NHL.com- What do you say to those emotionally invested fans who want to see improvement over last season?
"Last year gave both hope and optimism. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Our fan base finally saw the vision we talked about my first two years through drafting, developing, and making proper trades; you could see it start to come together. We established something where you could see more talent, more belief and a commitment to hold each other accountable, whether they were younger players or veterans.
"I know we have a ways to go, not just to get to Game 82 (this season), but over the course of the next two or three years. It's all really the start (of our build) I envisioned when I came here. I said last November (2017), that I felt like this is turning. I know it, I've been through this before with Nashville and Ottawa (as assistant GM). With Josh and David, we have stayed true to our plan, no shortcuts. There will be speed bumps along the way, but this is the right way to do it.
"Rebuilds are not for the weak. (New York Islanders GM) Lou Lamoriello once said, 'I have a five-year plan and it's changing every day' so you have to be prepared and have an idea what you want to do for the short- and long-term. We want to be a team that competes for a playoff spot every year and not just by chance or luck, and then from there become more of a contender.
"Our fans have shown their passion. We all felt the excitement last year, as we had a great run at the end of the season and witnessed how electric the building was when we clinched the playoffs at home. We built this the right way and our fans, other teams and the League noticed. We were selected to do the first-ever behind the scenes all-access training camp series, and obviously picked as one of the teams to go to Europe (for the NHL Global Series). That is on- and off-ice progress which we should be proud of."
Your thoughts on Taylor Hall in his third season with the Devils, and how do you think he handled his recent benching by coach John Hynes?
"I once told Taylor that he can't expect to be on his game all the time, but it's how he helps the team win when he's not on. I sent a text to coach Hynes after he benched Hall for the final seven minutes of the second period in our loss to Tampa Bay (on Dec. 3) and asked how Hall was doing.
"[Hynes] said he was fine. He said Hall apologized for putting him in a situation to sit him. He respected what [Hynes] did, and he still played him 16:17 and [Hall] said that was more than enough for him to get his game back. [Hall] appreciated the way we treated him and how we held him accountable and knows he has to be better and wants to be better. [Hynes and Hall] have a healthy respect for each other and Hynes was confident Hall would be OK. Hynes told me it was really a reset for him and Taylor's response was great.
"That's the kind of player and person Taylor is. He wants accountability for himself and those around him. What does he do after that conversation with John? He goes out the next day and is the best player in practice, he leads by example. These are the kind of things that prove how driven he is, how much he cares."
Hall, who won the 2018 Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, has one season remaining after this one on his seven-year contract he initially signed with the Edmonton Oilers. The earliest you could sign Hall to an extension is July 1, 2019. How soon will you begin talks on a new contract?
"Taylor and I had dinner at the end of the 2016-17 season, and it ended up turning into this enlightening four-hour conversation covering so many different topics. Taylor was determined after that season. I met with all the veterans at the end of the season and it was clear they all shared their disappointment.
"Based on what his response was, the conversation could have lasted just five minutes. But he said to me this was the right fit. I told him that his legacy is important to me and that I cared about it. When I asked him about Hynes, he told me he was the best coach he's ever had. Once you hear those things, you know you have something together. Taylor came in and transformed this franchise.
"We will definitely talk after the season, and he is a priority, but an announcement, if any, won't come until after (July 1), per league rules. Our feelings haven't changed about Taylor. He's an incredible addition to our team and franchise. Like I said before, he has come in, bought in and transformed this franchise. This is a faster, younger and more exciting team in part because of Taylor. We made a trade for a player that became the MVP which is only the second time NHL history that has happened (Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks). I think we have a lot of unfinished business and it's been a great fit for both sides."
Why does John Hynes remain the clear choice as coach moving forward?
"The three areas important to me in a coach are an ability to teach, inspire and discipline. There's a fine line between being a friend and establishing a relationship and John has done that with his players. You've got to hold everyone accountable and can't defer to veterans. In three seasons he's shown great growth in how he's dealt with our veterans and young players. John's growth path has mirrored that of our team, and I like to see that. He's taken hard-working teams and helped them accomplish more. He coaches to his players' strengths and helps them find a gear or aspect to their game and brings it to the forefront. He's coached an immensely talented player to become an MVP. Everyone had a great inside glimpse into John with the Behind the Glass all-access series as a communicator, motivator, and his direction as a coach. You have to be honest with yourself as a coach, and sometimes that's not comfortable, but John has matured in that regard, too."
Can you offer your assessment of goalies Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid?
"Cory has worked really hard and he's physically fine. There are things we can help him with, but at the end of the day if Cory wants the net back he needs to be the best goalie in practice and that will help him become sharper when he gets into the game. He's got to push Keith and continue to be supportive, too, just as he was for Keith during his run last year. He's been great in that regard. Sometimes it comes down to the player and the player needs to make a difference.
"I tried to hire (goalie coach Roland Melanson) when I was in Pittsburgh (as GM) because I knew of his reputation. Rollie has worked hard with both Cory and Keith. He's helped Keith develop and take the next step and continues to work with Cory, day-in and day-out."
To be honest, I'm not sure what I expected. As someone who wants to believe in Taylor Hall's long-term future with the franchise, as well as John Hynes' ability to turn things around as a well-respected coach that - largely by default - gets more grief than he deserves, I like what I read. As someone who was hopelessly hoping for something other than the most elaborately worded translation of "status quo" that all-too-fittingly quoted Lou Lamoriello, doing so kind of triggered my gag reflex.
The truth is, I just don't see any drastic changes to be made that are going to help fix this team in the short term or long term. It sucks to...well...suck, but riding out a step back in the rebuild is better than setting fire to the undeniable progress that has been made solely because the high that comes as a result of destroying shit - like a foundation - is good as an extremely short-sighted cure for frustration.
There's no doubt that watching this team play has been an experience that's bi-polar to what it was last year, but to not understand the amount of promising pieces that have been put in place since Ray Shero took over is to have a comically short memory. Take a look back at the average AHL/AARP roster he inherited and impossible not to be impressed by the work he's done in flipping it. His plan might be one that's longer than either he or Devils' fans expected, especially after the seven month adrenaline rush of last season, but at least it's a plan. There's not one (undoubtedly overpriced) free agent that was actually attainable who would have this team in a drastically different position right now, and there's not one panic move to be made that's going to change that pathetic position for the better in the very near future.
It's painfully obvious this team isn't anywhere near complete, and that Taylor Hall playing God was as much of an impetus for their unexpected playoff appearance as his Hart Trophy indicated. However, doing something just to do something isn't going to miraculously recapture that magic, or guarantee the re-signing of the person who possessed it, as the Devils' shattered confidence isn't a single outside player or a new coach away from being reconstructed.
The goaltending has been garbage in a way that's fitting of the defensive dumpster fire around it, and that's a whole lot more problems than are fixable midseason. The climb to being a contender isn't always a steady one, and - if him saying nothing too shocking or scathing is any indication - then it looks like Ray Shero is prepared to wait out the occasional pitfall with a young, developing team as that makes for a more proven way up than letting pure desperation guide your decision making.