Our new Devils writer, Chris Wassel paints a great word picture about a well respected player in New Jersey and around hockey circles.
There is a growing sense that Patrik Elias may very well retire. Whether it happens or not is still pure conjecture. What is not speculative is the impact that the forward has had on the New Jersey Devils organization and vice versa.
The chatter has built up all year until this point. To say this has been an injury riddled season is a huge understatement. Elias only played a mere 16 games and had two goals and six assists on the year. That included three points in his season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It is the hardest thing to watch as a former hockey player and now a writer. The career arc has to go downward at some point. Not everyone can be a Jaromir Jagr. That is about as blunt as anyone can be about this. The hardest thing to watch is a player that is clearly declining. That was seen in Elias last year when the Devils were in a state of disarray under the Lou Lamoriello three headed monster. A 34 point season in 69 games was painful to watch as the defensive skills and speed slowly eroded out of Elias’s game.
Something was even more off at the start of training camp heading into the 2015-16 season. There was a rumor of a knee issue that had been nagging Elias for some time in the summer. Most media and experts were a little hesitant and had a right to be. As the days dragged on, those turned into weeks. Finally, on November 25th, he was able to make his season debut. Few noticed it but Elias still was not 100% and it did look like the other knee had been injured somewhere between game nine and ten of his season.
That would prove to only worsen and his time was lessened along with spending a decreased amount of time practicing. Above all, he was a professional about it. Nobody ever caught a hint of frustration in his voice ever.
Sadly, the worst was confirmed late in December when he would go on the injured reserve once more. He eventually would have arthroscopic surgery to clean out his knee. It would be a long process and even during the rehab, there were so many doubts as to if he could even return this year. That led to the next question.
What about the end of his contract? That always led to more questions. Elias maintained a diplomatic approach as he started to skate then practice without restriction. Since he had missed so many games, a return would have to be calculated and probably would have to be during the last week of the regular season. New Jersey dropped out of playoff contention much later than anyone expected but the stage was set.
His first two games back were cause for grave concern career wise as Elias just did not look like the same player. The instincts even appeared to be a little bit diminished. What had to be kept in mind was the long layoff; Rust was a likely outcome.
The final game against Toronto expected to be more of the same except for one wrinkle. Pavel Zacha was going to play on a line with him. Zacha’s idol is Elias and during prospect camp, the first round draft pick amusingly tried some moves that a young Elias used to try. It was amusing to see but spoke to the potential of the young forward.
From the opening face-off, one could see a different player in the long time Devil. As New Jersey turned a 1-0 deficit into an ever growing lead, the focus was pointed straight towards Elias. He did not disappoint with a three point effort including a late goal in front of the Toronto net mouth that left the fans misty eyed. Honestly, it left the now 40-year-old rubbing his eyes even during his post-game interview on MSG Plus.
The next question would be retirement but on Saturday night, that was just not the time or place. It is rare to have the privilege to cover a contemporary and someone right in your same age group basically. Getting to know Elias has been a pleasure and yes the tears flowed from my eyes during the finale. Twenty years of memories and the championship memories come front and center but there are little moments that transcend hockey.
Three years ago, there was a game where New Jersey had basically been eliminated from playoff contention and Elias was ticked. He apologized for his behavior and the thought was that was that. The forward knew my birthday was the next day.
Heading back to the Prudential Center to cover the relief game for Sandy, I headed back to the locker room where Ken Daneyko and Claude Lemieux were. As I am about to walk away, there was a small cupcake with a candle in it and a simple card that said, “Happy Birthday Chris”. It was from none other than Elias himself.
It is truly the smallest things that matter most and thanks to the team’s public relations people I was able to return the message to Elias.
Whether he retires or not, Saturday night would be one heck of a way to leave the NHL. If Elias wants that type of sunset or if he plays one more year, nobody would argue either way. There is one wrinkle to this story and that is this.
Happy Birthday Mr. Elias and to yours truly as well. Thank you for all that you have done on and off the ice for the New Jersey Devils.
Pavel Zacha in action. Photo by Drew King