By Allan Muir
There really was only the one pressing question today as financial wizards Josh Harris and David Blitzer (next to Gary Bettman in the photo above) officially took control of their latest distressed asset project: the New Jersey Devils:
Who would they trust to call the shots?
Harris and Blitzer have a history of coming in to troubled situations and restructuring the management, but they knew right away that they wanted Lou Lamoriello, the team’s current president/GM, to remain at the helm.
“This team has stood for excellence and we don’t want to fiddle with excellence,” Blitzer said. “I would like to think that Lou would stay with this team for as long as he would like.
“I was joking with Lou the other day, he’s got some special sauce.”
Hmmm…that must be one of those insider terms you pick up while attending the Wharton School of Business.
Whatever you want to call it, Lou’s seen plenty of success in New Jersey. The Devils have been his baby since 1987. He’s built teams that have won three Stanley Cups and two others that lost in the final, and he’s ushered more than a few players on the path to the Hall of Fame. He’s one of the most respected men in the league.
Still . . . his retention wasn’t a sure thing. Harris and Blitzer have shown that they aren’t afraid to shake things up when they take charge, and they have a special affinity for fresh approaches. As SI.com’s Stu Hackel pointed out on Tuesday, they hired Sam Henkie, “considered to be an innovative thinker who favors a ‘Moneyball’-style statistical analytics approach to team management” to run the Philadelphia 76ers. There was some thought they might look for a similar numbers guru to right the Devils, but in the end they recognized the asset they had in Lamoriello. They’ll leave the hockey to him and concentrate on other avenues to maximize the success of the franchise.
That starts with repairing the team’s ties with the local community. The Devils have had a strained relationship with Newark, primarily because of disputes over the team’s revenue sharing and arena lease with the city as well as its debt load, which owner Jeff Vanderbeek had been struggling to meet. Last year, Newark Mayor Cory Booker called owner Vanderbeek a “huckster and hustler.” But Harris sounded the right notes of conciliation in his remarks.
“I love sports. I enjoy winning,” he said. “I think this is an excellent platform to win. And I think the NHL is going to experience long-term growth, and I want to be a part of that.
“But I want to make the world a better place and help communities.”
Sucking up to a receptive audience? Maybe, but the sentiments sounded sincere. He’ll be judged on that down the line.
He also promised to market the team more aggressively to New Jersey’s fans. That seems obvious, but it’s something that maybe wasn’t properly addressed under Vanderbeek’s ownership. (For the record, he’ll retain a small piece of the team). The 76ers faced the same problems, prompting Harris and Blitzer into immediate action after they purchased the club in 2011. As Hackel noted, they lowered ticket prices — that’s a winner everywhere — and hired a Broadway company to transform the arena lighting, created a section for lunatic fans and brought back legendary alums to rekindle the ties to the team’s glory days.
Ultimately though, a winning team is the surest route to financial success, and the mere presence of Harris and Blitzer should help with that. Their economic stability adds arrows to Lamoriello’s quiver that might have kept the 2012 Eastern Conference champs intact if they’d arrived a year earlier.
No use looking back, though. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, David Clarkson — they’re all in the past now. Maybe some of them for the better. Moving forward, Lamoriello should have an easier time keeping his own players, like the currently unsigned Adam Henrique, and enticing free agents to sign on in New Jersey.
All in all, it looks like the Devils are getting what they deserve: a fresh start that allows Lou Lamoriello to get back to the business of doing what he does best.