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Notable Comebacks of New Jersey Devils History: The Return of Bobby Holik

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Continuing with the theme of historical posts about the New Jersey Devils, this series will be devoted to players that left the organization and later returned. Today’s subject is Bobby Holik.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
He still threw the body in 2008, even if his scoring touch was not exactly there.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Bobby Holik, who was acquired in a trade with the Hartford Whalers in 1992 (as detailed in this recent post), and was member of the great Crash Line with Randy McKay and Mike Peluso, is fondly remembered by many Devils fans for his time with the team from 1992 to 2002. In that span, he scored over 60 points three times and also finished in the top ten for Selke voting three years. He won two Stanley Cups with the team in 1995 and 2000, and was tied for fourth on the team in scoring in the playoffs in 2001 with Alexander Mogilny, when he had six goals and 10 assists. Following that playoff series, however, Holik became at odds with the team’s front office. Today’s post focuses on what happened that caused the rift between Holik and the Devils and their reunion in the end stages of his career.

The Arbitration Fall-out: Following the 2000-01 season, Bobby Holik went to arbitration after being unable to come to terms with Lou Lamoriello. According to an article from 2001 by Larry Brooks, Holik went into the arbitration hearing asking for $4.7 million, while the Devils posited that he was worth $3.1 million. The arbiter ruled that the Devils would owe Holik $3.5 million after the hearing. Brooks wrote about the ordeal,

Lou Lamoriello did not testify at the hearing, instead leaving attorney Larry Bertuzzi to present the Devils’ case. The Post has learned that Bertuzzi portrayed Holik as a player in decline, and used centers Robert Reichel, Travis Green and Viktor Kozlov as comparables.

At a mere glance, two of these comparables were pretty far off. Reichel was an undersized center who had great offensive ability - but not the hard-nosed style and two-way play of Bobby Holik. Reichel needed linemates who were more defensively responsible than he was, and played his last season in 2003-04 at age 32, when his scoring had declined to 11 goals in 69 games. Prior to the arbitration process, Travis Green had already declined to 28 points in 69 games in the middle six for the Phoenix Coyotes, and only broke the 30-point mark once more in his career (2001-02). Kozlov, who later became a New Jersey Devil for 80 games split between 2003-04 and 2005-06, was younger than Holik and the only player mentioned who was at least physically similar to Bobby Holik - but much less consistent a player as the Devils later found out. Kozlov was big like Holik, but more of a skill-centric player who was more apt playing a finesse game with the puck than Holik’s hard-nosed style. If not for his return to Russia, Kozlov probably could have played a few more solid seasons in the NHL.

But from the arbitration hearing, Bobby Holik made up his mind about his future. After hearing the arguments the Devils’ attorney made about him, Holik told Brooks:

Lou had time to sign me to a long-term contract before Sunday and did not try. I don’t want to speak for him, I don’t want to predict what he is going to do now, but I can tell you that I definitely will not be willing to negotiate once the season begins. Whether I would sign a contract between now and then, I would have to think long and hard. Right now, I am not ready to consider it. I am not going to hold a grudge. I am going to approach this season like I always do and dedicate myself to getting the third Cup. I never put myself ahead of the team and I will not do it this year. But on July 1, 2002, that will be the time for me to put myself and my family, first.

These could not have been the words that any Devils fans wanted to hear, but it was the risk that Lou Lamoriello and the Devils’ front office ran when they decided to go to arbitration over a $1.6 million dispute.

Holik Signs with the Rangers: Following the 2001-02 season, in which Bobby Holik scored 25 goals and had 29 assists along with a team-leading four goals in the six game series the Devils lost to the Hurricanes that season, Holik followed through with his promise to put himself and his family first. Jason Diamos, writing for the New York Times, detailed Holik’s decision to sign with the Devils’ most hated rival. Diamos wrote,

“I gave the Devils more than one chance, not just today, but over the past 13 months, to sign me to a long-term contract,” said Holik, who jumped at the Rangers’ five-year, $45 million offer. “So when this deal was presented to me, I didn’t need to search any more. I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

Over the next two seasons, Bobby Holik scored 16 goals and 19 assists in 64 games followed by 25 goals and 31 assists in 82 games. The 2002-03 Rangers went 32-36-10-4 and missed the playoffs. The 2003-04 Rangers went 27-40-7-8, as Holik lead the team in scoring with his 56 points. However, on January 23, 2004, the Rangers traded Anson Carter for Jaromir Jagr. Anson Carter had made $2.8 million in 2003-04, while Jagr had made $11 million that season. At the time, Washington agreed to pay at least $4 million per year of the contract, but the Rangers still took on a large contract in addition to the large one they signed Bobby Holik to in 2002.

Bought Out: After the lockout of 2004-05, the Rangers decided to buy out Bobby Holik, as the league implemented a salary cap. In order to keep Jaromir Jagr, the Rangers would have to buy out Holik. CBC Sports reported at the time,

He had two seasons left on his deal at $6.726 million a year. Friday marked the final day teams could buy out players at two-thirds of their existing contract, as per the new collective bargaining agreement.

