For those of you who aren’t aware, P.K. Subban is one of the most dynamic athletes and personalities in sports. Known not only as an all-star defenseman for the New Jersey Devils, Subban is also a philanthropist, entrepreneur, producer, fashion enthusiast. We know this because he tells us that himself on his website.
He is famous for, among other things, his post-goal celebration, which is dubbed ‘The Skateman,’ a move that can be completed in three easy steps. Step 1: Plant your right knee firmly on the ground while bending your left knee to a 90-degree angle. Step 2: Raise your left arm straight out in front of you with a hockey stick in hand while your right arm extends in a bow-and-arrow motion pumping the air three times. Step 3: Make sure to project loudly while confidently yelling, “WOOOOO!”
As John McMullen does a continual series of rotations in his grave and Lou Lamoriello casts a wary eye from across the Hudson River, we can now say with 100-percent certainty that these are not your father’s New Jersey Devils. The franchise that for so many years toiled in excellence and obscurity is mired only in the latter these days. Even when the Devils are successful, they struggle for relevance in the world’s largest pro sports market.
When they miss the playoffs, as they have in six of seven years, it’s enormously easy to get lost in the shuffle. But the Devils are hoping that two days in June addressed both their maladies. The first was Day 1 of the draft, when they parlayed their winning ticket in the draft lottery to take Jack Hughes, the best player the USA Hockey National Team Development Program has ever produced and a young man who exudes confidence and appeal.
Nobody cares if you’re injured or you miss games. There are expectations on you to be elite every year, and that’s great, because that’s my expectation
– P.K. Subban
The second was Day 2, when they parlayed their enormous amount of cap space to acquire Subban from Nashville without impacting their roster. “We want to be good, but we want to be relevant,” said Devils GM Ray Shero. “What’s wrong with that? We have a great fan base with real passion, and we need more of ’em. And we’re going to get ’em.”
The Devils have had some great players in their history – including Hall of Famers Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Joe Nieuwendyk, who all won Stanley Cups wearing the uniform. But they have never, ever had a player quite like Subban, one who takes up so much oxygen and one who is a brand as much as he is a hockey player.
One of the first things Subban did after the trade was change the profile picture on his Twitter feed, superimposing his face on a guy in a devil costume. Then he ripped off a quick video in which he asked Devils fans, “Are you ready for The Subbanator, because I’m ready to go!”
It’s the kind of thing that often rubs those who espouse hockey’s team-first culture the wrong way, and there’s little doubt it hastened his departure from the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 2016. Those people are clearly not among his 1.1 million Twitter followers or the 919,000 who follow him on Instagram.
His girlfriend is retired U.S. Olympic gold-medallist skier Lindsey Vonn. Subban hangs out with the likes of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Drake, makes a regular appearance at the NHL Awards even when he’s not nominated for anything and was regularly spotted among the celebrities during the Toronto Raptors’ run to the NBA title. And now he’s in the biggest media market in the world. “You know what? This is sports entertainment,” Subban said. “There’s always a business side to that, and obviously people love to talk about that a lot in regards to me and my time in the league. But winning is the most important thing, and winning helps every business.”
So can a 30-year-old Subban, coming off a season in which injuries limited him to 63 games and a career-low 31 points, help the Devils win games? It’s a fair question. In Subban’s three seasons with the Predators, they advanced to a Cup final and won a Presidents’ Trophy. But this past season, despite posting their second straight 100-point effort, the Preds were bounced in the first playoff round. Subban and his $9-million cap hit, which will be completely absorbed by the Devils, were not the problem in Nashville, but he was the easiest player to move.
It should be noted, too, that Subban had two goals and 12 points in 18 games, and the Predators were first overall in the NHL with a 13-4-1 record when Subban went down with an upper-body injury that caused him to miss 19 games. Nashville went 9-9-1 without him in those games and had a record of 38-20-5 with Subban in their lineup.
Adding Subban undoubtedly represents a huge upgrade for New Jersey’s defense corps. On the right side the Devils now have Subban, Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen, with Vatanen having the ability to move to the left side if needed. On the left, there’s 36-year-old mainstay Andy Greene, Will Butcher and Mirco Mueller.
In Subban, the Devils have a guy who can play big minutes, kill penalties, provide a shutdown presence and contribute offensively. “The reality is the expectations for me are to be in the top three, top five defensemen every year,” Subban said. “Nobody really cares if you’re injured or miss games or what happened. There are expectations on you to be elite every year, and that’s great, because that’s my expectation. I believe that when I’m on my game and I’m playing my best, I can be the best defenseman in the league, and I think I’ve proven that.”
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Up to and including the deal he made swapping John Quenneville for John Hayden later on Day 2 of the draft, Shero has made 86 trades involving 135 players and 74 draft picks during his career as a GM in the NHL. He’s committed grand larceny, getting Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. He’s acquired the likes of Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, James Neal, Alex Kovalev, Bill Guerin and Gary Roberts. Each of them has a story, but not one that spans eight years and 349 days. That was the first time Shero met Subban and he made a mental note of what kind of person Subban was right there at the hotel in the Palmetto Dunes area of Hilton Head, S.C.
The date was July 8, 2010, and the AHL board of governors was wrapping up its annual meetings with a dinner and dance. Subban, who had just played his first pro season for the Hamilton Bulldogs before joining the Canadiens for their unlikely run to the Eastern Conference final, was a guest of Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer. While the parents dined and danced, there was an area for all the kids to gather, and Subban, barely 20, spent most of the night with the kids, signing autographs and playing mini-sticks.
