Elias part of another special franchise moment

On Saturday, the Devils have a relatively big game against the rival Islanders, who are currently chasing us and other teams for a playoff spot, and before that another important two points are on the line tonight against the Wild and a certain ex-Devil captain’s team.  However, the Devil franchise and fanbase has Saturday circled on the calendar for another special reason – the raising of franchise legend Patrik Elias’s number 26 to the rafter.  Elias will become the fifth Devil to have his number retired (and so far the the only forward, after goaltender Martin Brodeur and defensemen Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko).

It’s somehow fitting that Elias is the only forward to have his number raised to the rafters, since he’s one of the few forwards who consistently thrived in a defense-first system that sacrificed numbers for the team.  Well-rounded is the adjective that comes to mind when describing Patty.  Elias arguably combines an old school sensibility with new school personality and flash better than any other Devil past or present.  Consider that he broke in and became a star under Robbie Ftorek who was previously his AHL coach and had his best numbers statistically under Larry Robinson (a players’ coach).  Elias also scored 38 goals in 2003-04 under the ultimate disciplinarian in Pat Burns and played at an MVP level under Lou himself in 2006 after rallying back from a life-threatening case of hepatitis.  After re-signing as a FA that summer, Elias continued to excel with a 31-goal, 78-point season under another disciplinarian in Brent Sutter in 2009 – the season after he unjustly had his C taken away, then had his last great year in 2012 under Pete DeBoer, who had more of an attacking system and a more relaxed personality than most of Patty’s previous coaches.

So many memories come to mind with Patty – although he debuted in 1995-96 as a 19-year old, he didn’t become a lineup regular for another two years, then it took another two seasons for him to fully blossom as a member of the transcendent A-line.  A simple name for a line that was anything but simple, combining size and physicality (Jason Arnott) with skill and brainpower (Patty and fellow Czech-mate Petr Sykora).  For the better part of three seasons they were among the most skilled lines in hockey and team success followed, with a Stanley Cup in 1999-2000 and another trip to the Finals in 2000-01.  Elias played a starring role in the team’s 2000 Stanley Cup run with the only two goals in a tense 2-1 win over the Flyers.  Everyone remembers Elias’s game clincher with less than three minutes left in a tie game – see above – but few remember he also scored the first of the night as well.  Yet that was only his second most memorable moment of that postseason behind THE PASS.

As if the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals wasn’t exciting enough, the last two games of the Stanley Cup Finals provided the highest drama with Dallas extending the series and spoiling a possible home ice celebration after Mike Modano’s triple OT winner – also the only goal of a 1-0 game.  With the Devils still leading the series 3-2, the sixth game back in Dallas also went multiple OT’s in another defensive struggle.  Despite having lost Sykora earlier in the game after a cheap shot by Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher, Elias and Arnott still had enough chemistry between them to conjure up this moment of brilliance that won the Devils’ second Stanley Cup:

In the celebration afterwards, Elias had the presence of mind to get Sykora’s jersey from the locker room, at first obstructing his own name with his buddy’s jersey during the celebration before coach Robinson had his finest moment, taking the jersey and putting it on himself.

However, following the 2000-01 season things started to get rocky for Elias and the A-line.  A substandard 2001-02 led to the in-season trade of Arnott to Dallas and the subsequent offseason trade of Sykora to Anaheim.  Although both Arnott and Sykora had long, distinguished careers themselves after 2002 and both players eventually came back to the Devils for cameos later on, all three would never play together again.  Yet, that short period of excellence as an elite line arguably is what Arnott and Sykora are best remembered for in their careers.

Without his linemates, Elias struggled at times in 2002-03 under the ultimate defense-first coach in Burns and took a back seat at times during that magical playoff run.  However, in the Finals he skated around like the Patty of old and helped stymie old buddy Sykora’s attempt to play spoiler with his new team, as the Devils beat the Mighty Ducks in 7 games.  This time Elias, and Devil fans would get their home-ice party after a hard-fought postseason that was 24 games long, a then-NHL record.  I was one of the 19040 in attendance that night, and despite having a flu I soldiered my way there for a likely once-in-a-lifetime event.  And so far it has been.  I don’t even want to think about how annoyed I would have been with a loss haha.

