The Trouble with Great Players

The New Jersey Devils organization has had some great players represent the team in their history.  The players are easy to identify: Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Ken Daneyko still stand out in fans' minds for their work in helping the team achieve three Stanley Cups.  Some are still on the Devils; namely, Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias.   Others are legends to some degree either for serving in a utility role or only spent some time of their career in New Jersey.  For lack of a better term, they're like cult heroes. Examples that come to my mind are Sergei Brylin, John Madden, Claude Lemeiux, Jay Pandolfo, John MacLean, Bobby Holik, Valeri Zelepukin, and Slava Fetisov. We could go on and on about important players for the Devils.  (Or even non-players who are also legends in their own right, like play-by-play announcer Doc Emrick, former coaches like Jacques Lemaire and Pat Burns, director of scouting David Conte, and - of course - Lou.)

Let's focus on the players, though.  Achieving any kind of success in sport is seemingly easier with someone with substantial talent, be it work ethic, awareness, general skill, etc.   They are players who you can rely on.  They excel at what they do on a regular basis.   They do memorable things in the run of play that adds to their legend-like status among the fans.  I'd almost say that successful teams need great players. And if they don't have any to start the season, some will prove themselves to be great players should there be significant success during the season. 

Should a player excel at such a level that they are among the best in the entire league for a considerable amount of time, they got a chance to be in the Hall of Fame as they would be among the best players in history. Even if they're not Hall-worthy, those great players still become legends for the team.  The very best can and do get their numbers retired or honored in some other fashion.  More importantly, fans hold on to memories of their play for generations, people will still represent their number and nameplate on a jersey, and through that they become a part of the franchise's lore.  The Devils have two players who have been honored in such a way (Stevens, Daneyko), and several more who could obtain similar honors (Brodeur, Niedermayer, Elias -  in my opinion).

However, there's a downside to having great players.  Devils fans have experienced this before, they will experience it soon and in the future; so I feel it's important to bring it up.

Ultimately, what we want is a successful hockey team and so we want the great players who made the team successful in the past.  I can understand, accept, and agree with that feeling.  The problem is that great players eventually stop playing.  They get hurt, they get old, or they stop after achieving some kind of goal.  Whatever the reason, they cannot play forever - much less at the level fans want them to perform.   They must be replaced and this creates the player.  We regard great players highly for what they do.  We recognize their talent, their skill, and what makes them special in our eyes.  Yet, they eventually have to be replaced and that's not fair for the player who has to do that.  Even we recognize and accept that - and I believe we do - it's incredibly difficult to avoid making a comparison to whoever it is they are replacing. And usually that comparison rarely is fair. 

Think of Colin White.  Did he have flaws? Certainly. But he had his strengths and was ultimately a solid defensive defenseman. However, I believe some Devils fans wouldn't have loathed him if he wasn't following Scott Stevens or Ken Daneyko. Brian Rafalski was quite productive as the offensive defenseman following Scott Niedermayer's departure, so he got a pass.  Yet, Paul Martin and Andy Greene didn't get a fair shake in some fans eyes - even though it is obvious that those two aren't that kind of defenseman.  I wouldn't be surprised if Adam Larsson gets this comparison heaved upon him given his potential.  Another area where this thought came to mind has to do with the captaincy of the team.  Some fans earnestly believe the team hasn't had a proper leader since Stevens, who retired in 2004 and despite the team naming a few captains since then.   Even if we publicly say, "I know X can't fill this great player Y's skates, but I'll judge him on his own merit," I feel it's nigh-impossible to erase any comparison in our minds.

Sure, it's easy if that replacement player is great himself or performs exceptionally well. Knowing that the Devils have Ilya Kovalchuk and (hopefully) Zach Parise for several years after Elias calls it a career helps. They're already great players.   But those kind of players are not so common.  And even the great ones may not live up to the legends before them.   After all, Elias has the rings Kovalchuk and Parise doesn't have (yet).

As an aside, I think this is a common occurrence beyond sports.  Think of the salesman who has to replace a salesman who helped make a company what it was. Think of a vocalist who has to fill in a vacancy for a band, whose success was a largely in part of their prior vocalist. Think of a new actor playing a popular movie character that a famous actor has done for years in a new movie.  No matter how well they all do on their own terms, they'll be unfairly compared to those before them - and often come out on the wrong end.

Sport is a bit different in that there always has to be a replacement.  Sport demands that players be interchangeable parts in some way.  Great players will be missed, but the game doesn't stop when they depart.  Someone has to take the minutes the great player had. Someone has to do what they did on the ice.  Someone has to play goaltender, wear the "C," center the first line, or run the point on a power play.

Yet, the funny thing is that great players aren't interchangeable parts. They are special in their own ways and fans like us see them as special in our eyes, hearts, and minds.  Therefore, we cannot help but try and compare replacements to those players; unfair as they may be and even in spite of accepting the cold reality that someone has to play in their role.  We can hope that great players replace them, but in our hearts, we really want a great player like them.

We want another Scott Stevens-like player on defense and to lead the team. We want a heart-and-soul physical defenseman like Daneyko. We want a smooth-skating, breakout-leading, three-zone-dominating defender like Scott Niedermayer (who doesn't have a brother).  We will want a Martin Brodeur-like goaltender to backstop the team for over 15 years with excellence. We will want an offensive wizard like Patrik Elias to be part of the attack.  I can go on.  However, the problem is that if such players existed, those Devils legends wouldn't be so great - they wouldn't be special.  Yet, that's what we want; especially when the team isn't succeeding like we want them to.  Even if management finds someone who can adequately do their job or better, they're stuck in the shadow of success or something else from the great player before them.

That's the trouble with great players.

What can we, as fans, do about this?  I don't think there's too much that can be done.  This could be human nature running into how we view, judge, observe, analyze, and think about our favorite team.   It may be reduced, but not eliminated. Still, I want to hear your thoughts.  I've had this thought in my head for quite some time, so I could be off-base. Do you agree with what I feel the trouble of great players are; or do you disagree?  Do you think it's another issue that I'm conflating just with great players?  Is there a term for what I'm trying to describe?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this general topic in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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