While next weekend will certainly be one of the most exciting non-game related weekends in local hockey history with both the Devils and Rangers getting potential franchise players in the first two picks of Friday’s NHL Draft, drafting Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko is just the beginning of pivotal offseasons for both neighboring teams. For the Rangers it’s about continuing the rebulid while for the Devils, things are getting much more gray. This will be a pivotal offseason determining whether the organization is committed to taking the next step or if the progress that’s been made over the last few years gets shelved yet again in favor of an even longer rebuild. Why is this such a pivotal offseason?
Two words: Taylor Hall.
With the Devils’ MVP up for a new contract after 2019-20, this offseason should determine which direction the Devils are going. If Hall re-signs and the Devils sign/trade for improvements to the roster then clearly they’re ready to take the next step toward competing while Hughes and 2017 #1 overall pick Nico Hischier are still on ELC’s, and Hall is still in his prime. If Hall does not re-sign and gets traded then it’s a clear signal we’re stepping back and waiting even longer, an approach that won’t exactly give the fans or players like Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac warm fuzzies. Patience is one thing, but at what point do we take the next step towards trying to win? Our excuse that Lou Lamoriello left us in such a bad state evaporates with each offseason, we’re now going into year five with Ray Shero and all we have to show for it is one playoff appearance, a supposedly better farm system and oodles of unused cap space. Plus from a business perspective, this isn’t Montreal where you breathe hockey 24/7. There’s too many other alternatives for the entertainment dollar in this market to go through a decade-long period of near irrelevance.
Left unsaid – till now – is door number three, Hall not resigning but not being traded before the season either. I call it the ‘if you have time, use it’ solution in a sardonic manner after one of Lou’s famous quotes here. Although it wouldn’t exactly be ideal to go into camp with Hall’s contract status providing the dreaded d-word…distraction, it’s not the most inconcievable scenario either. Could you really blame Hall if he wants to take a wait-and-see approach to see what direction the team is willing to go before he commits long-term? While Devil fans have waited since 2012 to see another playoff series win, Hall hasn’t even won a playoff series since his career began in 2010. If Shero thinks he can improve the team during the season and will get contributions from younger players already in the organization, I could see him waiting it out a bit to try to convince Hall to go along with the team’s current direction.
At some point the team will have to fish or cut bait if it comes to it though, not trading Hall at the deadline and risking getting zero back for him next July would be damaging to a franchise that’s already seen star wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise walk away for nothing. Their double-barrelled departure arguably set the Devils back five years. While the Isles were at least able to survive losing John Tavares in the short-term with an overachieving season, you can’t really say it’ll help them long-term either. Waiting through free agency and the start of next season probably wouldn’t damage his value much, especially if a sign-and-trade could be worked out a la Mark Stone.
What happens with Hall could set a tone or establish one if he re-signs after Shero makes one or two big moves to bolster the talent on the roster. On the one hand ,contending seems far away after one of the franchise’s worst-ever seasons, but on the other hand with a healthy Hall, Hughes coming aboard and a couple other substantial improvements this organization has major bounceback potential. If a rebuild 2.0 is the result of this offseason though, then you have to also trade pending UFA’s Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene. Greene, especially deserves to be on a contender if he wants to waive his NTC (though he could also decide being a lifetime Devil is worth sticking around for) while if Vat – coming off a poor 2018-19 – isn’t in the team’s future plans, it’s best to get something for him if you’re not going to go all in on taking the next step forward by the 2020 trade deadline.
Chief on the team’s shopping list are another top six winger, and a top four (if not top two) left defenseman. Secondarily, the team could use another back six forward or two and another back six RD. If Shero can pull those moves out of wherever using our extra picks and/or our approximately $25-30 million in cap space, then this team will be dramatically better off. Especially if the goaltending holds up the way it did in the second half of last year after Keith Kinkaid was exiled to Columbus, with a healthy Cory Schneider and rookie Mackenzie Blackwood splitting the workload and being most of the reason for what little success we did have in 2019. Of course, if we have another offseason of ifs and buts leading to nothing substantial for a second straight offseason, then things get dicey.
It’s your move, Mr. Shero.