Commentary

Reinventing the New Jersey Devils

Updated: November 16, 2010, 11:12 AM ET
By John Buccigross | ESPN.com

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
and these badlands start treating us good
-- "Badlands" by Bruce Springsteen

It's difficult not to get excited after sitting down with Jeff Vanderbeek.

The New Jersey Devils' chairman and managing partner talks fast and moves quickly. He has a focused, smart energy and is attempting to rebrand the Devils, an organization in the midst of a sea change.

Even though it is only mid-November, the Devils are in real danger of not making the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96, the season after they won their first Stanley Cup. This season is 21 percent over and they sit 14th in the Eastern Conference and 28th overall in the NHL standings (through Sunday's games). They also haven't reached the Eastern Conference finals in seven seasons (2003), the longest drought since CEO, president and GM Lou Lamoriello took over the Devils in 1987.

So, last week, I made the Friday night drive from Connecticut to Newark, N.J., to take in the Devils-Oilers game and get a sense of Vanderbeek and the current state of Devils hockey. I talked with Vanderbeek before the game about the team, on and off the ice.

Workin' in the fields
till you get your back burned
Workin' 'neath the wheel
till you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts
learned real good right now.

The new Prudential Center celebrates hockey in New Jersey as well as the Wild's Xcel Energy Center does Minnesota hockey. High school hockey sweaters adorn the walls and all of the local high school team captains were honored on the ice. The Devils also introduced a specialty license plate proclaiming themselves "Jersey's team" earlier this month.

[+] EnlargeJeff Vanderbeek
Andy Marlin/Getty ImagesDevils chairman and managing partner Jeff Vanderbeek has made an effort to reach out to fans in New Jersey.

It's a show, and they put on a really good one in downtown Newark. My gosh, the Devils now have a dance team. (I imagine the presence of a dance team sometimes makes Lamoriello want to put his hand down his throat, rip out his spleen with his bare hand and throw it against a wall. Just a hunch.)

"This franchise was built on mom and pop and youth hockey," Vanderbeek told me before Friday's game. "We are Jersey's team. We are the only team here right how in New Jersey, professionally, who is willing to call themselves New Jersey. It's sad, in a way. Between the Nets that took New Jersey off the court, to the New York Jets, New York Giants, heck, the Red Bulls [MLS] even call themselves New York. Our New Jersey roots resonate with our fans."

Vanderbeek should know what resonates with Jersey fans. A New Jersey native who grew up a Rangers fan, he was a longtime Devils season-ticket holder and took his kids to the games. Prior to joining the Devils, he had a lucrative 24-year career on Wall Street, including a long stint with Lehman Brothers, before becoming chair and managing partner of the Devils in June 2004. He also has been a member of the team's ownership group since 2000.

"I'm 53 years old. Fifty percent of my friends are Rangers and Islanders fans. The great news is that most people 25 and under, 95 percent of them are Devils fans. The Devils went to the Stanley Cup [finals] four times, subsequently they were on national TV the most, been on TV the most and have had the most success. Unfortunately, the kids 25 and under can't buy tickets yet, but they will. We've done a lot of demographic surveys and the future is very, very bright.

"We started a very unique marketing campaign based on microtargeting," Vanderbeek also told me. "It migrates from the political spectrum, where we would go out on about 126 touch points and try to target who would want to be Devils fan."

Microtargeting is used by election campaigns and corporations. Using "cluster analysis," it tracks voters and identifies potential supporters. The Devils, like other corporations, use this method for in-depth analysis of a company's consumers (who is buying these hockey tickets?) and those connected with the customers.

After information is collected, companies communicate (phone calls, direct mail, advertising, e-mails, texts, "Jersey Tours") with possible customers who share characteristics with current Devils fans.

Yes, the Devils are trying to grow their fan base like a political campaign. It is a grassroots effort that kicked off last summer with their "Jersey Tour." They hosted 12 "Jersey Tours" in nine of New Jersey's 21 counties with food, goodie bags and availability with former Devils players and Vanderbeek. Fans wanted Guinness beer to be served at the arena ... it's now available; parents wanted gluten-free food for their kids ... it has been a success and more options will be added. But the one thing that resonated the loudest and will continue to be trumpeted is, "We are New Jersey's team." There will be more "Jersey Tours" next summer. Imagine if Bruce showed up with Devils fan Max Weinberg?

"For so long, people said everything south of Long Beach Island is Flyers territory, and I just said we are not going to give that up," Vanderbeek said. "I got such a sense of the youth of our audience."