Almost as if liberated from the rocky period before his second Stanley Cup win, Elias roared back to dominance in 2003-04 before he and the NHL lost an entire season due to the season-long lockout in 2004-05.  Although Robinson was back for his second tour of duty, he never got to coach Elias – who spent the latter part of 2005 recovering from a life-threatening case of hepatitis.  By the time Elias came back in late December, Lou was the coach, after stress/health problems forced Robinson to step aside with the team struggling.  Ironically it was during this period that I had quite the unexpected encounter with Elias himself – which is a story I may or may not have told on this blog before.   I was at a Devils-Rangers game at the Garden ironically enough, which turned out to be Lou’s first game behind the bench.  Elias was still a couple weeks away from returning, but the Devils did win 3-1 hinting at their later turnaround.

After the game I was wearing my Elias jersey (you can’t make this up) on the train ride back and a couple of fellow Devil fans excitedly told me ‘Patty’s in front of you!’…at first I literally didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.  Then when I figured it out I looked up at the seat in front of me and WHOA, there was the man himself – on the same train back to NJ as I was.  Eventually I wound up sitting by and talking to him for a half hour on his way back to West Orange, which isn’t to say I talked his ear off per se but certainly my jersey proved to be a nice conversation starter.  Most of the particulars of our chat have faded with time but the important thing is that it happened and how down-to-earth the man was.  At one point he asked me what I thought of the arena in Newark (still a season and a half away), and unsolicited told me he was looking forward to it himself.  While I wasn’t really thinking in those terms at the time – nor was I going to ask him – his prompting me about the new arena gave me a good feeling he was going to return even as his UFA status showed an uncertain future in red and white.

From that point on, Elias was my favorite Devil through thick and thin.  And certainly for the 2006 portion of the season, things were almost all sunny as Elias returned for the final 45 games, playing at an MVP level and leading the team’s resurgence into the playoffs and past the Rangers in a spectacular sweep.  Arguably one of Elias’s top five games ever was the first game of that series where he scored two goals and four assists in a 6-1 romp that set the tone for the Devils finally beating the Rangers in a postseason series after coming up short in 1992, 1994 and 1997.  Yet, after the Devils’ second round loss to Carolina Elias nearly joined another dubious list of ex-Devil marquee players who went to the rival Rangers.  At the time I thought Elias was just more or less using the Rangers to extract a no-trade clause out of Lou, but the real details of that offseason (disclosed by Patty himself in recent days) paint a more complete – and stunning – picture.

In fact, it was Lou himself who gave up on signing Patty before the offseason even started – essentially telling him he was a great player, we probably wouldn’t have the money to re-sign him and good luck if it came to it.  For weeks if not months there was no communication between Elias and Lou.  And yes the reason he’s not a Ranger is because Glen Sather wouldn’t give Elias a no-trade, that I already knew – but one other revealing detail that came out recently is when Elias finally got frustrated enough to call Lou and tell him of the particulars of the Rangers’ offer, suddenly Lou got down to brass tacks and they negotiated a deal in minutes.  Honestly this story is astonishing to me, not that I would ever doubt Patty but…really Lou?  How could you be so dense not to even attempt to negotiate a contract with your best player?  Especially one that actually did want to stay.

