Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Devils hold off Ottawa amidst reports of the team being for sale

Even the Devils' 2-1 win against Ottawa isn't enough to lift the latest dark cloud hanging over the franchise - and no I'm not talking about the dopey icestorm that kept me and thousands home as no-shows for the game tonight, just the latest weather disaster in the Northeast this winter.

After a tranquil five days between Devil games, a bombshell was dropped on Devils Nation early this morning with the news that the team is now being put on the market. First reported by Bloomberg News, the initial story appeared to have been somewhat clarified by Jeff Vanderbeek's statement that his partner 'Brick City Hockey' (headed by minority owners Mike Gilfillan and Ray Chambers) didn't share his vision of the franchise and was putting their share of the team up for sale but that he expected to maintain a controlling interest.

Later reports have clouded the picture again though, with speculation that the minority owners can, in fact initiate a sale of the whole team and the Prudential Center arena. If you believe the Post, Vanderbeek only owns 30% of the Devils (if you have enough partners, that could still be enough to own a majority but not enough to ensure the others won't eventually buy you out of control), other reports have his stake at the team at 50%, with Chambers, Gilfillan and co-owner Peter Simon - who won't be selling his interest - splitting the rest of the team. If there really is instability with the team, that could further complicate the efforts to give Zach Parise a long-term deal this offseason, among other consequences of whatever nonsense is going to come of this latest spectacle in the days, weeks and months.

Vanderbeek can protest all he wants that nothing's going to change but in the span of a week I've now seen two of my teams be put up for sale and have been doubly lied to. That's a pretty bizarre coincidence, though the Devils' problems seem to be coming from left field even more than the Mets. If the Devils were in such dire straits, why exactly did we spend nearly $200 million aggregate in salaries this offseason between the contracts of Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov and trading for Jason Arnott? Is one bad season at the box office enough to get half of ownership to cry wolf or are they just looking for a profit now that the team's value has peaked?

At the very least, clearly we haven't been told everything about Vanderbeek's agreement with his partners, just like the Mets admitted nothing to us about how Bernie Madoff would affect the team. The shame of it is, Vanderbeek looked like he came straight from central casting as an owner who is a legitimate fan and kept involved on a day-to-day basis with the team and the fans PR-wise but didn't micromanage the hockey operation a la a Dan Snyder with the Redskins. Although he hasn't admitted he's looking to sell yet, his former firm at Lehman Brothers also took a huge hit during the recession but until now money certainly hasn't been an issue with the team. Who knows if we'll be as lucky with the next guy or group that comes in, since either way this looks like the beginning of the end of Vanderbeek being the face of the franchise.

It's too bad that whatever happens in the last 32 games, this will now loom over the rest of the season and the offseason. We really can't get a break from contreversy, between the Jamie Langenbrunner insubordination towards Jacques Lemaire last year to the Kovalchuk nonsense this offseason and Johnny MacLean's ill-fated tenure as coach, probably the worst stint as a coach ever in the NHL since it was so short and a spectacular failure. This is just more nonsense to add onto the pile.

About the only good thing you could say for today is the team won, and played fairly well if a bit uninspired at times against a subpar Ottawa team playing another goalie I never heard of (19-year old Robin Lehner). Of course, the 2009 second-round pick gave us headaches for most of the night - as have most goalies this year - stopping 31 shots, 24 of them in the first two periods with only Nick Palmeri beating him in the first minute of the second period. At least one of our rookie forwards is playing well - Palmeri has four goals in his first eleven games - of course that rookie's not Matthais Tedenby who was scratched yet again after a subpar game in Detroit last week. And once again I ask, if he's not going to play here then why is he here?

At least our defense was about as healthy as you could expect at this point, with Colin White's return after two games on the shelf with a lower-body injury. For one of the few times all year we had our top four of Volcheknov-Tallinder-White and Andy Greene intact on defense and the two free agent signings both seem to be hitting their stride now after slow starts. Among our top six, only Mark Fayne (flu) missed the game, with Anssi Salmela taking his place.

While defensively and system-wise we looked more like the Devils of the last three weeks of January, offensively we looked like the pre-Lemaire version for the most part. Until the final six minutes, when Danius Zubrus scored on a weird deflection (a break we weren't getting for the most part earlier this year), which gave us just enough breathing room for a regulation 2-1 win. Our seventh win in nine games was played in front of a crowd who was announced at just over seven thousand but in actuality probably much less due to the icy roads keeping ticketholders away.

Somewhat nonsensically, reporters have been asking the team whether they still feel they're in the playoff chase and were pestering Lemaire about it during the postgame, as if being some eighteen points back with 32 games left constitutes being 'in' it. Rightly the coach poo-poohed the question with this response:

“I never talk about that (with the players),” Lemaire said. “We’ve just got to take it a game at a time and that’s it because it’s nearly impossible, so why are you going to look at the whole picture?”

Really, you can't look at the playoffs until you get to .500...that should be the first goal and goaltender Martin Brodeur admitted as much on numerous occasions. Not that I want fans to completely give up the ghost, it's better than all the 'tank' talk that dominated December and early January but you've got to be somewhat realistic here. For the Devils to make the playoffs they'd have to do something more than twice as improbable as anything that's ever been accomplished in hockey history. We're not even out of last place yet.

At least things on-ice are looking a lot better than it is off-ice these days.

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