The 2019 NHL draft is not the first time that GM Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils have held the first overall pick, having won the draft lottery two years ago to select Swiss center Nico Hischier. But while Hischier has the makings of a solid NHL career, he didn't arrive with the hype that both American center Jack Hughes and Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko bring to Vancouver for the draft this season.
Either player would set the Devils back on track to building a contender. They took a monumental step back from their playoff berth in 2017-18 to the third-worst record in the NHL last season, a symptom of Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall's being limited to just 33 games thanks to injury.
The future for Shero and the Devils could be best described as partly cloudy. Hughes or Kakko are the good news. The uncertain future of Hall, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, clouds it up.
We spoke with Shero on Tuesday from Vancouver, where he and the Devils were still mulling over the top pick.
ESPN: I know we have to talk around this pick, as not to spoil Friday night. But are you sure on whom you're going to pick, or do you still have some things to figure out?
Ray Shero: Our staff arrived [on Tuesday], and we're having meetings for the next two days. I'll talk to [owners] Josh Harris and David Blitzer [on Wednesday]. Josh will be out here Thursday night. We've had our second round of amateur meetings. A lot of discussions. We have 10 picks overall, so it's not just discussion about that first pick but also about all the picks we have, and whether we should keep them or move them. All those discussions will take place, but in particular on the No. 1 pick.
I'll make a recommendation and then hear everybody out. I don't want to lean one way or the other with our staff. I want them to lean into this with their own thoughts about what's best and without any influence from me. We'll get there. There's no rush. As Lou Lamoriello says, "If you've got time, use it."
ESPN: Do the positional needs of the team factor in at all when you have the first overall pick?
Shero: I don't think so. I really don't. You have to take the best player available for your franchise. Some people have said Kappo has played center before; well, Jack Hughes has played wing before at the world championships. The positional thing is a part of it, but not the end-all. If you look back at the past drafts in history, if you pass on a center to take a winger ... there were a lot of mistakes made by that. But let's be honest: Both of these players are going to be really, really good. We're going to pick the best player for our franchise. Hopefully it's the right one.
ESPN: Was there an advantage in evaluating Jack Hughes, considering your ties to USA Hockey and his having come up through that system?
Shero: I don't think so. I spent time with Kakko as well. Besides, our scouting staff -- Tom Sinisalo scouts for us in Finland -- I have a lot of contacts in Finland that have known this young man growing up. I know people that played with him. That coached him. The same could be said of Jack Hughes. I don't think there's an particular advantage to [knowing] the American program.
ESPN: I think the default setting for a lot of us was that there was no way Ray Shero's passing up the American kid.
Shero: [Laughs] I don't know, because I'm from the U.S., I guess? I want to pick the right player, how's that? The right player regardless of nationality. I don't believe I have any Swiss heritage in my background when we drafted Nico Hischier over Nolan Patrick two years ago. My mom is from Shawinigan. My dad is from Winnipeg. I don't think nationality comes into play. If I was Canadian, I wouldn't hold anything against Jack Hughes.
ESPN: Switching gears: Taylor Hall is one year from unrestricted free agency. How frustrating was it for you to see his comments after the season, about taking time to make his decision and speaking with those close to him, repurposed as a harbinger of doom for his future with the Devils?
Shero: It's not frustrating. It's part of the business that we're in. If people take the time to read his quotes, or listen to his postseason press conference, I think you can pick out whatever you want to make it a headline. It's not what he meant. It's not what he intended to mean. But it gets taken and it gets circulated. I've heard nothing different from Taylor Hall or [his agent] Darren Ferris.
Taylor missed the second half of the season. He was just in town last week for his final go-ahead and all that stuff. He has one more year on his contract. People look at July 1, but it's not like he's unrestricted on July 1. For a player to commit to a franchise, or a franchise to a player, it's more than just "Hey, sign this here." It's about what we're doing. When I sit down with Taylor or Nico or any player, I want them to learn about me. I want them to know what ownership is thinking, and what direction we're going. I want them to understand that.
It'll play itself out. There's certainly no drama on our end, except when people try to make it. He has one year left on his contract, and I hope to get to it much sooner than that. Let's play it out through the draft. Go through free agency. See where we go. As we go through the summer, we'll sit down and see where we are. Do it the proper way. It's not a big deal. It really isn't. Especially when it comes to July 1. What is he going to do? Talk to other teams on July 1?
It's been a really good relationship with Taylor. But like with any young man or young woman, you're going to take time because you have decisions to make about your future. So does your employer.
