SN exclusive: Devils GM Ray Shero talks Taylor Hall's evolution, rookie sensations

If this were Ray Shero’s first rodeo, he would not feel as comfortable in making a bold statement. But it’s not. Shero has been around, for a long time, and he has seen through three previous stops what the building process for a team feels like and when the corner has been turned.

There is something different about the Devils this season, and their general manager knows it.

“I know we’ve got a ways to go, not just to get to Game 82 but over the course of the next two or three years. But this is really the start (of our build) I envisioned when I came here two years ago,” Shero told Sporting News in a recent interview. “This is turning. Both on and off the ice, this is turning. I feel it, I know it, I’ve been through this before. Whether you start 9-2 or .500, you do know and you believe it’s turning. It’s good for the players to have some success for how they’ve played and prepared in training camp.

“From the players’ standpoint, having some success playing this way has been good.”

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The Devils have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL to start the season and perhaps the biggest surprise. Last year, they struggled to a 28-40-14 record — fourth worst in the NHL — but early on this season, with an infusion of young talent like Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher and a recommitted group of veterans like Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri, the Devils are off to an impressive 9-4-2 start.

A year ago, the Devils started well, too (9-3-3), but Shero insists there is no comparing last season to this season.

“If this was my first job with not much experience I probably couldn’t say that, but I’ve been through this before,” he said. “We had a good start last year, but this is obviously a real good start. This year just feels different. It’s a combination of how we are playing, but also the personnel we have, which is a younger team.”

Shero has become accustomed to recognizing the signs of when an organization is ready to take a step toward becoming competitive. He spent five seasons from 1993-98 as an assistant general manager with the Senators. In his fourth season with the team in 1996-97, the Senators made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and went on to reach the postseason for 11 consecutive seasons.

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He was the assistant GM again with the Predators for seven seasons from their inception in 1998 until 2006. After missing the playoffs for their first five seasons, the Predators made it in 2003-04 and went on to clinch berths in seven of the next eight seasons. In his first season as general manager of the Penguins in 2006-07, the team ended a four-year playoff drought and has made it every season since.

It has been five years since the Devils were in the playoffs, the last two under Shero’s leadership. Even if they ultimately have to wait another season before getting back to the playoffs, Shero feels the early-season success has provided validation for the process of turning the team back into a contender.

“It’s not just the start, it’s more kind of the longer term build where the start we’ve had gives you some optimism because your fan base finally sees the vision we’ve talked about for two years — draft, develop, proper trades — starts to come together,” Shero said. “We felt good about our camp. We went 5-1-1 in the exhibition. I know it’s exhibition, but it meant something to us because we had to establish something with work ethic and how we’ve practiced. Guys like Taylor Hall have really pushed and all the guys have held each other accountable, whether they are younger or veterans.”

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Not pleased with the play of some of the team’s more experienced players last season, Shero challenged them as the team departed for the summer to recommit and take ownership of their situation. He appealed to their conscience by essentially asking, ‘What do you want your legacy to say?’ He was not convinced the majority of players played up to their capabilities last season. But so far this season, he said, it has been night and day.

“We talked a lot about leadership, not anything about wearing letters,” Shero said. “We’ve got really good veteran people here, they’re not necessarily the loudest guys, but the challenge to them was made pretty clear. We weren’t asking for something they weren’t capable of. Not just on ice but off ice as well. Make a difference with younger players that come in and they’ve done a fantastic job because that’s their responsibility, it’s their team.”

Planning to infuse a plethora of young talent into the lineup, Shero also made it clear that the perceived depth chart that the players might have in their mind heading into training camp was not of much relevance to him.

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“First day of camp I talked to all the players and to the younger guys I said, ‘The worst thing you can do is look at the depth chart’ and to the veteran players, ‘The worst thing you can do is look at the depth chart.’ In other words, there was going to be competition,” Shero said.

The veteran players seem to have taken the challenge to heart. While Shero expressed his discontent last season, he was quick to heap credit on that same group of veterans for laying a sound foundation from Day 1 of training camp and setting the example for the team’s younger players to follow.

“From training camp to how we’ve practiced to even how we played in the exhibition games, it’s a different feel, a much younger team,” Shero said. “The veterans knew we weren’t happy last year but they’ve been challenged and they’ve come back, Andy Greene, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall, these guys have been really dialed in and it’s been a big part of what we’re trying to do.”

Taylor Hall’s evolution

One of the players Shero spent considerable time with after last season was Hall. Acquired during the 2016 offseason from the Oilers in exchange for Adam Larsson, Hall was expected to provide offense, leadership and a compete level that the team was missing. Instead, Hall’s production dropped from his final season with the Oilers to 20 goals and 33 assists. From a points-per-game standpoint, at .73, it was the third-lowest of his seven-year career.

Hall will never be accused of not caring. If anything, he might care too much. Entering the NHL as the top pick in the 2010 draft, he was touted as the player to turn the fortunes of the Oilers, but nothing happened. The team was bad and stayed bad once Hall arrived. Then, the year he left, the Oilers finally broke through and his new team, the Devils, got worse.

It stands to reason that will start to wear on the psyche of a player like Hall. Shero had picked up on what he was going through. 

“I think so, it’s hard not to,” Shero said when asked if he felt like years of failing to make the playoffs was weighing on Hall. “I think he was saying why him, was I the problem? It’s human nature. But I told him it’s not your fault. I told him I traded for him because he’s good. I wasn’t trading Adam Larsson for nothing. I’ve defended the trade from Edmonton’s standpoint as much as anybody because Larsson’s a great player.” 

