As the story goes, it was late into the evening on July 1, 2006. It was the first day of NHL free agency and for the first time in his career, Patrik Elias had reached free agency. New Jersey had made attempts to lock up its core—signing Jamie Langenbrunner days prior, but it looked as if the team’s longstanding rival, the Rangers, were on the verge of exchanging his red and black for blue and white.
Elias, who was coming off a 2005-06 season in which he attended the Olympics in Russia and subsequently contracted Hepatitis A, missing a majority of the season, was to be part of the new core on Broadway. Alongside Jaromir Jagr, New York was about to become the home of the two best Czech players in the NHL. And following a first round sweep at the hands of New Jersey, it was the exact kind of player that would push the Rangers over the edge.
This was business as usual for the Devils, who saw Bobby Holik walk away for a blockbuster deal with the Blueshirts just years prior and would see Scott Gomez leave the same way in 2007.
As destiny would have it, the deal with New York fell through, unable to match the 7-year, $42 million contract Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello eventually landed on. And with the beginning days of the salary cap era in place, Rangers’ Glen Sather knew he could no longer match in pure dollars. He also wasn’t inclined to include the no-movement clause Elias had sought. And with that, Elias returned to the team he had won two Stanley Cups with prior. The only team he had ever known.
He’d spend another 10 seasons in New Jersey—including a switch from East Rutherford to Newark in 2007. Along the way he’d become the franchise leader in goals, assists and points. The remaining member of the infamous ‘A Line’ that dominated the league in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, stuck around long enough to see former line mates Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora return for second stints with the club. He’d score the first goal ever scored at Yankee Stadium and would eventually become teammates with Jagr when he signed with the Devils in 2013.
He’d enjoy St. Patrick’s Day, 2009 by becoming the franchise record holder in points. Sharing the evening with Martin Brodeur, who on the same evening eclipsed historic victory number 552.
Now, just over two years removed from Brodeur’s retirement and a year after his number 30 has been raised to the rafters, Elias will see the same happen to his no. 26 next season, announcing his retirement on Friday.
Elias had kept an open mind about returning for the 2016-17 season following an injury-plagued season last year that limited him to just 16 games. He would tally three points, including a goal in the final seconds of regulation versus the Maple Leafs in the final game of the season, his final game of a 19-year career.
The hope of him returning remained into the season. Neither Ray Shero or John Hynes gave a definitive ‘no’ and the team maintained a stall in its dressing room, the ‘PATRIK ELIAS’ nameplate still there. Even if the team was out of contention, there was some belief that he might return for the final three home games of the season, a chance to celebrate his career before officially calling it one.
That won’t happen, though the team has announced it will have ‘Patrik Elias Week’ all next week as the team plays its final three games of the regular season before finishing on the road at the Joe Louis Arena—the final game to be played in that facility.
Elias was drafted late in the second round in 1994. He had played in the Czech league since age 16, gradually accruing ice time and point production in a professional hockey league. When he arrived to the NHL in 1995-96 at age 19, he’d get 1 game in New Jersey but like many players drafted by Lamoriello, had an apprenticeship season in Albany. He’d follow up his second professional season split between the River Rats and Devils.
By 1997-98 he’d be a full-time NHL player and would become an instrumental part of one of the most dominant clubs, winning eight division titles, four conference championships and two Stanley Cups. And to his credit, he was a big reason why.
Even after the end of the ‘A-Line’ with the team trading away Arnott and Sykora, he gained a comfort in playing with new players such as Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Dainius Zubrus, among others in his long tenure. He’d also display excellent versatility as his career continued and his role switched to secondary producer. A two-way forward with great hockey sense, he managed to remain an essential piece of the puzzle in New Jersey.
It was not a career without some rocky moments. There was time missed due to a contract dispute in 1999-2000 that ended before any kind of trade was made–a fate some of his former teammates were not as lucky to be dealt. There was also the 2007 season in which he was stripped of his captaincy by new head coach, Brent Sutter. Though the decision to do so allowed for Langenbrunner to assume the role and was much more comfortable with the responsibility. Even in the years after the departure of Zach Parise and Bryce Salvador, Elias would lobby for someone else to receive the ‘C’ instead.
He was a quieter individual, who during his best years was one of the league’s most underrated players. But nothing about his numbers suggests he wasn’t an impact player–1,240 games, 408 goals, 617 assists and 1,025 points. At the very least he’ll be an internal debate for the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee over his merits.
For New Jersey though, there’s simply no doubt of the kind of impact he had.