ESPN: Do you feel you have to do significant things this summer to help convince him of the path for the franchise? Is picking first overall enough?
Shero: I don't know. I think everything we're doing here is for the best for the organization. Let's be honest: Taylor was somewhere else for six years. He didn't make the playoffs. We weren't a part of that, obviously, but when he came here we made a run in 2017-18 and then last year wasn't good for him or the team due to his injury.
He's a significant part of our franchise. That's why we're not trying to rush. We'll explain to him what we're trying to do and why and the timing of things, and see if he understands that and the timing of things, and then go from there. Everything we do here is for our franchise and not one particular player. But with that said, he's a significant part of our franchise. It's not frustrating. It's not a rush. It's just what it is.
ESPN: When do you think you're going to talk money with him?
Shero: After we sit down. I don't want to talk money until we talk about where we are as a franchise and what's on his mind. The money part is secondary to that. Hopefully we'll have something to talk about and go from there. Everyone's always like, "What about the money, what about the money?" They're like that with offer sheets, too. Well, a guy has to actually sign the f---ing thing, too, you know?
ESPN: Speaking of signings: The team made a splash recently by adding Matt Cane and Tyler Dellow to the hockey operations department, bolstering the analytics group. Are they going to have an impact at the draft, or is the information just not there for the lower levels of hockey to apply analytics?
Shero: I think the latter is probably true. You're trying to take information from different leagues, and it's not the NBA or the NFL, where they essentially know where they're getting their players from. You have the same-sized court or field, and we have differently sized rinks, for example.
Take two years ago. You had Hischier, who played primarily in the Swiss league. You had Nolan Patrick, who played in the WHL. You had Miro Heiskanen, who played in the Finnish league on a bigger surface. And then you had Cale Makar, who was playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. OK. How do you compare those stats in those leagues? You can look historically, which is essentially what you end up doing. To compare one league to another is tough, and that's an important part of what you're doing in the amateur draft.
They're diving into this stuff. They have some great ideas. We're way ahead of where we were when you utilize that. And it's interesting to get their take on this. But what's your take on this?
ESPN: My take is that you made all the hockey geeks in the world happy by hiring Matt Cane, who is, like, second to the pope in the eyes of a lot of people. But you and I both know that there are a finite number of assets in the Devils organization right now to trade. So I imagine it'll be some free-agency dabbling. And with that brain trust there, and their ability to maybe find diamonds in the rough, I imagine that's only a good thing for the franchise.
Shero: Oh, absolutely. And any information that can help you make decisions is a good thing.
ESPN: We've heard your fellow GMs Doug Wilson and Kevin Cheveldayoff both talk about unprecedented levels of trade chatter this offseason, but I feel like we hear about this every offseason around this time. What are you hearing?
Shero: I don't know what that even means. It always seems around this time it's busy. Keep in mind, two teams just [went] down. You're not calling a team in the Final and asking, "Hey, what are you thinkin'?" You check in with different teams. There are a lot of moving parts. You check in with a team and see where they are. And then sometimes it's like that line from "There's Something About Mary": If everything else falls apart, maybe I'll get back to you.
It's a lot of chatter. If that's the case, let's call it that. There's always lots of stuff going around with the draft and the draft week. We'll have a cap number soon. There will be a second buyout period. But "unprecedented chatter"? Is that what I read? I mean, there are 31 teams now, so maybe it is unprecedented, I guess. With 32 teams, it'll be unprecedented even more.
ESPN: Finally, if you were a betting man, are we seeing an offer sheet this summer?
Shero: I would bet you I don't know. And we say this every summer, too. I don't know. I really don't. I'd be just guessing, and I'm not a betting man, either. But I do know that if you're a team that has a cap situation ... I've been there, when I was in Pittsburgh, for a number of years. It's always in the back of your mind. You have to do your best to put yourself in the best possible situation. You're always thinking about that.
We all know what the CBA is. There is no gentleman's agreement. F--- that s---. When people say that, it's a lazy narrative, I'll tell you that. Really? Your ownership's competitive, GMs are competitive, and it's the buddy-buddy system? What the f--- is that? It doesn't mean something will or won't happen, but that's been the narrative for years, and I don't know why.
ESPN: If it's not buddy-buddy, is it a fear that someone's coming after your guy next?
Shero: I don't think that's it. either. Like, really? That's life. That team better have the room capwise to do it. There's a salary cap. There's only so much you can threaten. Like anything, it's all about the planning. Every team operates independently. They do what they need to do. It's a part of the CBA. There you go.