Cult heroes are a tricky part of fandom to explain to the outsider. Star players are easy enough: they're important players with a lot of recognition. Specialists get praised for whatever aspect of the game they're adept at. However, most players aren't stars. Most players don't even play for very long in the league, much less with one team. Yet, fans can, have, and will develop fond memories of a particular player for even if they're not playing big minutes or serve a large role. The best way I can put it is that it's easy to understand if you were there when that player performed at his best. Among the many players to suit up for the New Jersey Devils, there have been several cult heroes. Today, I'd like to explain one from my youth: left wing Valeri Zelepukin.
Valeri Zelepukin was a late round shot in the dark back in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. He was selected in the eleventh round as the 221st overall pick. He wasn't like the other draft picks. Zelepukin was 22 and had already played six seasons in the Russian league. He just completed his most productive season with Khimik Voskresensk (his local team, I presume), scoring 17 goals and 14 assists in 46 games. If you're going to go after a more-developed player, then going after a productive one would help. Keep in mind that European players had to be drafted to gain their rights; they could not be signed as free agents. But with twelve rounds in that draft, teams could afford to take those risks. The Devils took a flyer on the 6'1", 200 pound left winger and hoped that they found someone.
As with most of the picks in the 1990 draft, Zelepukin absolutely turned out to be a NHL player. After another season with Voskresensk, Zelepukin made the jump to North America. He didn't take long to break into the National Hockey League in the 1991-92 season. In 22 games with the Utica Devils, the team's American Hockey League affiliate, he scored 20 goals and 9 assists. New Jersey had him for 44 games, put him on the power play at times, and kept him for the playoffs. Zelepukin put up 94 shots (2.13 per game), scored 13 goals (3 power play), 18 assists (2 power play), and made many fans pay attention to #25.
According to this post by Joe Pelletier on Zelepukin, Peter Stastny noted that Zelepukin played a more European-styled game. Pelletier had this quote from the famed Slovak forward:
"He creates intricate little plays with the puck, and he creates extra time for people," Stastny said. "You can see he does things that most players have difficulty doing."
"I guarantee you that you will see no more full blasts when more and more Europeans like Valery come into the league," Stastny said. "I think that we have some elements on the Devils now to finally make the most of our talent by moving the puck into the offensive zone rather than blasting it around the boards and taking the chance of giving it away."
Of course, Stastny is correct; maintaining possession can be a superior path than dumping and chasing. But Zelepukin really fitted into the NHL in combination with his other traits. Zelepukin wasn't so much fast as he was quick. He had some burst in his stride; he could accelerate well and that proved to be effective at both ends of the rink. He had a strong shot and used it often in his rookie season. It didn't take long for the coaches - and the opponents - that he could play defense well. He even demonstrated some nastiness, though that would yield a significant number of penalties in future seasons. Zelepukin wasn't on pace to be a do-it-all player, but he proved to be a solid all-around player with a last name that's sort of fun to say. He would only be more prominent in the next few seasons.
Zelepukin put up his most productive season in the 1992-93 season with 23 goals, 41 assists, and 174 shots in 78 games. He finished fourth on the team in scoring overall, tied for third in even strength goals with 17, and tied for the lead in even strength assists with 32. Zelepukin was very much a significant scorer on the team, even though he wasn't a top-line forward. The team faltered in the first round that season as well, but the team got back on track in 1993-94. Along with many other members, Zelepukin closely followed Jacques Lemaire's neutral zone trap and was effective within it. Zelepukin didn't shoot the puck nearly as much and finished with fewer assists. But he did set a season high in goals with 26 to go with 155 shots and 31 assists; his 57 points were enough for fourth on the team in scoring. As the Devils marched on in the 1994 playoffs, Zelepukin was seen as one of the many two-way forwards that the team had. The term was "interchangeable parts," but the only way it worked was because the parts were good. Zelepukin wasn't superior in skill or particularly flashy; but he was good enough in most aspects in the game that there really wasn't a clear and obvious way to beat him. As a fan of the team that found success in that way, it was hard to not appreciate that.
His "big game" moment came with his fifth and final goal in the playoffs: the late equalizer at MSG against Our Hated Rivals in 1994. It was a moment I never saw as a kid as I was upset the Rangers - the Rangers - were going to knock the Devils out of the playoffs. I left the TV. Then I was told that Zelepukin tied it up. I rushed back to the TV. With less than eight seconds left, 7.8 to be exact, Zelepukin provided a reprieve. He got to the left post, hoped he'd get the puck, got it from Claude Lemieux across the crease, made one attempt that was denied by Mike Richter's left pad, and then he got it through on the second whack at it. Zelepukin gave the team life as overtime would be required. Alas, heartbreak of all heartbreaks happened - that I saw - and instead his goal would remain as only an equalizer and not the stepping stone to a glorious defeat of a hated rival.
Nevertheless, there wasn't any real reason to doubt Zelepukin as an effective part of the team after being a top-five producer two seasons in a row. He was 27 and the best was presumably yet to come. After a lockout that would burn about half the season, Zelepukin and the team took to the ice in mid-January. He would get an assist, a minor penalty, and credit for five shots on January 22, 1995 in a tie against Hartford. In practice days later, Zelepukin suffered a career-threatening eye injury. He was sidelined for three months. Zelepukin would return for three more regular season games and appeared in 18 of the team's 22 games in the 1995 Devils' successful playoff run. However, he wasn't the same.