Fortunately things did work out in the end and Elias signed a seven-year contract, essentially guaranteeing he would start and end his career as a Devil.  Yet things weren’t all happy and smooth during this period either.  For one, the Devils didn’t have quite the playoff success post-lockout as they did pre-lockout, as other free agents like Niedermayer and Scott Gomez did walk out the door and their drafting also became weaker as the years went on.  And after his first year under the new contract, where it was intimated he struggled with the weight of being newly-appointed captain (despite putting up 69 points in 75 games, hah some struggling), Lou’s latest ‘new coach’ Sutter stripped the C from Elias before his first camp in charge.  Elias admitted recently it bothered him that Lou didn’t have his back with that incident.  Arguably losing the C affected him more than having it did, as he struggled under Sutter’s defense-first system in 2007-08, but the next year Sutter had to open things up out of neccesity and Elias thrived again, showing his resilience as a player who could play in all styles.

It was during this campaign that Elias set the franchise record for points scored, ironically on the same night Brodeur set the NHL record for goaltender wins, on St. Patrick’s Day no less.  Only Patty could pull that off, with a green hat to top things off

Ironically after that game, the team struggled down the stretch losing a hideous seventh game against the Hurricanes, where Sutter committed one final indignity having Elias play just 14:27 in the deciding contest, fewer than all but four forwards.  After choking away Game 7, Sutter ran home to coach for brother Darryl in Calgary becoming just the latest Devil to leave for greener pastures.  More hard times were ahead as the team again struggled in the second half of 2009-10, ignominiously losing in five games to the Flyers before the John MacLean meltdown of 2010-11.  Less said about that season, the better though Elias again led the team in points despite the much-ballyhooed acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk at the previous year’s trade deadline.

Finally in 2011-12 came one last great resurgence under DeBoer, one of the few coaches who actually did treat Elias with the respect he earned as a player and a person long before that point.  At 35 years old, Elias’s icetime spiked back up to twenty minutes a game and he played in all situations.  Also buoyed by the return of an old friend (Sykora) that year, a rejuvanated Patty put up 78 points and played in 81/82 regular season games plus all 24 games of the team’s unexpected playoff run to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

As it turned out that run would be the last gasp for both Elias as an upper-echelon player and the Devils as an upper-echelon franchise under Lou.  His last three full seasons, the Devils missed the postseason entirely, bottoming out in 2014-15 with a horrible second half that finally ended Lou’s tenure as the franchise czar.  Yet even after franchise legends like Lou, Stevens (relieved of his duties as an assistant) and Marty (left for a higher management position in St. Louis) were saying goodbye, Elias was the one symbol of the past that’s still been around to shine during the new regime.  Even throughout an injury plagued 2015-16 where he played his final sixteen games (including a spectacular four-point finale against Lou’s new team, the Leafs) and 2016-17 where he skated but didn’t officially retire until late in the season, he was still a part of the team thanks to the respect both GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes hold for both the player he used to be and the man he still is.  A nice little piece from outgoing beat guy Andrew Gross in The Record show how even this season, during the team’s resurgence, Elias is still sought out by management for advice and suggestions.

If you’re still reading this blog clearly you like and respect Patty about as much as I do.  His number retirement is somehow more resonant to me than the others – and I’ve been to all of them.  Maybe in part cause I actually did meet the man while guys like Brodeur, Stevens and Niedermayer were just guys I knew through a TV screen and watching them above in the stands for years.  In the case of Ken Daneyko, it didn’t seem like a legendary player having his number retired cause really Dano wasn’t legendary – his number retirement was more of a celebration of Mr. Devil and what Dano as an original Devil meant to the franchise off the ice more than on it even.  Maybe it’s because Patty in part was the perfect bridge from the old Devils history to the new is why he resonates more with me.  Not in terms of being in awe like with Marty or Stevens, but in terms of personal emotion and personality, Elias was a man for all seasons and all teams.  He could fit in with the Lemaire/Burns Defensive Devils as much as he did with the Robinson/DeBoer/Ftorek teams that were more liberal on the attack.  Or dare I say the current ‘fast, attacking and supportive’ Devils.  Unfortunately he never got to play with this Devils team.  If his final game in 2016 (on my birthday no less) was any indication, he would have been just fine on this team too.

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