Vanderbeek’s Involvement With Kovalchuk Signing May Buck A Trend

Throughout the process of signing Ilya Kovalchuk, a new theme arose not usually seen within the organization. Jeff Vanderbeek, the Devils’ owner, seemed to be intimately involved in the process. It’s something fans of the organization aren’t used to seeing, and this involvement could become a more aggressive trend in the coming years.

Vanderbeek Press Conference

The Devils have had three owners in their history, each with varying levels on involvement with the team. The first, Dr. John J. McMullen, purchased the Devils in 1982. He was responsible for moving the team from Colorado to New Jersey, where they settled in the Meadowlands. He also brought in president and general manager Lou Lamoriello during the 1987-88 season. No one can doubt McMullen’s involvement in getting New Jersey a professional sports franchise and making them competitve. However, in my research, it never appeared that McMullen dealt with signing players. While he was involved, he didn’t seem to participate in the on-ice aspect of the team.

Shortly before winning the 2000 Stanley Cup championship, McMullen sold the team to Puck Holdings, a subdivision of YankeeNets. YankeeNets, a joint venture of the Yankees and Nets, wanted to create a regional sports network to cover their teams. They purchased the Devils for $175 million in an effort to cover the major league sports market in the tri-state area. Puck Holdings also thought it would increase the chances of getting a new stadium in Newark for the Nets.

But it wouldn’t work. Reports leaked that the Yankees and Nets had internal disagreements, with the Yankees believing both teams were money-losers. There was no interest in building a new stadium for the teams. During their ownership, Puck Holdings remained largely out of the picture, making Lamoriello CEO of the Devils. Lamoriello ran the day-to-day operations of the organization. Clearly, Puck Holdings was far from an involved ownership group.

Vanderbeek, a minority owner when Puck Holdings ran the Devils, purchased the team in 2004. He became a proponent in getting the Devils their own arena, and helped to get the Prudential Center built. Unlike the other two owners, Vanderbeek brought a fan’s perspective to ownership. The former executive vice president of Lehman Brothers was also a Devils’ season-ticket holder and a New Jersey native. It’s this perspective which could change the owner dynamic within the organization.

Continue reading after the jump for my reasoning why Vanderbeek might be bucking the “hands-off” ownership trend.

After the Devils signed Kovalchuk to the now-rejected 17-year, $102 million deal, Lamoriello made some interesting comments about the contract to the media. When speaking with Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record, Lamoriello hinted the length of the contract came from ownership and not him.

“You’d have to speak to ownership about that,” Lamoriello said. “The commitment that ownership has made here, this is a commitment and a decision they wanted to make for this type of a player and all I can do is say whether the player is a player that will fit into the team, can help the team and is not a risk as a player. As far as what the financial commitment is and that aspect of it, that was out of my hands.”

But when speaking to the media, Vanderbeek represented the opposing side of the argument. When speaking with Star-Ledger reporter Rich Chere, Vanderbeek explained that Lou was in favor of the signing.

“Lou is all about giving the organization the best chance to succeed. To win. He also knows, like I do, this is the best chance to put a lot of people in the seats to grow revenue.”

Looking at both of the quotes provides an interesting and different scenario. This situation almost seems George Steinbrenner-esque, with Vanderbeek representing the overbearing owner willing to throw money at a star player. Both quotes support that, in some way, Vanderbeek was involved with the negotiations. Every owner wants to know what a G.M. is doing with their money. But in this case, it seemed like Vanderbeek opened his checkbook and dictated the contract negotiations.

Could this be a sign of things to come? I believe we’ll see Vanderbeek continue to be more involved in the team’s contract negotiations. With Zach Parise becoming a restricted free agent after next season, Vanderbeek will want to do whatever it takes to keep the team’s best young player. I don’t think we’ll see Vanderbeek meddle in lower level signings, but Kovalchuk’s signing signals a shift in policy. If it can financially help the organization, Vanderbeek will get himself right in the middle of the negotiations. It’ll be interesting to see if this changes the organization in the future, but for now, I’d expect to see Vanderbeek more willing to enter contract negotiations.

Photo Credit: Mel Evans/AP Photo

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