Ray Shero already showing he's no Lou Lamoriello (Trending Topics)
A lot of people these days don't have much time for talk that the New Jersey Devils are going to be good any time soon. And they're right, because the Devils are very bad after years of mismanagement.
However, it seems that the team's overall allergy to doing anything that was ultimately beneficial to them in the salary cap era (apart from trading for and then signing Ilya Kovalchuk and doing the same for Cory Schneider) has gone away more or less overnight. Now, again, this is not to say that the Devils will be in any way competitive this season, and they probably won't even be all that watchable, but they're very quickly establishing that they're a team headed in the right direction for the first time in a long time.
[Yahoo Sports Fantasy Hockey: Sign up and join a league today!]
First you have to start with the draft, where they got a very talented forward in Pavel Zacha (hard to screw up a No. 6 pick in a draft this deep, of course) and a number of other players largely considered to have been decent value, though not much more than that. Problematically, because of Lamoriello's mismanagement, this rebuilding team somehow had just five picks. They didn't do much in free agency either, except take care of some housekeeping, which is what a rebuilding team should be doing. The contracts given out were, by and large, reasonable across the board and locked up some good, young players on the roster for multiple years at respectable-all-around price points. One might even argue they got a bargain on Eric Gelinas.
And if this were all you were to take away from the Devils' summer, then you'd still be able to say prudent drafting and low-key management is an improvement over the downright awful drafting and wild mismanagement, and that for this reason New Jersey is now in much better hands and finally on the right path.
Fortunately for the Devils, though, the past week or so seems to highlight an even greater understanding of what it takes to actually be successful in hockey these days, and that's got to be an encouraging change of pace.
Last Thursday, for example, they pulled off a quiet acquisition of UFA defenseman David Schlemko, who played for Calgary last year. Now, the fact that Phoenix of all teams then Dallas put him on waivers, before he was claimed by the Flames only because of the annual Serious Mark Giordano Injury doesn't speak too well for his quality. And that he struggled to find a solid role with a team with as many blue line problems as the Flames (playing just 12:39 a night in the remainder of the regular season) was also a worry.
So you can see why Schlemko was still hanging around sans contract on Sept. 10, and why he signed for just $625,000.
But Schlemko seems to very much be one of those guys whom the numbers love and traditional hockey minds do not. When he's on the ice, his teammates get off more shot attempts and allow fewer than they do when they're not playing with him. The same is true of scoring goals. These are, generally speaking, the two skills you want to see from players overall. That the Devils got him cheap wasn't a surprise in and of itself because you knew some smart team was going to swoop in and sign him at some point, but the fact that it was the New Jersey freaking Devils doing it very much was.
The reason Schlemko is undervalued, by the way, is that while his team scores pretty effectively and simultaneously doesn't give up a lot of goals, his own personal offensive numbers are nothing to write home about. He managed just 1-3-4 in 44 games last season, down from 1-8-9 in 48 two seasons ago, and 1-5-6 in 30 during the lockout year. No one is going to be lining up to sign a guy with three goals and 19 points in his last 122 games, but whoever did it eventually was going to get a player who can positively influence just about everything that happens when he's on the ice, as long as his role is reasonably restrained. You wouldn't put him out there in high-leverage minutes, but you can almost certainly use him to push around middle- and bottom-of-the-lineup opponents.
Then on Wednesday, the Devils likewise went out and signed Jiri Tlusty, also to a one-year deal, this one paying him the princely sum of $800,000. Tlusty's another guy where the smart hockey people had been saying to themselves, “Why isn't this guy signed yet?” for months. Travis Yost, in fact, wrote about Tlusty's utility as a scoring second-line wing the day before he signed.
And here again, this is a guy who has a demonstrated positive effect on scoring and possession more or less regardless of where or with whom he plays. And also like Schlemko, Tlusty bounced around last season, playing for both Carolina and Winnipeg, and not finding a whole lot of success in traditional scoring numbers in either city. It's not so long ago that he scored 23 goals in the lockout season (with a league-leading 19 at evens), but he did that shooting almost 20 percent, so there ya go. No one is saying that he's worth huge money or anything like that, but his having lasted this deep into free agency without a job highlights yet another market inefficiency in free agency even at this late stage in the “we're all hiring analytics guys” game. The Devils, for once, exploited that inefficiency instead of being one of the teams creating it, probably because Shero actually listens to what New Jersey's own analytics guy, Sunny Mehta, has to say.
Lamoriello, it seems, never did.
Weirder still is the addition of Lee Stempniak, who had been practicing informally with the Bruins for weeks now, on a PTO. Now, that's no guarantee he'll sign, but he probably will, because the Devils are probably about to find out that — see if you can guess where this is going here — he has a positive impact on both sides of the ice for his teams. His teammates do more to outscore and out-attempt the opponents when he's on the ice, but you knew that already.
Score goals like a solid second-line wing option? You bet. Suppress shots against? You know it. Drive shots for? You got it. Of course, his lack of contract was always a little more confusing because, apart from having bounced around (Calgary to Pittsburgh to New York to Winnipeg since February 2014), he's always a decent option. He's basically guaranteed to give you 15-20 goals unless he's plagued by bad luck, which he was on that awful 2013-14 Flames team.
So the fact that the Devils are probably going to get him on a dirt-cheap contract that almost certainly brings in not only Stempniak, but also Tlusty and Schlemko in a week's time for less than, say, $2.5 million total is pretty indicative of the club's philosophical shift under Ray Shero, away from Lou Lamoriello's plan of... whatever that plan was.
Again, none of this makes the Devils good this season or probably even next. But if this is the level on which they are now thinking, it should be enough to give other teams in that division pause. The Devils have been a reliable two points for a while now. And they will be again this season and probably next, just because they're rebuilding. But beyond that? You can't and shouldn't count on it.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.