Some outlets (including CBC Sports) regarded Holik as struggling to perform under the pressure of a big contract, but his production with the Rangers was not much different from what he regularly did in New Jersey. Over the three seasons he played prior to signing with the Rangers, Holik had 150 points in 240 games, good for an average of 0.625 points per game over that span. In his two seasons in New York, Holik’s 91 points in 146 games was just below that at 0.623 points per game. Holik’s contract was definitely too large, but statistically he did not perform worse in New York than he did the prior few seasons in New Jersey.

To Atlanta: After being bought out by the New York Rangers, Bobby Holik was signed by the Atlanta Thrashers to a three year, $12.75 million deal. The Thrashers had done somewhat better than the Rangers the year before the lockout, as they went 33-37-8-4 with Ilya Kovalchuk scoring 87 points in 81 games and Marc Savard scoring 52 points in 45 games. Jason Diamos wrote for the New York Times,

Holik, who won two Stanley Cups with the Devils before signing with the Rangers in 2002, said in a conference call that he chose Atlanta for its no-nonsense coach, Bob Hartley, and its rising young stars, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.

“I noticed the change in their play ever since he got there,” Holik said, referring to Hartley. “If you follow the game a little bit, you could see the instantaneous difference when he showed up.

He added: “The harder you practice, the easier the games are. And I missed that the last couple of years.”

The addition of Bobby Holik helped get the Thrashers to a 41-33-8 record, but their 90 points was two behind the Tampa Bay Lightning as Atlanta missed the playoffs. Holik was ninth on the team in total scoring (after being first on the Rangers in 2003-04) with 15 goals and 18 assists in 64 games, while Vyacheslav Kozlov, Marian Hossa, Marc Savard, and Ilya Kovalchuk handled the offense with 71, 92, 97, and 98 points, respectively. The team’s downfall was goaltending, as Kari Lehtonen led the team with a .906 save percentage and 2.94 goals against average over 38 games. The four other goalies on the team - Michael Garnett (24 games), Mike Dunham (17 games), Adam Berkhoel (.9 games), and Steve Shields (5 games) combined for an .883 save percentage.

The 2006-07 Thrashers fared much better as Kari Lehtonen posted a .912 save percentage in 68 games played, while Johan Hedburg was the only backup on the team with a .898 save percenage in 21 games played. The team improved to 43-28-11 for first in the division with 97 points. However, Bobby Holik had the worst scoring season of his career at the time, with just 11 goals and 18 assists in 82 games. That year, Kovalchuk, Kozlov, and Hossa scored 76, 80, and 100 points, respectively, but the Thrashers ran into the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. The Rangers swept the Thrashers.

After Scott Mellanby retired following the 2006-07 season, Bobby Holik became captain of the Atlanta Thrashers in the final year of his contract. Holik had a solid season in 2007-08 - better than the one prior - as he scored 15 goals and tallied 19 assists in 82 games. This was despite Atlanta being one of the worst possession teams in the league as they had a 42.9 team CF% at even strength according to Hockey-Reference. Holik’s CF% that year stood at 45.1, but Holik’s play did not allow the team’s scorers to flourish as it had the prior season. Ilya Kovalchuk led the team with 87 points, as Marian Hossa missed 22 games with injury and ended up with 56 points, and Kozlov dropped to 41 points in 82 games. The team also claimed Mark Recchi off waivers from Pittsburgh, who scored 40 points in 53 games. This amounted to a team that had a below average offense, scoring just 216 goals for 20th in the league, while giving up a league-worst 272 goals. Coach Bob Hartley was fired after a 0-6-0 start, and Don Waddell went 34-34-8 with the team for the rest of the season.

The Return: When his contract with the Atlanta Thrashers expired, Bobby Holik decided to go to free agency again. Holik was then 37 years old and nearing the end of his career. Mark Everson of the New York Post reported that Lamoriello signed Holik to a one-year, $2.5 million contract along with a four-year, $5 million per year contract for Brian Rolston. For NHL.com (formerly newjerseydevils.com), Holik said this about returning:

One of the reasons I wanted to come back was the chance to play in the Atlantic Division again. You face the Flyers, the Rangers, the Islanders, and now, with the Penguins winning the Eastern Conference last year, it’s going to be a real challenge. It was important to me to be playing in a competitive atmosphere not only at home, but on the road. The majority of your games are divisional games, and for my style of play, this division is the best division in hockey.

With Jay Pandolfo playing on the third line with John Madden, Bobby Holik mostly saw the ice on the fourth line that season, playing with linemates such as Mike Rupp and David Clarkson. After missing a few weeks with a broken pinky, Holik struggled to produce for the Devils. Throughout the 62 regular season games Holik played that season, he only had four goals and five assists on 79 shots (5.1 shooting percentage). As far as his defensive abilities went, Holik was still a very solid player for the New Jersey Devils in 2008-09. Here’s a RAPM chart from Evolving-Hockey for his 2008-09 season.