Vanderbeek is an athlete (he played football at William & Mary) who reads situations and people well. But, as noted above, the same amount of optimism does not resonate on the ice with the current roster, the Zach Parise injury and the way the Devils are hamstrung by the cap. Grassroots efforts won't matter if you can't get people to the polls (or in the seats).

But there's one thing I know for sure girl
I don't give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
I don't give a damn
For just the in betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now.

Hockey is a different sport than it was when Lamoriello was hired to run the Wayne Gretzky-dubbed "Mickey Mouse" Devils in 1987 at age 44. It is faster, a little younger and, in some ways, a less nasty game. The game also has a salary cap that makes drafting and developing paramount to success. Besides Parise, the Devils haven't drafted and developed any young stars for some time. Also, Scott Niedermayer's decision to leave for the West Coast via free agency after the lockout was devastating.

When the 2004-05 lockout ended, rule book enforcement altered the way the game was played and young players and great skaters like Niedermayer thrived (Niedermayer had his most prolific offensive seasons in Anaheim). Here are the NHL's leading post-lockout playoff scorers and their ages at the time they raised the Cup:

2006: Eric Staal, Carolina, age 21
2007: Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim, 22
2008: Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit, 27
2009: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh, 22
2010: Jonathan Toews, Chicago, 22

Here are the ages of the leading playoff scorers for Cup winners between lockouts, 2004 dating back to 1995: Brad Richards, 24; Jamie Langenbrunner, 27; Steve Yzerman, 37; Joe Sakic, 31; Jason Arnott, 25; Mike Modano, 29; Steve Yzerman, 33; Sergei Fedorov, 27; Sakic, 26; Stephane Richer, 29.

[+] EnlargeIlya Kovalchuk
Rich Lam/Getty ImagesIlya Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100 million deal with the Devils this past summer.

One reason for this trend might be the unbelievable level of talent that has entered the league since the 2004-05 lockout, and the quick exit of older players who weren't conditioned, prepared or able to play in the no-hook-and-hold NHL. Maybe this is a golden era of young players before we see some dry draft years. Perhaps current players will eat and train smart and hard enough to continue to be high-level players and dominate into their 30s. But it sure looks as though young, 20-27-year-old, elite-level talent at the forward position is a key prerequisite to win right now during a fast and long NHL season.

The Devils don't seem to have any of these players right now. On-ice success has had the Devils continually drafting late in the first round (any organization would trade higher draft picks for three Stanley Cups). Since drafting Lance Ward 10th overall in 1996 (a weak draft year), the Devils have picked outside of the 20s in the first round just once, selecting Parise with the 17th overall pick in 2003. They are now paying for that success; they have non-elite young players and older players past their prime. In the middle are Ilya Kovalchuk and Parise.

Kovalchuk turns 28 in April, while Parise (out for three months following knee surgery) turns 27 over the summer and is set to become a restricted free agent July 1. Those ages aren't ancient, but for a lot of NHL players, production declines slightly and they miss games in greater number after turning 30. Energy level and recovery are never greater than in that 18-25-year-old window. Circumstances would be perfect for Kovalchuk and Parise if they were on a talented and deep young team, but, right now, they are not.

This talent gap is one reason to justify why the Devils went so hard at Kovalchuk this past summer. He was at the age where he was an attractive, free-agent, high-volume goal scorer, and players with good size and monstrous shots can still be effective as they age into their mid-30s. As the end-to-end rushes fade from Kovalchuk's game, the Hall of Fame one-timer will still be there (Brendan Shanahan scored 40 goals at age 37 five years ago).

Perhaps another reason why the Devils made the expensive gamble on Kovalchuk was because so many good, young players are being signed to long-term contracts (Jeff Carter of the rival Flyers being the latest). The unrestricted free-agent pool is thin for free agents in their late 20s.

But all signs pointed to Kovalchuk being a poor fit for the tightly structured, defensive Devils and, really, a lot of good teams. He was a great player on bad teams. The question remains if he can be a great player on a good team.

Ray Ferraro played 18 seasons in the NHL and is now one of the best broadcast analysts in the game. Toward the end of his career, Ferraro was playing for the Atlanta Thrashers when Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley arrived in 2001. I asked Chicken Parm his opinion of Kovalchuk over the weekend.

"Ilya has one of the top four shots in the game, along with [Alexander] Semin, [Alex] Ovechkin and [Steven] Stamkos, but his game is the most individualistic of the four," Ferraro said. "Ilya loves to win and is super-competitive, but he doesn't trust others enough to move the puck. His heart always tells him he is the best option."

