Amidst the changes the New Jersey Devils have made this offseason, Patrik Elias has deservedly slipped through the cracks. The 39-year old career Devil is the oldest player on the roster as he enters the final season of a three-year contract he signed in 2013. While he’ll always be remembered for his prowess with the puck, extraordinary playmaking abilities, and integral roles he played in helping the Devils win two Stanley Cups and make two more trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, Elias’ skill level has undeniably dropped over the past two seasons.
Last year, Elias posted the lowest totals of his career since his rookie season, with 13 goals and 34 points in 69 contests.
He’s spent the majority of his career as a top-six forward. Up until last season, Elias was being noticeably relegated to more of a third line-type role after the coaching change, which caused a slight decline in his ice time. It remains to be seen whether this tentative usage continues for Elias. After being assured that he’ll start the season in New Jersey by general manager Ray Shero, it’s up to head coach John Hynes to determine where Elias fits best on a younger, faster offensive lineup.
Is Elias still a top-six forward?
You first have to look at the team’s depth up front to answer that question. Mike Cammalleri will more than likely occupy the No. 1 left wing slot on the team. Between Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and potentially Pavel Zacha and Jacob Josefson, there are plenty of viable options down the middle that should give Elias no reason not to play this season as a winger. The No. 2 left wing slot is ultimately a tossup between Elias or a younger candidate like Reid Boucher. The jury is still out on Boucher, who (to be fair), hasn’t quite gotten a legitimate shot at showcasing himself to the coaching staff and management over the past two seasons. Now the roster is set up where a top-six slot is his for the taking, if Boucher seizes the opportunity.
As far as Elias goes, one of the most efficient ways to determine his best fit in the lineup next year is looking at the correlation between his ice time and offensive productivity over last season.
Elias played 29 games under former head coach Pete DeBoer. He had four goals and thirteen points (.45 PPG). When you break those games down by ice time, Elias played 13 games with more than 18 minutes of ice time, 10 games under 18 minutes, and one injury-shortened game where he only played about five minutes. In those 13 games where he played over 18 minutes, Elias had one goal and seven points. In the ten games where he played less than 18 minutes of ice time, Elias registered three goals and six points.
In the 40 games he played after the coaching change, there was a
noticeable decrease in Elias’ ice time. He put up totals of nine goals and 22 points (.55 PPG) over that stretch. Elias had two goals and nine points in 14 games where he played more than 18 minutes. In 26 games where he was relegated to less than 18 minutes of ice time, Elias had seven goals and 12 points.
Two noteworthy stretches worth looking at from last season are the time between Elias’ first two goals (occurred under DeBoer), and his playing performance after the month of February. Elias’ goal drought that occurred early last season was severely exploited by the press and Devils’ faithful. It was a stretch of 19 games between his first and second goal, during which he played 13 games where he played more than 18 minutes and 6 games where he played less than 18 minutes.
In the months following the coaching change, Elias’ performance since last February featured some of his best hockey. He had seven goals and 13 assists over those final 29 games. Elias played more than 18 minutes in seven of those games, and only had one goal and two points. In 22 games where he played less than 18 minutes, he had six goals and 11 points.
The distinction between the number of games where Elias had more or less than 18 minutes of ice time is slim. He played in 36 games where he had less than 18 minutes, and 32 games where he played more than 18 minutes. In games where he had more than 18 minutes of ice time, Elias had 3 goals and 16 points, whereas he had 10 goals and 18 points in games he played less than 18 minutes.
The largest margin that stands out between these two categories is Elias’ goal totals, which has a differential of seven. You can say Elias’ numbers are more balanced in games where he played under 18 minutes, and considering how many games the Devils lost by one goal, this is the kind of production they need from their forwards if their contests continue to be determined by such a marginal difference.
Elias’ overall numbers, by all means, weren’t characteristic of what he’s typically posted throughout his career. Nonetheless, it makes more sense for the coaching staff to use Elias more tentatively this coming season, especially if less ice time translates into him being able to register a more balanced scoring output in terms of goals and assists without burning out from being too overly used. The Devils are a team that needs all the scoring they can get and if last season’s numbers are any indication going into this year, it makes more sense to be more selective with Elias’ ice time if it translates into him putting the puck in the net more often.