Skip to main content

alt text

Devils Big Read: The Roadmap

By Chris Wescott

Nowadays, you can pull out your phone and ask artificial intelligence to give you directions. There's no real guesswork, no planning, no real thought goes into it. Hell, even the directions are spoken to you as you drive along. Talk about easy.

But building up a franchise into a perennial powerhouse and competitor is anything but easy.

Back before the world resided in the palm of your hands, you'd pull out and unfold a paper map. You'd place it down in front of you and, with your finger, you'd trace your path from Point A to Point B.

You have this vision of where you'd like to be and you decide how to get there.

Following a difficult 2018-19 season, riddled with injuries and 51 total losses - 41 in regulation -the New Jersey Devils pulled out their map, placed it in front of them, and traced their path.

"There are a lot of different roads to Rome," Josh Harris, Managing Partner of the Devils, said way back on April 8, on locker room clean out day.

There may be a lot of different roads, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a path more entertaining than the one the Devils took this summer.

Before the bus pulls away and a new NHL season begins, New Jersey's summer deserves one final glance through the rearview mirror.

REVVING THE ENGINE

Following the aforementioned disappointing season, the mood in the Devils franchise was nowhere near "doom and gloom" and much closer to "we got this."

While 2018-19 was a lost season, it was largely due to the - almost laughable - slew of injuries that ravaged the club. Multiple contributors missed multiple games, including the MVP of the League from the year before, Taylor Hall.

Hall played just 33 games.

With all the obstacles stacking against the Devils, if you paid attention to the club you'd have three major takeaways.

First, that locker room never quit. Tip your hats to the veterans in the room and head coach John Hynes for helping navigate infuriating circumstances.

"I know we're on our way, I know the culture that's there, even with all the injuries we had we were competitive," said Devils Executive Vice President and General Manager/Alternate Governor Ray Shero. 

Second, the team was young. And this is a good thing. A youth movement and an opportunity to gain valuable experience was a silver lining.

And third, the Devils were in position to make things right. General Manager Ray Shero helped acquire enough assets to give them a legitimate look at changing the complexion of the roster.

Things were locked and loaded. He just needed to pull the trigger.

"We've always said when there's a time, there's a time. We're getting close to that," Shero said back on April 8. "We're moving forward, finally, and it's hard to say that when you're third-last, but it's a different feeling to me. There's an optimism that I have. We do need more talent. We're well-positioned to take advantage of that."

What's the best way to add game-changing talent?

With a little luck.

"It was an incredible night. I think outside of marrying my wife and [the birth of] my three girls that was probably the purest form of joy and elation that I've ever had when that card flipped."

On April 9, Jake Reynolds was at Redd's Biergarten across the street from Prudential Center with about 50 Devils employees, watching the NHL Draft Lottery unfold.

Reynolds, at the time, served as Chief Revenue Officer of HBSE. He'd later be named President of the New Jersey Devils in September. But that night, he was just a Devils fan.

"You have the anxiety you have the tension kind of building up and as soon as that card flipped and realized that we had the number one pick, I lost my mind and went absolutely crazy," he said.

Reynolds wasn't alone.

Thousands of Devils fans packed the community space outside Prudential Center. They all cheered in unison as their team was announced winners of the NHL Draft Lottery. It was an impactful moment.

"It was a game-changing moment for this organization," said Reynolds.

"Quite frankly, it sparked a pretty incredible start to the offseason."

481 miles away in Toronto, Shero witnessed everything change in a moment.

"We [needed] more talent. You get that through the draft usually," Shero said, following the lottery. "Staying at three, we'd get a really good player, but to actually win the lottery and continue our momentum here, it gives (the fans) excitement."

On lottery night, when the Chicago Blackhawks moved from 12 to three, Shero got the butterflies.

"That happened last time (2017) with Philadelphia, so when that happened that's when I started to get nervous," he said. "We could have moved down to six. In the back of my mind, I was prepared for that but I was hoping we were in the top three. That's when you really start getting nervous. Up until then, I really wasn't at all."

After the Los Angeles Kings card flipped over for the fifth position, it solidified the Devils, New York Rangers, and Blackhawks as the final trio.

In the end, we all know the result. The Devils finished in first and their rivals from across The Hudson had the second pick.

The Devils were expecting to pick high, but to secure the top spot was massive. It affords a club to have their pick of the litter.

"It doesn't change a lot but, again, it changes everything," said Shero.

HITTING THE ROAD

The Devils knew they would get a good player, one who could help bolster the optimism and potential circling the franchise.

There were no debates as to who the top two prospects heading into the draft were. Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko topped every mock draft and every list of rankings in the lead-up.