With Parise hurt, Kovalchuk is the best option. On Friday night against Edmonton, he literally was attempting to take the puck away from his own teammates to bring the puck up ice. He also seems to lack the change of speeds and timing to harness his massive power, and he doesn't use that power to make his linemates better.

Watch Semin's game-winning goal against Tampa Bay from Nov. 11. That goal happened because Ovechkin wedged himself along the boards and played grinder/puck retriever, won the puck battle and chipped the puck behind the net to center Nicklas Backstrom, who skated around the net and fed Semin. Ovi has figured out at 25 what Kovy hasn't yet at 27. Ovechkin still has a ways to go in other areas, but he knows you can't always play with the pedal to the metal and you can't do everything yourself. You are playing with fellow professionals. Do your job, and let them do their job.

Lights out tonight
trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a cross fire
that I don't understand.

Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
till he rules everything
I wanna go out tonight,
I wanna find out what I got
Well I believe in the love that you gave me.

If there ever was an illustration of one player trying to do it all, it is Kovalchuk, and he and the Devils somehow have to manage it and fix it. In 43 games with the Devils going back to last season, Kovy has just 14 goals. That's about a 25-goal pace over an 82-game season. Kovalchuk hasn't scored fewer than 38 goals in a season since his rookie NHL season in 2001-02.

All this from a player who signed a 15-year, $100 million contract that cost the Devils a $3 million fine, a third-round draft pick in 2011 and a first-round pick in one of the next four years (the Devils will pick which year) for what the NHL determined was the team circumventing the collective bargaining agreement. Kovy signed after the Devils acquired him in February for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and a 2010 first-round pick (later traded to Chicago, which selected Kevin Hayes) and 2010 second-rounder (later traded to Chicago, which selected Justin Holl). The Devils have lost draft picks, cash and depth players for a tenth of a billion dollars. So far, this is not working out.

But, it is early, only Year 1 of a 15-year deal. ("So, you're saying there's a chance?") And while no one will come out and say it, Kovalchuk's signing could not have been just a pure on-ice hockey move.

I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope
and I pray that some day
It may raise me above these Badlands

Vanderbeek has not given up on the season despite some signs of distress. Lamoriello no longer has complete carte blanche over the entire organization. The Devils have cap issues, and there is an undercurrent of belief within the NHL community that Parise will be next to impossible to keep over the long haul. Still, Vanderbeek is confident Parise will continue to be a Devil as the forward continues to see how much the Devils and Lamoriello care about him. Martin Brodeur is at the end of his epic run. What are the Devils? Up-tempo? Defensive-minded? And, of course, what happens with the $100 million, 100-pound monkey on the back of Kovalchuk?

[+] EnlargeZach Parise
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesZach Parise is set to become a restricted free agent July 1.

The Devils organization must feel a sense of momentum with the dividends of its successful "Jersey Tours"; a new, top-notch arena; state pride; and the bullish revitalization of Newark. But to fully profit from all of that, the Devils need to have success on the ice, make a deep playoff run and baptize the 25-and-under crowd with some ink-stained success. Vanderbeek believes they will fix Kovalchuk and fix the death waltz on the ice.

"There is no magic formula to it," Vanderbeek said. "I believe that four or five wins in a row puts 90 percent of this behind us. You've got to believe you will. Listen, [Kovy] was in another organization for eight years. We have a new coaching staff here, we have six or seven new free agents, the most high profile is Ilya Kovalchuk. It sounds corny, but it's going to take some time.

"Certainly, success would help that. Obviously, players are pressing and he's at the front of the line. He's a competitor. He wants to win more than anybody. I know it. I know him. I've seen it on his face. There are times he just wants to take the puck from end to end. Listen, I know what's inside him. He's a good person. We had a 2½-month interview with him. It is what it is, he's the $100 million man. What can go wrong has gone wrong. But we could be sitting here Dec. 15 and this could be a long past memory and, quite frankly, I'd be betting on it."

Two hours and 20 minutes after my interview with Vanderbeek, Kovalchuk took a pass in overtime and shot a one-timer that, at long last, sent the throng of Devils fans home happy. Kovalchuk's blast and the explosion of the crowd echoed down the hallways.

At least for a night, there was an exhale. Time will tell if this is the start of something big and the Devils can build on their off-ice marketing that has them primed, in Vanderbeek's words, to "blow the roof off the place."

Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
and these badlands start treating us good.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.