Devils center Patrik Elias made his return on Tuesday night after being out three months with a knee injury.
Elias has missed most of the season, and has played only 14 games, with one goal and four assists.
Elias turns 40 on April 13, and a very likely reason for him to return for the final three games of this season, all at Prudential Center, is to say goodbye.
There is no question he is the greatest offensive player in Devils history, and will be the first forward to have his number retired. The Devils’ four retired numbers are for three defensemen (Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, and Scott Neidermayer), and the greatest goaltender ever, Martin Brodeur.
When Elias retires, the Devils are losing their last link to the Stanley Cup years, as he was on the 2000 and 2003 championship teams. For that matter, there aren’t many players left from the 2012 Eastern Conference championship teams, the Devils’ last run of glory and their last playoff appearance.
Elias was drafted by the Devils in 1994 and made his debut in the 1995-96 season when he played one game. He played 17 the following season, with his first full campaign in 1997-98, when he had 18 goals and 19 assists in 74 games. He scored 35 goals in the Stanley Cup-winning season of 1999-2000, and followed that up with 40 goals as the Devils went back to the Cup Finals.
He has racked up over 1,000 points, with 407 goals and 615 assists in his career.
On Tuesday night, after the Devils lost 3-1 to the Buffalo Sabres, Elias said of how he felt to be back out there, “Not too bad, personally, haven’t played since January and it wasn’t too bad. Physically was fine, hockey-wise was a little rusty on a couple of the plays, passing, shooting obviously, but not bad personally.”
Elias said of when he knew he could come back this season, “Maybe a couple weeks ago. I started to practice with most of the guys that were hurt and just see kind of where I was compared to them. I felt okay, had up and down days, but that’s normal going through rehab and that helped me.”
On if he wants to come back next season, Elias said, “I don’t know. I think that’s, I have a lot of time to think about it, but I don’t want to put myself and obviously any team in the situation that I’ve been this year, you know, to be in and out for a longer period of time wouldn’t be fair to anyone, but we’ll see how I feel.”
When asked why not come back by Stan Fischler, Elias humorously said, “Why not?” and then said, “We’ll see, it’s a long way, who knows what the future holds. I truly hope it’s not a farewell, but you never know.”
Elias received applause the first few times he controlled the puck in the game, and said of the fan reaction, “Yes always, these guys have been great to me over a pretty long time, it’s nice to get recognized. Respect for a job you’ve done over the years and they’re happy to see you back, and I was happy to be back, so it’s always nice.”
Elias said of a big scoring chance he had, “Yeah, it was a sick play there. We’ve had one of those with Lars (Adam Larsson) maybe like four years ago in Winnipeg, and just over-thinked that one, I got too excited, tried to make a backhand, should have shot that one.”
On how emotional it was to get back on the ice, Elias said, “You jump into the normal right away. It takes one shift and you’re back into just playing the game. So, for me, personally, it was a good night, but as a team, we didn’t play well at all, so hopefully we got to fix that and come out with the two wins, not just for us, but for the logo and the team.” The Devils’ last two games are against Tampa Bay on Thursday and Toronto on Saturday.
Elias said of progress the Devils made this season, “You have to evaluate the season after it’s done. I think there’s been a lot of positives, but you’ve still missed the playoffs. Obviously, before the season, if anybody would tell you the Devils had played that way and got recognition from the teams around them and hang around until the final five games, I’m sure most teams would take it. You’ve seen what they’re capable of, and I think in the future, that’s what they’ll look for is to get back in the playoffs. The coaching staff and management is making sure that’s the thought process for everyone, for these young guys going forward and what it means to be part of this organization, and they’re heading in the right way.”
General Manager Ray Shero and Head Coach John Hynes are just finishing their first season in New Jersey, and Elias said of the job they did, “Bringing those guys, new faces in and fitting into that system that John wanted to play, it’s great, I think they surprised a lot of people. But you ask him, he’s not going to be happy because we haven’t got into the playoffs. That was the goal going through the season of figuring out a team, realizing that this team could get there, and obviously when you don’t get there, it’s disappointing.”
Hynes said of getting Elias back, “I thought Patrik came in and he made some nice plays. I thought he had a couple opportunities to score, you know, you could see his hockey sense and his hands are still there. I thought his skating and his conditioning looked good. So, I think it was a good first game back for him. Even as a coach, when you’re looking to play certain guys, I felt like I could play him 5-on-5 and on the power play, good to see him out there, and get him more game-ready as the week goes on.”
On if Elias will play Thursday against Tampa Bay, Hynes said, “That’s something that he and I had talked about this week was trying to take it day-by-day, and just make sure he feels good in his recovery, and I think sometimes you get in a game like tonight, and there’s adrenaline, and you’re excited to play, so we’ll see how he feels tomorrow (Wednesday) and we still have 48 hours before the next game.”
Hynes said of wanting Elias to return next season, “That’s something that for me, I haven’t thought about next season. I’d like to have him back for the next game, and see if we can get him through the week and then think about those things at the end of the season.”
Hynes said of what Elias did to help the team while he was out of game action, “He was a leader. I think with his teammates, he brought a lot of energy to the rink even though he wasn’t playing. He was always around, we used him and asked him at times to talk to certain players and get his opinions on things. He was very communicative with the coaching staff and the management and helping through the transition and things like that. Basically, what he’s been here in the past is, I think, a leader and, really, a foundation guy to the team. The only difference was we just weren’t able to reap the rewards of him playing every game.”
Devils captain Andy Greene said of what Elias meant to this team, “He’s a huge leader of this team. Obviously, his career speaks for itself. I’ve always appreciated him being around here, little things and being a leader. I’ve learned a lot from him throughout the years. It was good to see him back on the ice, he deserved it, he worked extremely hard to get there. Hopefully it’s not the end of it this week.”
Elias said of the new faces on the Devils, “I played a few games before with (Mike) Sislo, and I think he’s a good player, he’s got good speed, great shot, he’s on top of the puck, and with Jake (Josefson) obviously playing today, I thought we were doing a pretty good job for most of the night, not enough chances, creating scoring chances. We didn’t play at all, but should have created more.”
Elias said of left wing Reid Boucher, who hads 8 goals and 11 assists in 37 games, “He’s getting the opportunity, you see it right away what he’s good at, and that’s being, he’s a shooter. You put him in that situation to succeed and he will do that. He’s mixed in really well with Travis (Zajac) and Palms (Kyle Palmieri). He’s been very solid, but it’s just not him, a lot of the guys. Still have two games to play, even these two games are a learning process. No matter what the situation is, you’ve got to keep doing your best, and we haven’t done that tonight.”