VANCOUVER — The New Jersey Devils entered the off-season with one marketing plan. After April 9, the night they won the NHL draft lottery, those plans changed. Two and a half months later, the morning after they selected Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, they acquired P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators. Those plans changed once again.
“The news over the last 24 hours will challenge our marketing and content team and everyone else to ramp it up,” Devils president Hugh Weber told NBC Sports during draft weekend in Vancouver. “But we’ve been preparing behind the scenes, adding resources and getting things in place preparing for success, preparing for more demand. The team will be ready. What that actually looks like in terms of campaigns and all that other stuff, I’m not sure yet. Ray’s not done yet.”
Weber was the first person in the organization to know that the franchise had won the lottery and the right to make the first overall selection. The lottery process played out behind closed doors hours 90 minutes before the television broadcast announced the results. There, Weber and the other NHL team representatives were sequestered watching as the ping pong balls were pulled and the unique combinations were drawn.
Through the excitement of knowing the Devils would be picking first, Weber couldn’t share in that joy as the reps were forbidden from leaving the room until the broadcast ended and he certainly was going to withhold his exuberance in front of the teams that lost out on the top spot.
Once the lottery knew became public, Devils fans were eager to look toward the 2019-20 NHL season. Post-lottery, the franchise moved into the top 10 in the league in new ticket sales. After drafting Hughes and later acquiring Subban, they had sales staff working to capitalize on the excitement.
“I haven’t gotten numbers but there’s been a lot of activity and I think you’re going to see in a week’s time we anticipate an acceleration of not only people who were on the fence that didn’t renew yet, were kind of waiting to see, but also those that have been with us over a long time who said, ‘OK, I get it now, you guys are using that cap space just as you said you would and let’s get after it,'” Weber said.
While they’ve had time to prepare a plan for introducing Hughes to the market, Subban is his own marketing team. With over one million Twitter followers and 900,000-plus more on Instagram, his personality and work in the community will help sell the Devils.
The additions of Hughes and Subban not only upped the excitement levels in the Devils’ fan base, but the New York Rangers’ acquiring Jacob Trouba and drafting Kaapo Kakko second overall revived a rivalry between the two franchises. The Devils have long been on the outside in a crowded New York metropolitan market and they’re hoping this past weekend, plus whatever happens during the free agency period, will allow them to gain ground on their regional rivals.
“When hockey is competitive and the rivalries are strong in New York, I think it’s good for the NHL,” said Weber. “The Islanders are no slouches, they have a good core coming. You’ve got Lou [Lamoriello] and you’ve got the Rangers and us, even the Flyers now with [GM] Chuck Fletcher, there’s some good narratives happening in and around the Metropolitan, and we’re glad. If you stack up the teams in the East, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a very competitive conference. I think that’s just going to push us all. But generally, those types of rivalries, those types of stories are good for business.”
The Devils missed the playoffs last season coming off a surprising 2017-18 campaign that saw them play postseason hockey for the first time since 2012. Last season wasn’t necessarily a step back in Weber’s eyes. He viewed the playoff year as playing with “house money” and, according to their plan, the franchise is ahead of schedule.
“We never saw this as a linear progression,” Weber said. “We looked at are we making progress, are our prospects and our pipeline making progress, are they developing a team, does [head coach] John Hynes have a foothold on the culture here, is there a plan that we can continue working at? The answer was yes, which is why we extended Ray [Shero], we extended John, we extended the coaching staff, we extended virtually everybody on the hockey staff because this part of a linear, longer plan. We believe that patience in sports is one of the great arbitrage because too often teams and/or partners and owners get too impatient and want to make a change just for change’s sake.
“I wouldn’t say the lottery pick did anything more than to say it kind of accelerated a little bit because when you have the potential of the fifth or sixth pick, you might not see that player on your roster for a few more years, where now you have an impact player, an elite player that’s going to potentially contribute right off the bat. It helped us accelerate our plans and put things in place, not to rush anything. We’ve said over and over again there are no shortcuts to the top. There are shortcuts to the middle, but we don’t want to be in the middle.”
Keeping stability in the organization is key to the Devils in seeing progress. They believe that Hynes has helped create an identity for his team and that despite a playoff-less season, he kept them competitive through the end of the 82-game schedule. When Shero was hired in 2015 he made it a goal to ensure the franchise was respected again. A draft weekend splash certainly got people talking and excited about the on-ice product for next season. There’s still the Taylor Hall extension to take care of and then more work to be done when free agency opens, but the organization sees itself on the right track. But in the end the results will speak for themselves.
“In terms of fans and how fans have seen us, we have to earn that and it’s going to take some time to have the consistency,” Weber said. “Now moves like we did [this weekend], those are big splashes and they’re great stories, but unfortunately great stories don’t win games. It’s going to come down to team performance. We’ve been bullish, even without the additions that we’ve had, is that to see the progression of these prospects coming up and watching them being close to it. We think there’s going to be a few offshoots out of there that will surprise some people as well.”