One of the biggest omissions on the New Jersey Devils' roster this season is Patrik Elias. Elias underwent surgery on September 15 to remove scar tissue from his groin. While the surgery was successful, Elias was estimated to be 3-6 weeks away from recovery. While the Elias has returned to skating on his own this week, the Devils clearly miss him as a player, as a talent, and as an asset on both special teams (keep in mind Elias played both on the power play and on the penalty kill in recent years) and on the second line.
Now, I won't go as far as to say that if Elias was healthy and in the Devils' first three games, then the Devils would have a better record than 1-2-0. Yet, there are some who think he can't come back soon enough. For example Jacqueline Flynn (@NJHockeyMom) on Twitter stated to me:
It can not happen soon enough. The Devils just can't play without him [Elias]. Problem.
Naturally, I questioned whether that was the case and she suggested it became a pattern in recent years. So I decided to look into the matter. It makes perfect sense given the current state of the team. Perhaps the Devils are going to continue to struggle this month until Elias returns?
The last completely full season Elias had played was in 2003-04, playing in all 82 games. Since the lockout, though, Elias has had some kind of injury ranging from the minor (e.g. the flu, a minor left knee injury) to a nearly life-threatening bout with Hepatitis A that kept him out of the season. It's a fair question, so I decided to find out what the Devils' records were with and without Patrik Elias since 2003-04.
What I discovered is that she is right - to a point. I'll explain further after the jump.
First, a side note about 2005-06. Patrik Elias was fighting and recovering from Hepatitis A and so he missed the 2005 part of the season. The Devils went 16-18-5 at that time. When Elias was scratched for a game in January 2006 and was sidelined for 4 in March 2006 with bruised ribs, the Devils went 3-0-2. I believe this is due to the fact that Devils literally caught fire when Elias returned to play and play incredibly well. Just coming back is inspiring enough, I would think, much less as a dominant player right off the bat.
Second, the initial claim is proven right on the surface. In only one season, 2007-08, do the Devils manage a .500 record or better when they were without Elias. A big mitigating factor in all of this is that Elias hasn't missed a significantly large amount of games in the last 3 seasons - just 7, 8, and 5, respectively. Moreover, in 2006-07 and 2007-08, Elias' injuries were minor and he wasn't out for more than a few games. That all said, the records are pretty strong evidence that a missing Elias is detrimental to the team's results. It shouldn't be so surprising, given that Elias has been an important player on the New Jersey Devils since the 1999-2000 season.
Third, and not seen here but included as an interesting coincidence, March is a common thread among all these seasons. In the last 4 seasons, Elias has missed at least 1 game in March: 1 in 08-09 (0-1-0), 4 in 07-08 (1-2-1), 5 in 06-07 (2-3-0), and 4 in 05-06 (2-0-2). The records in each of those vary, but they are mostly negative records. So if you're looking for a month where Elias misses some time, there you go.
Now, let's delve a little further and see how goals for and goals against are effected by Elias not playing.
I highly suggest that these two charts should be taken with a grain of salt largely due to the small amount of games in some of these seasons. As a result, totals and averages are skewed by a few bad games. In 2007-08, the Devils only scored 7 goals and gave up 14 in March 2008 without Elias, a stretch heavily skewed by a 7-1 loss to Pittsburgh. I don't think it's fair to say that the rout against New Jersey doesn't happen if Elias was there. If I recall correctly, the whole team played like garbage that night anyway.
That said, the Devils without Elias do suffer in terms of goals. The goals for on average drops 10-20%. With the exception of 2005-06, the average falls below 2.5 goals per game. This, to me, makes some sense given that Elias is a key offensive weapon on the Devils. Even with the rise of Zach Parise at left wing last season, Elias is still a main contributor having put up 78 points in 77 games last season. Especially on the power play, where he actually led the Devils in power play points with 31 (12 G, 19 A). So it may not be unreasonable to say that a Devils team without Elias, given these past seasons, is hurt offensively.
What I'm struggling with is that the defense suffers in terms of goals against without Elias. I know that Elias played on the penalty kill in some regard and he's very good about backchecking. Yet, I think the high goals against speak to the possibility that the Devils could have just played real poorly in some of these games where Elias was not playing. Let's go back to 2007-08 for example. If the Devils actually shutout Pittsburgh 1-0 instead of losing 7-1, the Devils goals against drop to 16 and to an average of 2 goals against - which is very, very good. Would that have happened if Elias was there? Maybe; but maybe the Devils wouldn't let the Penguins walk all over them regardless of how Elias played.
Ultimately, it's because of that sort of information that I can't really definitively conclude that the Devils are always worse off without Elias. Of course, he is a great player and you always miss great players when they are out, regardless of the sport. The records without Elias show that, overall, the Devils are not as a good team. The 2005-06 team is a big sign of that, back when Elias was expected to lead the team in scoring. That cannot be discounted and perhaps that alone justifies the initial claim.
Yet, is it the unavailability of Elias the cause of the Devils leaking goals in games where he's not playing; or is it something else? Likewise, is it mainly the unavailability of Elias that prevents other Devils from scoring when he's not playing? A factor, sure, but is it always true? Those questions, in conjunction with the smaller population sizes in recent seasons, forces me to waffle. I am not confident that that correlation leads to causation in this situation. I think it's more accurate to state that the Devils tend to struggle without Patrik Elias.
As a final and larger point, the Devils have won individual games without Elias, without Brodeur, and whoever else you can name on the team. The Devils are not a one-man team; something last season proved emphatically, in my opinion. There is talent in all facets of the squad; the performances have not reflected that unfortunately. Winning without Elias is not only possible, but it has been done before - just not consistently enough (as per the records). While Elias returning (and returning to form) would be welcomed by all involved, his absence does not excuse getting routed or how the Devils have performed so far this season. Something I think all Devils fans would definitely agree with.
Big thanks to Jacqueline for posing the initial statement that led to this post. If you have any questions, criticism, or thoughts, feel free to post them in the comments (Or tell me on Twitter: @JKFischer). If I did something wrong or didn't consider something about Elias not playing affecting the Devils, please, let me know. I would be more than happy to make any corrections to come to a more accurate conclusion.