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Ownership Matters & the New Jersey Devils Have Good Owners

Ownership matters in pro sports, even more than ever before. As owners, they wield the power and there is no shortage of organizations where that has went awry. Fortunately, Josh Harris, David Blitzer, and the group that owns the New Jersey Devils appear to be good ones and should be lauded to some degree for it.

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Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
Josh Harris: A Good Owner.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As we head ever closer to preseason and the 2019-20 season, I want to draw your attention to an underrated positive about the New Jersey Devils. Specifically, the ownership group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer. They are the fourth set of owners the Devils have had since coming to the Garden State in 1982 and they are entering their seventh season in charge of the franchise.

What is positive about Harris, Blitzer, and their group is that they are largely quiet in public. They’ll appear on TV at times. They’ll do media work and appear at press conference. What they do not do is be open about their intentions on what to do with the team. They do not go to the media to throw someone under the bus. They have made the effort to hire appropriate people to handle the hockey operations and the business operations and, at least in the public sphere, do what they need to do.

This is underrated because this is what largely happens with a lot of teams with responsible ownership. I would like to think that in private, they’re involved in a lot of decisions and there are a lot of discussions on what to do. Which is the right of the owner. It is their franchise, they’re signing the checks, they’re footing the bills, they’re hiring people to do the work of management, and so if they want to be involved, they absolutely can be. I would like to think they had to at least agree with deals made that would add considerable salary to the budget such as the famous Taylor Hall one-for-one trade or the P.K. Subban blockbuster at the draft. I would like to think they would at least sign off on the decisions to sign Wayne Simmonds for $5 million for a season and Nikita Gusev for $9 million over two seasons. I do not have any evidence as to whether they do or not. But short of ownership telling Ray Shero he has a blank check and a full mandate to do as sees fit, Shero has to at least keep his bosses in the loop.

I would hope they’re pleased with what Shero has done. The fanbase certainly is. Despite what happened last season, there is a renewed excitement about the New Jersey Devils. Like many Devils fans here and all around the world, I am looking forward to this season. Like some of the players, I have expectations that the Devils can return to the postseason in 2020. Much has happened. The Devils did get lucky to win a lottery and be able to draft The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. However, Shero worked with Nashville unbeknownst to most to bring Subban to New Jersey; signed Simmonds; worked with Vegas to acquire and then sign Gusev; and retain his RFAs with reasonable contracts. And the Devils still have over $8.5 million of cap space with one more contract left to sign (Zacha). A lot of work was put in and Shero has been praised for it. As a result, in Dom Luszczyszyn’s annual NHL Front Office Confidence Rankings at The Athletic ($), the Devils finished second out of thirty-one teams. Both Devils fans and non-Devils fans are very confident that the team is heading in the right direction. Shero is and should be lauded for it.

By extension, so should the owners. If only because they made the decision to bring in Shero in the first place. Again, I am not privy to what was discussed or argued behind the scenes but what we know paints a pretty clear picture. Shero led the effort to tear down the old organization and re-build anew. It remains to be seen if that re-build is complete; but save for three players and a couple of staff members, this is a whole new organization. Job done. Now they have to perform. In that time period, the Devils were understandably near the cap floor for the last four seasons. They’re now at $72.78 million pending a new deal for Zacha. The salaries for Subban, Simmonds, and Gusev alone combine for $20 million. Given that the team has not made any moves to offset these additions in salary, we can conclude that the owners were quite fine with these additions. We can also conclude that the owners are willing to spend significant sums of money on the team. There was some validity to questioning whether the ownership wanted to spend as Shero has notably not made a splash in free agency for four straight offseasons. The additions made in this offseason has answered the question: they are. It will likely become a more definitive answer if Nico Hischier is signed to a massive contract extension and if Taylor Hall will sign a massive contract extension. I give credit to the owners for at least being supportive and appearing to let Shero do his job - a job that many are very pleased with, including myself.

To my eyes as an outsider, Harris and Blitzer seem to get what it means to be an team owner in this day and age. While the owner can certainly be involved as much as they want, it is better to hire the management personnel to do the work, keep tabs on them, provide the resources as needed for the organization to succeed, and do not cause any issue in public. It helps that the Devils are not the only team that Harris and Blitzer and their group own. Harris and Blitzer also lead groups that own the Philadelphia 76ers in basketball, hold ownership stakes in Crystal Palace in soccer. I do not know how things are going with those organizations but at the least they seemingly have a handle on things.

Contrast that with organizations in leagues where ownership is more problematic than anything else. In the NHL, the most notorious owner is Eugene Melnyk. The Ottawa Senators are a dumpster fire mostly because Melnyk does not want to spend anything more than he absolutely has to on the team. Are you a talented player who thinks that he should be paid fair value for his talents? Get ready to be dealt - just like Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene among others. The on-ice product is expected to be horrible as they plan on re-building for 2022. And, of course, Melnyk does this in the most head-palming way possible by trash talking a playoff-bound Leafs team, calling a reporter “bush league,” and getting “support” on Twitter from bots. Who would support this? Not many. And the issues go beyond the rink. He has publicly complained about the lack of a new arena, blaming the city and others whilst he is now being counter-sued for a billion by the developer. Given how Melnyk does not even want to pay the stars on his own team, this is a real problem for him and, by extension, the Senators. Fans were fed up even back in 2018 and nothing has changed for that sentiment. If you want to see a great and on-going example of how much damage a bad owner can do, then look at Ottawa.

