Patrik Elias is definitely one of the best forwards the New Jersey Devils ever had take to the ice. It's easily arguable he's the very best forward in franchise history. Sure, he's not a lock (or possibly likely) for enshrinement to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Yes, other forwards have went on to join the Hockey Hall of Fame after such impressive careers which included stops in New Jersey. However, Elias has spent his entire time with the Devils and has become their all-time offensive leader in nearly all categories. It will take a very special player to ever surpass Elias and that's because Elias himself is special.
This should not be news to you and I. He's been an important part of the team ever since his breakout season in 1999-2000. He's been a complete two-way player, contributing in all situations at both ends of the rink. He's moved from his left wing position back to center in recent years and aside from an ugly faceoff winning percentage, Elias has been solid as ever. Just look at this past season. With an aging Petr Sykora and a useful but never a really productive Dainius Zubrus on his usual line at even strength, Elias finished tenth in the league in scoring with 78 points. The power play helped his production, but his 45 even strength points is nothing to dismiss. Befitting of his importance, he managed that while facing the toughest competition on the team at even strength and playing in all situations for an average just below 20 minutes per game. We thought he was the team's most valuable player last season. The only real blemish about last season was that he got cold in the payoffs.
What makes last season more impressive was that he did all that in the regular season at the age of 35. Elias' 78 points easily surpassed Stastny's 62 point season in 1991-92 for the Devils for the most productive season ever in franchise history by a forward at or over the age of 35. I admit it's an esoteric achievement, it brings up a harsh reality. Age carries on no matter how great you are and usually it doesn't end well. This isn't to say that older players can't be useful or effective; but they are the exception - at least for this franchise. Just look at that list from Hockey-Reference again. Out of 35 individual seasons of forwards over the age of 35, only Elias and Stastny earned more than 50 points and there have only been four instances of forwards scoring 20 or more goals. Past Devils forwards at that age or older have not been significant producers outside of two exceptions.
The franchise past looks grimmer for forwards at the age of 36 or older. According to Hockey-Reference, the very most productive season by a forward of that age or older came in 2002-03 from Joe Nieuwendyk. His 17 goals and 28 assists were important as that team struggled for offense at times, especially on the power play. He did finish fifth on the team in scoring, whose leader was Elias with only 55 points. Yet it was clear he wasn't The Joe Nieuwendyk that dazzled the crowds in Calgary and Dallas all those years. He had game and went on to play three more seasons, but he wasn't a top line player or a main offensive threat anymore. Same with Stastny who fell to 40 points (eighth on the team in scoring) in 1992-93; Brian Rolston in his second tour in New Jersey; and the career ends of Sergei Nemchinov and Alexander Mogilny. Again, franchise history shows that older forwards have not been big producers. It doesn't look better even if you do include defensemen.
This is especially concerning since Devils fans all around the world are (or should be) hoping that Elias can still go like he did last season and before. In terms of raw numbers, the potentially shortened season (I'm stubbornly not thinking about the alternative) is going to limit everyone's production. However, the Devils look that much thinner on offense. Zach Parise signed elsewhere, as we all know. David Clarkson isn't likely to repeat his 30 goal season. Speaking of other surprisingly productive players from 2011-12, Sykora hasn't been signed by anyone, which doesn't inspire confidence that he can still be a scorer. Adam Henrique following up a big rookie season would be a question all by itself; and we may not get any answers since he's injured. There really isn't anyone in Albany or in the system who can step in and be a scorer right away. The offense is going to be led by Ilya Kovalchuk, whatever Travis Zajac can do, and Elias. In short, Elias needs to keep performing like he did last season to prevent a The fact that history isn't on a 36-year old Elias side in light of that is very worrisome.
The only solace I can provide goes back to what I said about Elias at the beginning: he's a special player. It's not much, but that hope all I really have at this point. He's had a relatively healthy career and a shortened season will help keep fatigue low unless the schedule's loaded with lots of games in succession. That will help, but it's mostly hoping that his performance doesn't just hit a proverbial wall. I'm hoping that when Elias declines, it's gradual and that should mean he'll be able to contribute at a high level for so long. Most players don't do that, but most players also don't become the definitively top offensive player in franchise history. I understand that's not very encouraging, but it's not like I can point to past Devil who's done it before. Elias would have to continue breaking new ground in that regard. Eventually everyone falls to Father Time, I'm hoping that 2013 won't be the year Elias stops being amazing in spite of his age.
Whether Elias can stay great isn't just a short term question. It affects the bigger picture. Do-it-all scorers who can go against the other team's best and succeed regularly like Elias aren't common players. Just as the future is in doubt at goaltender when Martin Brodeur hangs it up; the team needs to develop some plan on how to fill that hole at forward when Elias hangs it up. That could come sooner than we may think since he is currently in the final year of his contract. While I would think the Devils would re-sign him if he's interested, how much should they commit knowing there's going to be an eventual decline? Given the outstanding issues with ownership, how much can they commit? I wish I could tell you, but like Elias' performance in the coming season, it remains to be seen.
Do you share these concerns about Elias? How much longer do you think he can perform at his current level? If or when he starts declining in performance, what do you think the Devils should do? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Elias and his age in the comments. Thank you for reading.