season on IR. The price paid was next to nothing to the Devils at the time, and even accounting for Johansson’s injuries it’s still fantastic.  What games we did see were quite nice, but small sample sizes aren’t indicative of a player’s ability. Johansson is good to go for 60+ games this season hopefully.

(Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images) /

November 30th, 2017 – Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen and a conditional third for New Jersey’s Joseph Blandisi, Adam Henrique, and 2018’s third

This was a trepidious trade for most Devils fans who had not seen Vatanen play in Anaheim. Once settled into the team, Vatanen put up 3 goals and 28 points in 57 games. While the loss of Henrique was a harder pill to swallow for some, the emergence of Bratt, Hischier, and Butcher helped offset the loss.

February 22, 2018 – Devils trade Yegor Rykov and a second in 2018 to the New York Rangers for Michael Grabner.

The boost we hoped that Grabner would provide? Exactly, there wasn’t a boost.. While Grabner had speed his lack of production spelled the end to the experiment. This is the one trade that is agreed on to be a loss for the Devils conducted by Shero. Rykov was more valuable to the Devils. Not a good look, but what can we do?

Not afraid to make trades or moves? Must be GM Ray Shero. Don’t fear the silence as there could be a trade looming around the corner. A trade that again demonstrates that smart trades and informed drafting are worth more than simply throwing bad money at free agents.