Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There is no way to overstate Lou Lamoriello's importance to the New Jersey Devils.
It's rare for a team executive to put his stamp on a franchise the way he did. Although he began his 27-year run as Devils general manager in relative obscurity, Lamoriello led the club to three Stanley Cup titles and secured a spot for himself in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He was to the Devils what Red Auerbach was to the Boston Celtics or what Connie Mack was to the Philadelphia Athletics. Now, Ray Shero has the unenviable task of taking over for Lamoriello, who stepped down as New Jersey's GM on Monday afternoon.
While Lamoriello was practically unknown outside of NCAA hockey circles when he joined the Devils in 1987, Shero enters the fold as an established NHL name. He knows what it takes to lead a club to a Stanley Cup title from the GM position, as Shero was at the helm for the Pittsburgh Penguins' championship run of 2009 before his situation went sour in the Steel City and he was fired last spring.
Shero will take over the GM duties, but Lamoriello won't be going anywhere. He'll still hold the title of team president, the role he was given in April 1987 before naming himself GM a few months later. However, the team made sure to note Monday that it will be Shero, and not Lamoriello, holding the final say regarding hockey decisions.
At 72, Lamoriello says now is the right time to step back and let somebody else take charge. He also claims Shero is the best man for the job.
"I think we have to be realistic in life in different areas and be honest and right now this is the perfect time and the perfect person with great experience," Lamoriello said on a conference call.
Of course, whenever someone of Lamoriello's stature steps down, there are always questions about whether they were forced to do so by someone higher up the ladder. Shortly after the Devils announced the front office changes on Monday, there were already whispers that co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer pushed Lamoriello out of his GM post unwillingly.
In an interview with NJ Advance Media, Lamoriello shot down the notion that the owners forced him upstairs by making him relinquish the GM job. He said the decision to vacate the post and hire Shero was his own decision.
"I don't know how clear I can be," Lamoriello said. "This was my suggestion. This was my decision. And it was with their support. I don't know how simpler or frank I can be."
There also will be questions about whether Shero will have complete autonomy to do his job. Simply stating he has final say of hockey decisions is one thing, but whether that will actually be the case is another thing. The way Shero handles his first big task as GM -- hiring a new head coach -- could go a long way toward answering that question.
Lamoriello said finding a new coach will be Shero's call. After firing Pete DeBoer in December, the Devils ended the season with the odd arrangement of Adam Oates and Scott Stevens as co-coaches while Lamoriello monitored them from another spot behind the bench. Before stepping down, it was expected Lamoriello would choose between Oates and Stevens to lead the team in 2015-16, but Shero could put his own stamp on the team by hiring somebody else.
Giving the job to Dan Bylsma, Shero's Stanley Cup-winning coach in Pittsburgh, would send a message about who's in charge. Bylsma, of course, was fired by the Penguins shortly after Shero's dismissal and still has one year left on his contract with Pittsburgh.
Speaking of the Penguins, the club chose not to ask for a third-round draft pick from New Jersey for hiring Shero while he still had remaining time on his contract with Pittsburgh. The Devils wouldn't have been obligated to give up the draft pick and the Pens seemed more interested in getting Shero's contract off the books than becoming involved in a dispute with New Jersey over compensation. Pittsburgh also could seek compensation if another team hires Bylsma, but it may not stand in the way of the Devils hiring him, either.
In addition to possibly going elsewhere for a coach, Shero also is hoping to break from New Jersey's longtime strategy of choosing defense and goaltending over scoring. Much has changed in the NHL since the club last won a Stanley Cup title in 2003 and Lamoriello was criticized for not keeping up with the times. New Jersey relied on older players up front and the formula was clearly not working as evidenced by the Devils finishing 28th in the league in scoring this past season with an average of under 2.2 goals per game.
"You look at the Devils and it's about his defensive philosophy. That's been very successful for them," Shero told NJ Advance Media. "But in terms of where the are now and moving forward to be successful, let's be honest. There has to be a complement of that with a philosophy of offensive hockey and scoring more goals. If not, there is not much room for error. Without that, goaltending and team defense can only take you so far."
It's pretty clear Shero is interested in remaking the Devils in his own image and it won't be the first time he's had to get out from under the shadow of someone else. As the son of Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero, the younger Shero already had to prove he was more than a GM with a famous last name. He did that in Pittsburgh and now has to fill the shoes of another legend.
Shero stressed that just because he plans to do things differently than Lamoriello doesn't mean he doesn't value the previous GM's way of operating. For fans in New Jersey, it doesn't matter whether it's done with offense or defense, the only goal is getting the Devils back to the business of winning Stanley Cups.
Lamoriello set a lofty precedent in the Garden State. Now, Shero has to live up to it.