With Patrik Elias announcing his retirement this morning, so ends the career of the best forward in New Jersey Devils history. Others may have outshined him for short stretches along the way, but no one did it as consistently or with the quiet but ruthless efficiency of Elias. Just about every minute of his NHL career was spent making the Devils a better team on the ice and there were a lot of minutes in that career. It will be a long time before anyone sniffs his Devils career points mark and likely his goals mark as well. He created some of the biggest moments in Devils history to go along with those numbers and will deservedly have his number retired by the team at the first opportunity.
Elias, in a way, is the perfect embodiment of the Devils over the era he played. He burst into the league with a level of dominance in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that mirrored those Devils teams. In 2000-01, he set the Devils single-season points record, coinciding with what was almost certainly the best Devils team ever assembled. The Devils made the playoffs every one of his first 12 full seasons in the league and he was one of the biggest reasons for that occurrence. And in 2012, Elias had his final truly great season, helping power a flawed team with his steady, dominant play into the postseason where they’d make it back to the final for the last time in that era. Even his magical sendoff at the end of last season embodied the pangs of nostalgia we now have for the team’s glory days. He was a consistent two-way force who made an impact in all three zones and contributed at evens as well as the PP and PK. Others players came and went, free agents slipped away, but Elias and the Devils just kept on churning and winning hockey games. Other teams ebbed and flowed, had good years and bad years, but Elias and the Devils rarely faltered.
And yet, similar to the Devils, it feels like Elias never quite got his due. A lot of the conversation around the Devils always seemed to circle around someone else. The rise and fall of other players, legends nearing the ends of their careers, the departures of other star Devils, the arrival of new faces: these things all had a way of obscuring exactly the type of career that Elias was building in the black and red. Through all the changes around him, Elias, an unflinchingly great forward over the years, was perhaps taken for granted at times.
On the national level, playing in New Jersey certainly didn’t help in terms of him getting the shine he deserved. Suiting up in many other uniforms around the league, Elias would be a no doubt, slam dunk Hall-of-Famer. Consider a forward who scored over a thousand points exclusively in the dead puck era and neo-dead puck era on a defensively-minded team, was a two-way force for the vast majority of that time, made the playoffs 13 times, and was arguably the best forward on 4 different Cup Final teams, including 2 Cup winners. A player who also has signature moments which include scoring the game winning goal late in the third period of a conference final game 7 and assisting on an overtime Stanley Cup winner. That seems like a pretty damn good case to me.
Elias’ biggest moments came early in his career, which is perhaps why some will try to argue against him as a ‘compiler’ instead of a truly great player. But if Elias did some of the things he did in New Jersey in, say, Toronto or Montreal, he’d likely be an NHL legend. Let’s take the one we all remember best as an example: the 2000 Cup-winning goal. In double overtime, Elias goes to a puck that has bounced to the corner and delivers a basically no-look pass to the slot threaded between two defenders to the tape of Jason Arnott’s stick for a tap-in goal to win the freaking Stanley Cup. How many assists in NHL history are objectively on that level?
Not to mention that before Justin Williams was “Mr. Game 7,” Patrik Elias made something of a name for himself in that department. In back-to-back playoffs, Elias kept great Devils teams alive with not one but two goals in two separate game 7s. First, in 2000, Elias capped the Devils comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals with both goals against the rival Flyers in a 2-1 game 7 victory. The following year, he scored two in a row to break a 1-1 game 7 deadlock with the Leafs in the conference semis and propel the Devils into the ECF. Each of the Devils Stanley Cup winners and finalists in his career had a lot of contributors but there’s a decent chance none of them get to that point without Patrik Elias, whether through his late game heroics or consistent contributions.
Perhaps one of my favorite Elias memories (or at least an underrated one), though, was his utter destruction of the Rangers in the 2006 first round. After returning from his battle with hepatitis A that season, he caught fire and turned that struggling Devils team into a powerhouse. He then carried that play into the playoffs against the Rangers, pulverizing them with 11 (!) points in the 4-game sweep that marked the first victory over that team across the Hudson in franchise history. The best part might have been the ruthlessness of it, though. It started with a ridiculous 6-point game to open the series and then ended on an absolutely filthy goal knife-twisting goal in game 4 to close things out. Despite the disappointing end to that playoff run in the next round, that dismantling of the Rangers powered by Elias remains one of the most fun series in the team’s history.
(I mean... good lord that is just rude.)
When you combine the big moments with the level of play that Elias brought night-in and night-out for two decades in a Devils uniform, it’s hard to deny just how special of a player he truly was. I won’t argue that he was the greatest player of his generation or anything like that but I will damn sure argue that he is vastly underrated and is deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame. He holds just about every meaningful statistical offensive record in Devils history, played his entire career in one uniform, and was a key contributor on multiple Cup and conference championship teams. He has a bunch of big moments and an immeasurable number small ones that flew under the radar to go along with it. As he decides to hang up the skates for the final time, I consider myself lucky to have seen his career up close along the way. You all should, too.
Research for this piece conducted with Hockey-Reference.com