While the two were debated and compared ad nauseam, for the Devils it always seemed like Jack Hughes would be the pick.

"He's a massive difference maker and he's an electrifying player," TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button said at the NHL Scouting Combine.

"I have a saying about Jack. He becomes immediately dangerous when his blades hit the ice. He's got that capability to see things quickly and be able to take advantage of it."

"He does everything with quickness, so even if he doesn't score he's probably drawing a penalty in the process because guys just can't catch him with all that dynamic play, that creativity and the hockey smarts," added Senior Writer for The Hockey News Ryan Kennedy.

From inside the building and outside the building, the scouting reports on Hughes were all similar.

This kid is good.

"He's electric. Just electric," said Devils Senior Vice-President and Assistant General Manager Dan MacKinnon. "You have to go back a long time and, for me, it's been 20 years, to find many comparables for Jack Hughes in terms of how he transports the puck with speed and individual skill but at the same time has an incredible awareness of everyone else on the ice around him. When you combine those two things, the give-and-go game and knowing where everyone is but also the individual skill to sort of slip through small spaces, it's a pretty lethal package."

While Kakko is a great player in his own right, Hughes was the guy for the Devils.

"It was really difficult to think about passing on Jack Hughes," said Shero. "We did our homework. The Rangers are getting a really good player. It's going to be great for our rivalry and great for the Devils. That's the most important thing.

"He was projected to be the number one overall pick for a couple of years. There's a reason for that… What excites me about Jack is his hockey IQ, his skating, his agility, and his total instincts as a hockey player. He has incredibly quick hands and he sees the ice. We won the lottery and I was over at the U-18s and a couple of plays he made, I know it's on TSN or something like that but, honestly, [I was like] I better not laugh here because this is really good to watch."

In addition to adding elite skill, the Devils were adding a personality. Hughes is now a face of the franchise. He's lucky to have other young stars on the roster to help him with all the responsibility that comes with that.

"He's a great kid. He wants to win and I think he's going to fit in with us," said Shero. "We have a ways to go, but this certainly is a big help for us… to have the season we had was disappointing. But we get lucky and win the lottery and have the chance to take a Jack Hughes. That makes up for it."

STEPPING ON THE PEDAL

With Hughes secured, the Devils turned their sights on day two of the draft and with that shift of focus came a blockbuster move that, for the moment, shook the league.

The Devils acquired former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators, in exchange for defenseman Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies, and a pair of second-round picks.

"I've always been a huge fan of P.K. Subban," Shero said. "Obviously, some of his legacy in terms of off-ice stuff is well known but on the ice he's a competitor, he wants to win. I love the fact he hasn't won a Stanley Cup yet and he's hungry for that, and so are we."

In back-to-back days, the Devils had bolstered both their forward group and defensive core with potential impact players.

For the sake of the roadmap analogy, the Devils went from a 35 mph zone to the Autobahn. Hyperdrive, engage.

Over the next weeks, everyone and their neighbors were talking about the Devils. You couldn't turn on a hockey television show without hearing "Hughes," "Subban," "Devils," or "Ray Shero."

The hype was real.

"This is great for the Devils and great for our area; we deserve to have Jack Hughes, Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and now P.K. Subban, to be relevant," Shero said. "It's the entertainment business. We want people to be passionate and hungry and give back to the community, and these kids do, and certainly, P.K. does.

"I said to [Devils managing partners Josh Harris and David Blitzer] on Friday night that this is the right deal because if it doesn't happen, I'm really disappointed."

The Devils put themselves in a position to have ample amounts of cap space. It allowed them to take on a large contract like Subban, but also save plenty of space for the future.

In the moments following the trade announcement, Subban took to social media to exclaim his excitement for joining the Devils franchise. Since then, he's echoed those sentiments and has endeared himself to the fanbase and the Newark area. 

A PIT STOP OF SORTS

As the Devils continued to trace their finger over their planned route this summer, they realized they needed something to help them get even further down the road.

It was time to add a little more of an edge to the roster, as well as veteran leadership. And what better way to do that than to sign Wayne Simmonds?

Shero and the Devils inked the veteran of more than 800 NHL games to a one-year deal, worth $5 million. The move added a consistent scorer, who has potted 20 or more goals in five of his last six seasons.

In addition to being able to score, Simmonds is one tough customer. He's difficult to play against, which is something the Devils were eager to add to their forward group.

"I obviously got to know him real well playing against him for so many years in Philly," said Devils Captain Andy Greene. "He makes everybody a little bit taller and a little bit braver out there just with the way he plays and how he protects his teammates. Everyone knows that you've got be careful out there with him. And then just the way he plays. You know how skilled he is and how much of a power forward he is down there and he grinds it out. He can make plays. It's exciting to have him over here.

