This will not please people, but sometimes players don’t hang up the skates when the skills start to fade.
Martin St. Louis was an example of this during his final seasons with the New York Rangers. People started to notice even a few years ago there was a bit of a drop, but production masked it. At some point, the legs do not want to go the way you want them to, and that seemed to happen to St. Louis.
The former Tampa Bay Lightning and Rangers player was marveled at and rightfully so for the work ethic that drove the forward to a likely spot in hockey’s Hall Of Fame. However, last year there were flashes of the old player. By the end it became clear to everyone that Father Time was starting to win this battle and ultimately the war.
Looking across the river from New York to New Jersey, you almost see the same thing happening to New Jersey Devils icon Patrik Elias. One hopes to be proven wrong, but for all that the forward has been through, you would like to think he will be able to go out on his own terms.
Did St. Louis figure out he was not going to be picked up by an East Coast team during free agency? Or did he just decide to call it a career not too long after the playoffs? We may never know. However, the numbers are telling and so was watching the forward on a nightly basis.
The signs were there for St. Louis but few paid attention until it became too late this season. The winger was still getting top or near top-line ice time for a long stretch, but even the production started to drop. Among all forwards, St. Louis was in the top-10 for even strength ice time over the past three seasons.
All of the production numbers indicate that St. Louis was a first-line player. Looking deeper, he really had a tough time winning 50-50 puck battles, holding on to the puck and ultimately finishing chances.
His impact on linemates Corsi was equal to the numbers of a fourth-line player. This was not a fluke as his numbers were 3-5% off other Ranger lines, even around the midway point of the 2014-15 season. It was obvious as his ice time decreased and the effectiveness got worse. It culminated in the playoffs when media and fans both wondered: “Why is he still getting power play time?”
Worst 5-man units of the 2014-2015 season (at least 75 minutes TOI) by CF% pic.twitter.com/bgxymslFvk
— DTM About Heart (@DTMAboutHeart) July 9, 2015
It is not often a player appears on two different lines on the same list, but St. Louis was among the worst possession players in the league last year. That is a scary thought for someone who was a tenacious battler for every inch on the ice. St. Louis could also finish in most situations and even that became a huge problem come the last 30-40 games of his career in particular. It was an unfortunate end for a player who gave so much.
Using the 2014-15 data just hammers the point home even more. The Rangers were not the greatest of possession teams, but they could possess it when they wanted to with speed and scoring ability. They were top-10 in the league in goals scored for a reason. However, it became clear that they were trying to nurse St. Louis through the season at times and by the end, you saw what you saw: A decline that had started to occur two or three years ago.
His 52-point season at 39 was more than respectable, but those scoring droughts of five, six, and as many as eight games occurred just too often later in the season and the playoffs. The eerie thing is that you see this with another iconic tri-state area player in Elias.
For all the great play and amazing two-way ability that Elias has displayed over the years, 2014-15 was the first marked note of decline in his game. Will it get worse? No one really knows, but they have maybe an idea of what is to come.
Elias was among a five-man unit that was in the worst Corsi For percentages in the league. He was also a huge minus player (minus-20) which also was unlike the forward.
It did get to the point where Lou Lamoriello started to play him in the bottom-six more, even trying to pair him with Travis Zajac who was having a nightmare season of his own.
There were open complaints about ice time and in a way things were getting to the forward that never seemed to before. This could be viewed as the same end to St. Louis with just different means. On a lesser team like New Jersey, issues tend to get magnified.
Relative to the team, Elias had Corsi and Fenwick numbers that were actually right around the team averages within plus or minus 1.5 percent or so. The PDO was at a below average 98.4 and at points of the season it was a good bit lower than that. Flashes of the old Elias only made one wonder if the end had come already or was truly near?
Maybe the huge worry for the Devils and their fans was not how the 39-year-old lashed out at the media or the fact he looked two steps slower on the ice.
It was the bottom line. He became a bottom-six player before our very eyes for someone that thrived so long in a system where scoring was difficult enough.
Something to keep in mind is that New Jersey has been around the bottom five in goals for the past couple seasons. When you are the oldest team in the league and have declining players like Elias, this becomes more and more apparent. 2013-14 saw Elias make a jump forward but even then chances that could have been goals were not going in. This is a player that perennially topped 20 goals and scored 30-plus four times.
Even the assist production dropped for a player who typically tops 35 helpers with ease. Elias struggled to 21 assists last year. Mumps, injuries, and age all played a role but the tank and the mind/body conflict was just too easy to notice.
He did achieve milestones and became the first Devil to top 1,000 points, but what does Elias have left in the tank?
The Road To 40
All signs point this to being the last year Elias plays in the NHL, but one never quite can say that.
The winger has a knack for proving everyone wrong just when it looks like he has hit a crossroads. The now 20-year veteran has pulled this off many times. Maybe with a new coach in John Hynes and a new GM in Ray Shero, something clicks where Elias can become rejuvenated even if only in spurts once again. That seems to be the best-case scenario.
The worst is that even more marked decline that many dread. New Jersey had trouble generating anything consistently last year and figures not to fare much better this year. That hurts a guy like Elias who feasted off his ability to make plays and that led to scoring chances and goals for him. His shooting percentage was 11.4% last year but he only took 114 shots (a career low). He missed a high percentage of shots as well.
Projections seem to indicate a bit of a bounce back but potentially a slump in the second half worse than in 2014-15. Father time is coming for Elias much like it did for St. Louis.