“How he dealt with the kids down there, my kids never forgot it,” Shero said. “I was so impressed. You have a first impression of somebody, and that was it for me. Honestly, it was really cool.”
Shero discovered something might be afoot with Subban the same way Preds GM David Poile did when he traded for him three years ago, through media reports and speculation Subban might be available. Shero was Poile’s assistant GM for eight years in Nashville, and he considers Poile to be his most valuable mentor. The two kept in touch as the draft approached, but things really got going in Vancouver. Shero knew Poile had the option to make a hockey deal that would see the Predators retain some of Subban’s salary, but he was one of the few GMs who could absorb the entire $9-million ticket.
“I said, ‘David, one is a hockey deal and I can’t compete with that,’ ” Shero said. “ ‘I’ve got the futures, and if you’ve got a hockey deal, do it. If you do a hockey deal, you’re no further (ahead) in what you’re trying to accomplish. Two things to me that are really great assets in this league are cap space and certainty and, right now, David, you have neither of them.’ ”
It clearly gave Poile something serious to ponder. Shero circled back with the Predators in their suite at the Rogers Arena after Day 1 of the draft in a meeting with Poile, his son and hockey-operations director Brian Poile, coach Peter Laviolette and assistant GM Jeff Kealty.
In the meantime, Shero was talking to Brian Boyle, who had been with the Devils and was dealt to the Predators at the trade deadline this past season, along with Hal Gill, who does color for the Predators and was Subban’s defense partner in Montreal, and Hall, who has played with and against Subban for years.
Poile told Shero he would call him later that night. “I didn’t get a call, and that was really unlike David,” Shero said. “I woke up the next morning, and I was talking to (Devils owner) Josh Harris, and I said, ‘That’s not like David. I don’t know what’s going on.’ Josh asked me if I thought he traded him somewhere, and I said he would tell me if he did. ‘I’m not going to read this on Twitter.’ ” Just then, Shero’s phone rang, and it was Poile at the other end. Shero expected to hear Poile had dealt Subban somewhere else. “But he said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to wait, and do you want to do this?’ and I said yes. And Josh looked at me, ‘Like, really?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I want to do it.’ ”
Poile got the cap space he needed to sign Matt Duchene to a seven-year deal worth $56 million and should have enough left over to extend the contract of defenseman Roman Josi, who has been the NHL’s biggest bargain at $4 million a year for seven years (including this coming season, the final year of his deal). “David was proactive and didn’t get caught, and I was happy it worked out,” Shero said. “If he doesn’t get ahead of it, they don’t have that space.”
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So now all Subban has to do is go out and perform for a Devils team that is trying to build itself into a perennial playoff contender. Much of that will be determined by Hall, whose contract can be extended anytime and whose situation will be addressed later in the summer.
New Jersey’s acquisition of Subban will help, as will the addition of Hughes, along with Wayne Simmonds on a show-me, one-year deal worth $5 million and a heart-and-soul role player in Hayden. Truth be told, the Devils’ 97-point season in 2017-18 was the outlier for a team still building a culture and a winning attitude. But the rebuild is on track.
“We’re at the stage in our rebuild where you need to have some elite talent, some guys who have energy, passion, some personality and some conviction in their own abilities and how they want to play,” said Devils coach John Hynes. “For me as a coach, it’s exciting because you have to have high-end talent to win in this league, and we’re getting a dynamic player. It’s very difficult to get a big, strong, talented player who can drive play and play against the other team’s best players. We’re excited about what both P.K. and Jack can bring to our team on and off the ice.”
We want to be good, but we want to be relevant. We have a great fan base with real passion, and we need more of ’em. And we’re going to get ’em.
– Ray Shero
In Hughes, the Devils have a potential superstar center, a commodity they’ve never had in their franchise history. The all-time leading scorer in the history of the NTDP, Hughes brings with him the talent to change the complexion of a game. He has game-breaking speed, an innate ability to create plays and a knack for making players around him better.
What is best about his situation is that Nico Hischier, another one of Shero’s winning lottery picks in 2017, can ease Hughes’ transition by doing much of the heavy lifting. And even though the Devils welcome the notoriety and attention Subban and Hughes will bring, they’re still the Devils, and success will be measured by how good the team is, not by how many points or awards are accrued. “Put it this way, Nico Hischier didn’t win the Calder Trophy, but he centered the Hart Trophy winner in his first year,” Hynes said. “To really break it down for him and for us, to get him to a level this year to help the Devils win games, that would be a first successful season for Jack Hughes.”
Simmonds, if he can stay healthy, will help. Much has been made of his drop in production, but with the exception of 2015-16, when he had 19 even-strength goals, Simmonds has consistently scored between 12 and 14 goals at 5-on-5 the past six seasons, this past one included. The Devils won’t need Simmonds on their first power play, but they will be able to use him in front of the net as he remains one of the best in the league in that area.
But so much of this is about P.K. Subban, Norris Trophy winner and Olympian. He has his contract, with three years left on it, and now he’s looking for the one thing that has eluded him, that he came so close to getting with Nashville in 2016-17. No. 76 will be looked to for leadership and production and will have the chance to play bigger minutes, not having to compete for ice time with Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.
Subban believes he still has eight to 10 years of hockey left in him and feels reinvigorated by the challenge. “I’ve never felt better and I’m excited to give the team whatever I can to help them win,” he said. “My objective is to come in and be a good mentor for the young guys, but I’m coming to win. I’m not coming for participation. I want a Stanley Cup ring, and I want to do that in New Jersey.”