Evolving-Hockey

Holik was still good at limiting the danger from opposing teams, as the Devils had a .952 save percentage with him on the ice. However, despite his positive impact, the team struggled to score with him on the ice. His 5.1% shot was better than his teammates, as Holik played with a team on-ice shooting percentage of 3.7% that season. Mike Rupp, who had three goals on a 3.9% shot in 72 games that season certainly did not help Holik’s offensive output.

There was also an issue with the number of penalties that Holik took on the fourth line. He took 27 penalties while drawing only seven, and the nearest Devils in penalties taken were Niclas Havelid and Bryce Salvador - both at 21, while drawing eight and six, respectively. Holik’s linemates, Clarkson and Rupp, both took 19 penalties while drawing 20 and 19, respectively. Holik contributed to pretty solid play when he was on the ice, but he had trouble staying out of the penalty box. His poor penalty ratio stuck out like a sore thumb on a team that was shorthanded 17 instances fewer than league average that season. Even so, Holik was massively helpful to the shot differential for many players on the Devils - especially Mike Rupp, Brendan Shanahan, Jay Pandolfo, and John Madden. From Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz, here’s a With or Without You chart for Bobby Holik from 2008-09:

Holik was solid at influencing shots for and against the Devils despite being used mostly in situations where the Devils were ahead.
HockeyViz - Micah Blake McCurdy

With the Devils going 51-27-4, they finished first in the Atlantic Division and took on the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs. Holik only played three games that playoff - Games Three, Four, and Five. In those games, he only played 7:15, 4:50, and 3:48, as he replaced Jamie Langebrunner in the lineup. He only had one point in the playoffs - an assist on the game-tying goal by David Clarkson where he tipped a point shot from Paul Martin, giving Clarkson a rebound to score on prior to the last second goal that helped doom the Devils in the series. After barely playing him in the game five shutout win (in which John Madden played 21:16), the Devils scratched Holik for the final two games of the series. From Dave Caldwell’s article for the New York Times on the end to that series,

“I thought we were on our heels for the last three minutes trying to protect the lead,” Sutter said.

Despite Brendan Shanahan being not very defensively reliable by that point of his career, Sutter had him on the line with Madden and Pandolfo for the Hurricanes’ game-winning goal. Shanahan’s clear from the defensive zone off the draw turned over the puck as it went past Jay Pandolfo, allowing the quick counterattack by the Hurricanes and the goal by Eric Staal. And because Sutter scratched Holik for the majority of the series, Holik did not get a chance to help protect that lead. And just like that, his career was over.

Retirement: Less than a month after the Devils lost in seven to Carolina, Bobby Holik announced his retirement from hockey. To continue playing with the Devils, Holik would have likely had to take a pay cut, and he did not play in the two losses that ended the Devils’ season. However, he denied being bitter about the healthy scratches in the playoffs. From Rich Chere’s article detailing his retirement,

The 38-year-old center, who broke in with the Hartford Whalers in 1990-91 and won two Stanley Cups with the Devils, said his decision had nothing to do with the fact that he played only three games in this year’s playoffs. “Absolutely not. I was leaning towards this decision for a long time before that,” Holik told me Saturday via telephone from his ranch in Wyoming. “Most importantly, I missed my family too much to be there day to day.

I had a tremendous time this season, but it’s enough. I’ve done it long enough. I think being a professional hockey player is the best life there can be. It doesn’t get better than that, but all good things come to an end. I enjoyed it to the last moment, but I knew the time was coming when I wasn’t going to enjoy it. I had to move on. It’s enough.”

With that, Bobby Holik retired having scored 326 goals and 421 assists in 1314 regular season NHL games, along with 20 goals and 39 assists in 141 playoff games. Holik had 202 goals and 270 assists in 786 games, along with all 20 of his playoff goals and 37 assists in 124 playoff games with the Devils. The Devils got the best out of Bobby Holik’s career, and if not for a contract dispute that went to arbitration in 2001 - he could have won a third cup with the team. Instead, after being gone for five seasons, Holik returned to a fourth line role that lacked the scoring ability to make good of his positive impacts on play, only to be scratched for four games, while Mike Rupp played all seven games.

Your Thoughts: What did you think about Bobby Holik’s return to the New Jersey Devils? Do you feel Brent Sutter made the right choice scratching him in favor of Mike Rupp for the Carolina series? Do you think Game Seven would have ended differently if Holik was on the ice for any of the end-of-game onslaught? Would you have wanted him to return if he did not retire? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Credit to Hockey-Reference for statistics, along with Evolving-Hockey (@Evolving-Hockey) and HockeyViz (@IneffectiveMath) for research on the 2008-09 season.