"I'm sick of playing against him. It's fun. It's very exciting. I think he's maybe really motivated this year in terms of not being exactly thrilled I'm sure with how the whole year went last year health-wise and stuff like that. So it's great for us and, like I said, I'm really looking forward to having him out there."

Adding Simmonds also provides a blueprint for some of the current Devils forwards with a similar skill set.

"I think that's the best," said Miles Wood. "[Ray] Shero actually texted me right before and I was so excited when I got that text and to know that he's on the team now and to know that I don't have to bark at him anymore when we're playing the Flyers or Nashville or any teams like that. I think it's so important to have those guys in your team in the long run, especially come playoff time.

"He's a player that I've admired over the years that he's played, 800-plus games or so, and I watch his highlight films and how he scores goals. To now actually, meet him and play with him, I think is really cool for me."

Simmonds saw the journey the Devils were taking this off-season and wanted on the bus.

"I think it was the direction that the team is going," he said. "I had seen that they made the trade for P.K., and there's a lot of great young players on the Devils, and I just thought that I was a piece that could help further the team. I thought there's a good spot for me there and I think it will be a good place for me to be to help out."

With this move in free agency, the Devils pulled over, checked their tire pressure, and filled their gas tank. Then they set off to continue the trip.

No, the Devils don't make moves based on fan sentiment.

But if there was ever an off-season move that was seemingly demanded by a fanbase and then executed, the trade for and signing of Nikita Gusev was it.

For weeks on weeks, with Gusev rumored to be available, Devils fans clamored for the talented Russian forward to be added to the long - and growing - list of roster improvements. Little did the fans know that Shero and the Devils management group were on it.

On July 29, the Devils acquired Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights, in exchange for a third and second-round pick. The club immediately signed him to a two-year, $9 million contract.

The MVP of the KHL was largely considered as the best player in hockey not playing in the NHL. He led the KHL with 82 points in 62 games last season and is 10th in league history with 332 points in 391 games.

"Nikita is a winger who adds another offensive dimension to our hockey club with his outstanding instincts, vision and skill level," said Shero.

After an off-season filled with exciting moves and acquisitions, this was the exclamation mark.

"I would say this is this big cherry on top," Devils Executive Vice President & Assistant General Manager Tom Fitzgerald told NHL.com.

"He's a darter, he's got extremely high hockey sense. He thinks the game really well and he can shoot the puck, he really can make the plays. He plays the off-wing and that's fine by us. But he works, he competes and he hunts pucks. He can get in the holes and finds a space to get a shots off. So we think that translates into production."

With the move, the accolades for the Devils continued to roll in. ESPN graded their off-season an A, and declared the franchise, "pulled off a heist" with their trade for Gusev. The Athletic's Scott Wheeler wrote, "the Devils are really about to add the No. 1 player in the draft and the No. 1 player outside the NHL in the same offseason, alongside a former Norris winner and a recent MVP."

While all of the attention and praise is great, it doesn't mean this trip is over. With the ultimate planned destination being a Stanley Cup championship, the Devils still have miles yet to travel.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Perhaps it flies under the radar since he's an established member of the Devils roster and not a shiny new toy acquired in the summer.

But if you think about it, Taylor Hall is basically another one of these aforementioned additions. After playing just 33 games last season, getting Hall back would be akin to adding an additional All-Star to the group.

Back on April 9, Hall was very candid about the state of the franchise.

"We're lacking some skill, we're lacking some talent," he said.

Fast forward to the start of training camp and the former league MVP was singing a different tune.

"It was a great summer for us, there's no doubt about it," he said.

"You know, a team like ours. we finished - I think it was 28th - so there were some upgrades that needed to happen and I think they've all been filled."

Hall fills one of those holes as well. The star forward hit the ground running in training camp and has looked healthy and ready to make an impact since his first scrimmage.

"Oh, he was so good, man," Jesper Boqvist said following that first scrimmage on September 14.

Hall will undoubtedly be a part of the Devils successes this season. And while many crown the Devils "winners of the off-season," they don't raise a banner for that.

"Now we play the games," said Hall. "Now, we see how everything fits, how guys can play in our system, and in who surprises. That's really what you're looking for, is guys that come in and play better than and you think or you guys think they will and I'm excited to see that."

And so is the rest of the hockey world. There will be many more eyes on the Devils to see how their impressive summer translates in the win column.

For those inside the building at the Devils front office, their own eyes are now off the rearview mirror and focused squarely on the road ahead.

Rome is waiting.