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During the offseason, the general manger took Hall to dinner. Over the course of four hours, he helped Hall work through it, playing the part of psychologist. Most of all, he made sure to underscore the point that Hall is a winner, that he has won before, two straight Memorial Cups with the Windsor Spitfires and two straight gold medals at the world championships.

“I was real honest with him. He’s an important player for us and his legacy is important to me I told him,” Shero recalled. “It really is. If he was in Edmonton last year, they would have made the playoffs and done what they did with him. If Adam Larsson was with us, we would have done what we did last season with him.

“I told him I’m going to give you a year to get over this. It was like grieving, but you’ve got to get over this. If you want to be a playoff player, here’s what you need to do. It starts with practice and since the first day he’s been dialed in, he’s pushed it in practice and held himself accountable. He can say whatever he wants, but it’s the actions that matter.”

Hall looks like a player reborn so far this season, leading the Devils with 17 points in 15 games. Shero pointed to a 4-3 win against the Coyotes on Oct. 28 as an example of Hall’s growth. He scored twice and assisted on Bratt’s game-winning goal late in the third period, but it was his dogged determination that the general manager credited with leading the team that night.

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“He’s the one who brought us into that battle. That was an easy game to lose; we were playing short without Marcus Johansson and Palmieri, we had seven defense and 11 forwards because of injury, we had played the night before,” Shero said. “There were a lot of excuses we could have had but our coach Jon Hynes told me that was exactly the type of player I was hoping Taylor would get to. He didn’t want to lose but it was just the way he played. A playoff player, a player who raises his level does little things in a game to help the team win even when it’s not your night. He just happened to produce as well that night.”

After that game, Hall looked ahead to the team’s upcoming road trip through Western Canada and said, “This is kind of where your team decides if it’s a playoff team or a mediocre team.” 

Hall assisted on both goals on the first game of that trip — a 2-0 win against the Canucks on Nov. 1.

“You can see it turning for him individually, too, about how to be a leader, how to be a factor when he doesn’t score,” Shero said. “It’s a real good start for him, he has a lot of pride, he’s very competitive and he’s figuring it out which is what I was hoping for. It’s what he needs is to take responsibility. He’s taken it upon himself and basically saying screw this.”

Rookie reinforcements

The Devils accelerated their rebuild when they won the draft lottery in 2017, moving up from the fourth-best odds to claim the top pick and with it, select Nico Hischier first overall.

It’s something Shero said he was not planning for last season, but the stroke of luck was fortunate and pushed this plan ahead of schedule. Hischier was never promised a role on the team but quickly earned his spot with a strong training camp. Shero talks a lot about having a “back-up game” when he discusses young players.

Hischier certainly has one in the eyes of his general manager.

“He’s smart, he’s so conscientious defensively, thinking the game, seeing the ice, he’s 18 years old and he has a backup game big time,” Shero said. “He can kill penalties, he’s got a great stick, and defensively he cares. Put it this way, we won the lottery and we were very fortunate to move to number one. But for us, a guy who plays his way is something we haven’t had here in New Jersey for a long time. We thought he was the best fit for us and we still feel that way.”

With the Devils suffering from a lack of depth at center after Travis Zajac suffered a pectoral injury in August, keeping him out of action for 4-6 months and Brian Boyle missing the start of the season due to a cancer diagnosis, Hischier was thrust into a top-six role immediately and has performed admirably, averaging 16:04 per game through 15 games, the fourth-most among Devils forwards.

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But as well as he’s played, it’s not completely shocking for a first overall pick to perform well early in their NHL career. For a sixth-round pick less than 18 months ago, it’s totally unexpected.

Jesper Bratt, 19, stands 5-10 and weighs 175 pounds. He was selected by the Devils, 162nd overall in the sixth round of the 2016 draft, yet is an early-season Calder Trophy candidate with 12 points in 15 games. In the sixth round, teams hope to find players who can one day down the road become serviceable parts. They don’t expect to have them slot into their core less than two years later.

So how did Bratt slip so far down in the draft and why did the Devils identify him? For one thing, Bratt’s lack of size did not scare the Devils away.

“Part of our criteria is not size, it’s not a part of our criteria,” Shero said. “From what we’ve seen that’s translated to the NHL, he’s not a sixth-round pick obviously. He’s a really, really good player. It’s a different game in Sweden, it’s defensive and he wasn’t a big scorer there at all. When we saw him last year at development camp, we thought, ‘OK, this kid’s pretty good’ and then this past July and August is really when we said, ‘OK, we might have something here.’”

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Fitting in well on a line with Johansson and Henrique, Bratt has given the Devils another piece that has come out of nowhere to push their progress to another level. 

“Even though he’s scoring, he’s got a backup game,” Shero said of Bratt, who has averaged 2:44 per game on the penalty kill. “He’s a great penalty killer, he’s got incredible hockey sense and awareness on the ice and it makes him very valuable. We weren’t necessarily counting on him to score.”

Shero recalled another sixth-round pick who worked out well when he served as an assistant with the Senators. In 1994, the Senators selected Daniel Alfredsson 133rd overall. A little over a year later, Alfredsson put up 61 points in 82 games in his rookie season. The next year, the Senators were in the playoffs.

“It doesn’t happen often, but when it does you are so thrilled,” Shero said. “That’s what you need to take a big step forward because it’s found money.”

He was quick to acknowledge there is often as much luck involved at that point in the draft as there is savvy scouting. In 1994, the Senators had two sixth-round picks. They selected Alfredsson with the second of the pair. Mike Gaffney, a defenseman taken two picks before Alfredsson by Ottawa, played seven career AHL games, which was as close as he got to the NHL.

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