If you want a more local and on-going example of ownership leading to a franchise suffering, look across the Hudson River. James Dolan leads the firm that owns Our Hated Rivals and the New York Knicks. As far as I can tell, Dolan pretty much leaves the Rangers on their own. They have had ups and downs (and may they have few ups in the future), but for the most part they are in a way better situation than the Knicks. Dolan has been far more involved with the Knicks and it has been a catastrophe. Similar to Ottawa, the team has been mismanaged with Dolan basically being a PR nightmare that has embarrassed a dwindling Knicks fanbase. Similar to Ottawa, there have been increased outcry for him to sell the team. Unlike Ottawa, Dolan has been willing to splash the cash - and to a fault with some serious overpays for ridiculous contracts just to convince players to act like MSG is some sort of special place for basketball. Unlike Ottawa, the Knicks have been arguably mismanaged for decades with presidents and general managers making mistakes on and off the court and being constantly replaced. As with the players since seemingly good players or players fans liked get shipped out because the newest GM or team president wants to make a deal for the sake of it. That kind of rot goes right up to the top and Dolan’s constant action and involvement has not fixed anything. Dolan has even gone as far as to ban fans more than once and former players. Why? Because they disrespected Dolan, not because they broke any stadium rules or laws. It was to show who is in charge. The Knicks have been an irrelevant franchise for decades. Bad ownership can kneecap even franchises with a history in a city and a level of resources that most others in the business could succeed with.

Melnyk and Dolan appear to be extreme examples. However, even more mild examples exist in other sports that make fans bristle about ownership. In football, Al Davis (Raiders) and Jerry Jones (Cowboys) are notorious examples of owners being too involved in the decision making process. That is not so bad in the bigger picture but if you’re a fan, you have to wonder why the owner even hired a GM or a team president if they’re going to make the calls themselves. In a more drastic case, professional soccer has had myriads of owners not being able to provide the money they committed and unable to pay off debts. In English soccer, for example, this is known as “Administration” and it has been bad enough that the powers that be that governs the leagues there have to punish the teams in the standings for it. Just to make it clear to all involved how serious the matter is. This even happened to Portsmouth when they were in England’s highest league, the Premier League, which is one of the most popular soccer leagues in the world. The nine-point penalty was further damage to an already 20th place team, which relegated them to the Championship (yes, the second best league is called the Championship). Portsmouth has never been back to the Premier League. Even with all of the attention, TV money, and grandeur of the Premier League, ownership problems can still be large problems.

Ownership issues can be even more damaging than making a “big team” small or dropping them from a height they have yet to return to. It can even harm a league. Look at women’s professional ice hockey within the past year. A lack of ownership that is willing to spend money, provide resources, and eat short-term losses in the hopes for gains tomorrow sunk the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Not a team, but a whole league. That’s a lot of people out of work because whoever was owning and operating those teams and the league could not maintain the business. By default the #OneLeague would be National Women’s Hockey League. The league owns their teams, but they needed cash infusions from sponsors last year. Hundreds of players have decided to not play at all instead of going for the only pro league in North America. Worse, within the past few months the Devils pulled their partnership with the Riveters before their third and final season of it; and, worse, Kim Pegula - who also owns the Sabres and is not hurting for money - relinquished their ownership of the Beauts. The bell may be tolling for the NWHL in the future without either more support provided by those funding the NWHL - and I mean those who own it, not just who is sponsoring it. Sure, there are larger questions about the market and what it says if the only conceivable way a women’s hockey league can happen is if the NHL subsidizes one like the WNBA in basketball. But they do not matter. It all starts at the top. There needs to be owners who truly believe in such leagues and their futures and can back it up with money to make it happen. The CWHL did not have this. The NWHL may not have this. And personnel as well as the larger concept of women’s professional ice hockey suffers for it.

Keep in mind that these are owners. Fans can put up billboards demanding they leave and chant protest songs with fake accents about “(Owner) OUT” and start websites about how much they suck and go on social media and demand better and decide to not go to games and so many other things. It does not make an owner actually leave. It takes something remarkably significant for an owner to go away unwillingly. The outcry is to demand that they sell the team. But because they’re the owner, they’re in charge and to do so willingly would have to be on their terms. If the owner or the ownership group is rich enough and is in good standing among others in the league, they can simply just do as they wish. As annoying as it is, the Dolans and Melnyks of the world of sport have proven that they will just eat the criticism and carry on. Players, coaches, general managers, and other management positions change all the time in sport. Owners are not in the same class. They’re at the top of the organization. Therefore, they have the most power.

The larger point is that there are enough examples of owners being too involved or not committing enough or not being able to provide resources necessary for a team (or even a league) to keep going and make gains. And when a team (or a league) has bad ownership, there can be a lot of suffering So what would good ownership look like? In these modern times, the ideal owner is someone who has an incredible amount of money, someone who is willing to spend that money, someone who will trust the people they hire with those resources, and to not embarrass their organization by doing or saying anything that would put fans and players off from being a part of the team in some way. In this respect, the Devils seemingly have all of that in Harris, Blitzer, and their group as a whole.

To that end, we should appreciate the ownership that the Devils have. At least to a small degree. Of course, time will tell if these feelings will be further justified. We shall see if Shero’s building holds up and grows; the team is able to keep Hall, Hischier, and others as the core; the now ten-year old Prudential Center remains as a viable stadium; and ownership continues to support the team as they have. I have no reason to think that they will not.

I am pleased with the current Devils ownership and I am very thankful that the team is not like those who have issues with their owners. What do you think of the team’s ownership? Do you wish they were different in anyway? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.