As Sherry Ross wrote in the NY Daily News back in October 1995, Zelepukin was caught up high by Bruce Driver's stick in practice back in January. Zelepukin underwent surgery for his right eye and then had a second procedure on the same eye in September. The fact that he returned to the game at all is impressive enough. However, he did not and would not perform like he did before the injury. In the 1995 postseason, Zelepukin only took 12 shots in 18 games - a big drop from the usual rate above two per game. He only scored one goal - the game winner that eliminated Boston in the first round - and added two assists. At the time, this was not a big deal. Zelepukin returned from a significant injury that kept him out for three months and 21 games wasn't enough to get his groove back, so to speak. Of course, a Stanley Cup winning team made that far easier to deal with. He still had some jump to his game and could defend well.
However, the 1995-96 season made it clear that the Zelepukin most fans enjoyed from 1991 - 1994 wouldn't be the same from what he would in the rest of his time in New Jersey. After a high shooting percentage above 16.5% for the last two seasons, Zelepukin's rate cratered to 7%. He missed the early portion of the season with that second procedure and a few other games in the middle of the season, so he ended up only playing 61 games. In those 61 games, Zelepukin put up 86 shots, a rate of 1.4 per game - a far cry from his pre-eye-injury days. Frustration even set in as Zelepukin set a season high for penalty minutes in his career with 107. While he still got power play time, he put up only six goals and nine assists. He wasn't the significant scorer on a team's second line; he fell into a bottom six role more often than not. Part of that was due to his performance, which took a sharp decline. Part of that was due to his absence. After all, the team had to perform without him in 1995 and so someone had to take his minutes so they knew it could be done.
Flashes of the old Zelepukin returned in the 1996-97 season with 14 goals and 24 assists in 71 games to go with a shooting percentage that wasn't rather low (12.6%). He was far more disciplined but his shooting rate only increased to 1.56 per game, and again, he wasn't used as much so his production would be limited. That would be his final full season with the Devils. On January 4, 1998, Zelepukin was traded to Edmonton along with Bill Guerin for Jason Arnott. So far that season, his shooting percentage bottomed out at 3.7% with New Jersey and he only had two goals, eight assists, and 54 shots in 35 games. He was sold low, so to speak. A bright start back in December 1991 ended with dimness a little over six years later.
Fortunately for Zelepukin, his hockey career was far from over. His ability to play at both ends of the rink to go with his speed prolonged his career. He didn't last in Edmonton and the Oilers traded him to Philadelphia for Daniel Lacroix on October 5, 1998. He fared better and his shot would prove to be effective in spots. In 1998-99, he scored 16 goals and 25 points in 74 games on 129 shots and he followed that up with 11 goals and 32 points in 77 games on 125 shots in 1999-2000. With the Flyers, he averaged around fourteen-and-a-half minutes per game, which is typical for a third line player. He produced like you would expect from a third line player. After the eye injury, he wasn't ever that secondary scorer a team desires to support the top guys, but he was able to contribute to a team. He didn't do well with Edmonton, but he did well enough with the Flyers and he still made Russia's Olympic team in 1998 despite an unfortunate shooting season.
However, those two seasons with Philadelphia would turn out to be his the last full seasons entirely in the NHL. He signed with Chicago in the 2000 offseason and split time between Chicago (3 goals, 7 points, 36 games) and their AHL affiliate in Norfolk. Those 36 games with the Blackhawks would be his last as a NHL player.Zelepukin suffered a knee injury in training camp in the following season so he ended up only playing 29 games with Norfolk in 2001-02. That would be his final professional season in North America. Per Hockey-Reference, Zelepukin played four more seasons in Russia, playing out his career with Ak Bars Kazan, SKA St. Petersburg (and the Russian World Championship team in 2004), and then Khimik for a final hurrah at age 37 in 2005-06. Here's his final tally as a NHL player, season-by-season, also from Hockey-Reference.
I'd say he's regarded rather well by those who were Devils fans back in the early-to-mid 1990s. I should know, I grew up with those teams. It also helped that those were the seasons where the Devils had enough quality that making the playoffs just wasn't enough. Fans wanted them to be contenders, they eventually were, and they won their first Cup with Zelepukin featured as the team improved. As a result, he's more warmly regarded than a similar player would have been had the team done nothing much of substance. He was a player who couldn't be ignored if you watched games regularly back then because he was usually doing good things at both ends of the rink. Maybe he wasn't the single winger you'd hope to lead the team, but you'd expect him to do well and he did that, particularly in his first three seasons in New Jersey.
In that sense, Zelepukin's career also makes a good "what could have been?" story. Yes, the shooting percentage dropping like a stone in a few years hurt, but he really wasn't the same sort of player after the eye injury in 1995. The production in both shots and points indicate a change in performance in addition to his role on the team. Players do decline at different ages, but I doubt that shooting less and producing less was just a result of turning 27. So I do think the injury did undercut his career to a degree. He still enjoyed a successful career in the NHL compared to most, and he was able to play through his 30s in Russia. Despite good production in his first three seasons, his overall numbers don't really jump off the page so it's not as simple as just pointing to his stats and say "See? He was good."
All of this contributes to what makes him a cult hero among the Devils faithful. He was a useful winger, more useful before the eye injury, on teams that were good for the most part. He wasn't one of the greats or driving forces as to why the team was good. He was a contributing factor, someone who did things well enough. He wasn't seen as essential to the team's success, but you'd like him out there doing work for your favorite team. Fans at that time, like myself, liked Valeri Zelepukin. And he's worth pointing out as time marches on and those early-to-mid-90s Devils teams drop further and further into the past.