“The championship to New Jersey! The Devils win the Stanley Cup!”
Those words echoed by longtime broadcaster Doc Emrick in June 1995 upon the Devils’ Stanley Cup Finals sweep of the Detroit Red Wings ushered in an unprecedented run of excellence for the franchise unmatched for over two decades.
In subsequent seasons, forward Patrik Elias developed into as a model of consistency and the Devils’ most prominent scorer. On Tuesday, Elias met with the media as he finalized his retirement and officially closed the most prosperous era in Devils’ history.
“I just want to thank the Devils’ organization, the owners, Ray Shero for giving me the opportunity to stay around the team for that long (18 years) and allowing me to do the thing that I loved since I was five years old and that is to play hockey,” Elias told the media prior to the Devils’ OT victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday.
Elias made his NHL debut during the 1995-96 season, two years after becoming a second-round selection out of the Czech Republic. He gradually acclimated himself to the culture around the organization and blossomed into an offensive juggernaut in 1999-00 with 35 goals and 72 points as part of “The A-Line” with Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott. The trio became immortalized when Elias assisted Arnott on the Stanley Cup-winning goal in double overtime against the Dallas Stars that spring.
“The style we played when we won the cup in 2000 was amazing”, Elias said. “You ask the guys who were part of those years (and 2003) and they would say, though I can’t speak for them, but I can honestly say that they were the two best years I had playing this game and realizing the journey it takes to win the cup. The first one was special.”
Recognized for perfecting the neutral zone trap. it’s easy to overlook the impact Devils had on the offensive end of the ice, but Elias set the tone for the unit’s production scoring at least 28 goals or better for five consecutive seasons, headlined by a career-high 40 goals, 96 points, and a league-leading 45 plus-minus rating in 2000-01. Paired with a stingy defense and the play of Martin Brodeur between the pipes, Devils quickly became of the league’s elite.
“It wasn’t a question of style for me. Each coach had a different style of hockey. We had a talented team and Larry Robinson and Robbie Ftorek allowed us to play offensively and be responsible defensively while having defensemen like Ken Daneyko, Colin White, and Brian Rafalski behind us. Our play was the reflection of the styles of each coach.”
Through 18 seasons in a Devils’ uniform, Elias was the club’s all-time leader in goals (408), assists (617), and points (1,025), passing John MacLean. Elias initially sought to play one final season after undergoing offseason knee surgery but eventually opted to call it quits and will have his number 26 hang in the Prudential Center rafters next season.
“A couple of times I was physically close to coming back. By December, I had been skating for three months and with the procedure I did, I felt better than I did last season. The rehab was good to go through but I started to doubt whether I could go through the everyday grind and play 5-10 games in a row.”
Elias’s retirement additionally leads to the next stage for the organization, which continues to rebuild and attempt to restore the level of play to the proud standard set by their predecessors. While Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider are the pillars of that effort, rookies such as Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha look to establish themselves and provide glimpses of their promise as part of the club’s future plans.
For a team whose playoff aspirations come to an abrupt end by midseason, the process of preparing for the future begins earlier than expected with time to evaluate and understand the organization’s present makeup. For Shero and head coach John Hynes, the task begins internally as they seek individuals who will prove capable of filling voids with the hope that a player of Elias’s caliber emerges for the next run of success.
“It’s a situation where we have known that we weren’t going to be in the postseason. We try to a thorough job with our player evaluations, so when we go through our meetings next week, we decide as a group how and when to use players,” Hynes said.
“Then we go through every aspect of what we do from meetings, systems, and teams we want to study. We have to make every effort to improve this offseason in player acquisitions, the draft, and trades. We also have to make sure as management that our attention to detail is improved and we will be a lot better than we were this year.”