Is the smile slowly being removed from Jeff Vanderbeek's face?
It's been an interesting offseason to say the least for the New Jersey Devils. While it hasn't come close to duplicating the drama of last year's Summer of Kovalchuk, there still has been a flurry of activity between the minority ownership concerns, a head coaching search and various players coming and going.
While there is no concrete evidence available, the rumor mill has floated the idea that GM Lou Lamoriello and his plans have been impacted greatly by financial constraints stemming from the potential sale of their minority interest from Mike Gilfillan and Ray Chambers. Even though it is not a majority stake that is available, it still could have an impact on the operating budget for the team.
Rumors were rampant on the Internet that have claimed that both the head coach search and contract negotiations with Zach Parise were two items greatly impacted by the logjam in ownership. One rumor went as far to say that the only reason Jacques Lemaire did not return was that the Devils refused to meet his contract demands.
If true, that would be greatly disturbing after the turnaround last season orchestrated under Lemaire. Then again, it could just be Internet fodder. Since the Devils are known for keeping things "in-house" the truth will unlikely ever surface either way, but Peter DeBoer was hired well after all other vacancies were filled, so if nothing else, it at least adds a little fuel to the speculation fire that perhaps Lamoriello was leaving the opportunity for ownership to change its mind about paying Lemaire.
Lemaire has been pretty adamant in the media that he had no intentions of returning, so at least in public, he's essentially refuted the story. You'd think that if Lemaire truly was willing to come back, Lamoriello would have found a way for that to happen, so I tend to think it wasn't the case.
The second major issue ownership issues may have potentially impacted is the contract situation with Zach Parise, who was a restricted free agent. The Devils filed for team-elected arbitration, essentially protecting their asset and taking him off the restricted free agent market for this off-season. However, it was expected by many that Parise and the Devils would negotiate a long-term contract that would keep Parise in New Jersey for the foreseeable future.
Whether Lamoriello was hamstrung at all by an ownership-mandated budget reduction or unreasonable contract demands from Wade Arnott remains to be seen.
Either way, it's a very potentially slippery slope the Devils are now walking, leaving the chance for Zach Parise to hit the open free agency market next season. If I'm Lamoriello I am doing whatever is necessary to get Parise locked up, but he could be held back some if Parise is seeking a Brad Richards-type contract that will earn Richards $20 million in the first year of his deal.
The recent front loaded contracts to Richards, Christian Ehrholff and others prove how the NHL bungled the Ilya Kovalchuk contract rejection last year, giving a blueprint for teams to follow on what is now deemed an "acceptable" contract, even though deals like these more clearly circumvent the concept of the salary cap more so than the Kovalchuk one did, and without any league-mandated penalties to deal with either.
To refute the idea that Lamoriello has been hamstrung by ownership issues, it is not as if the Devils haven't been able to make any moves this offseason. Long time defenseman Colin White was bought out from the final year of his contract, as was Trent Hunter, who was acquired for Brian Rolston in a financial move to save money and salary cap space.
In the end, it seems at a minimum, the Devils have some ownership issues to deal with, as majority owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek and his minority partner Mike Gilfillan and Ray Chambers need to complete any purchase/sale so the team can move forward without any self-mandated restrictions.
The season ticket fan base continues to grow, noted by the 1700 new purchases the team has shared on its website, so there should be little excuse for the Devils to lose out on any head coach or Zach Parise for financial reasons. Beyond that, Lamoriello has worked through the salary cap struggles of the recent past to leave the Devils well positioned under the current salary cap, with the likes of Bryce Salvador and Martin Brodeur set to have their contracts expire at year end.
Are there factors outside of ownership that I am not taking into account? That's certainly a possibility, and perhaps a likely one. However, there still remains the chance that ownership is restricting to some extent Lou Lamoriello from putting together the best team possible on the ice and if so, that's not right on many levels.
It is something to be monitored as we move into training camp and the season gets under the way.
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