The mood around the Meadowlands right now is bright enough to overcome even the heaviest of the swamp's smell. That's because the New Jersey Devils have had the best offseason in the NHL, despite not spending a dime to bring in free agents from other teams. Instead, the Devils have signed three core players -- tough defenseman Colin White, gritty two-way forward Jamie Langenbrunner, and electric superstar Patrik Elias -- to long-term deals that are cap-manageable, with a lengthy extension on its way to Brian Gionta, a player who epitomizes the "new" NHL and who broke the Devils single-season goal-scoring record last season with 48. The most significant of these signings was obviously Elias, who took far less than he could command on the open market to return the loyalty of the Devils and most likely be their next captain. It hasn't gained any attention in the media, but the unselfishness Elias displayed in remaining with the Devils was something entirely rare in the "me-first, money-first" era of professional sports.
When hockey returned last September, Patrik Elias didn't. His career was in question after a severe case of hepatitis contracted while playing in Russia during the lockout. Reports were that Elias had lost an unsightly amount of weight and couldn't muster the strength to walk or eat -- his entire season was in jeopardy, and it was even questioned whether or not he'd play ever again. But Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who people incorrectly confuse for an asshole but who's really just steadfast in his (highly successful) methods, signed Elias to a questionable 1-year deal worth $4 million, taking a huge risk with the team's salary cap for a player who would miss at least half the season, if not more.
Elias did, in fact, return, getting an assist and logging over 15 minutes of ice time in a shutout over the Panthers. With Elias back, the previously mediocre Devils (who had a terrible first-half that saw coach Larry Robinson resign, new Devils tear apart the team's chemistry, and rival Rangers ahead of them in the standings for the first time in years) had stopped on a dime and reversed fortune, winning 10 of 11 games starting with the game against Florida. In those 11 games Elias had four goals and 12 assists. He finished the regular season with 16 goals and 45 points in 38 games, leading the Devils on two lengthy winning streaks including the last 11 games of the season to sneak up on the Rangers and Flyers for the Atlantic Division crown and the third seed in the playoffs -- a feat that seemed impossible at midseason, when most around the league questioned whether the Devils would miss the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Elias kept up his stellar play in a first-round sweep of the Rangers, scoring two goals and four assists in the first game alone. But when the team lost to eventual champions Carolina in the second round, the good spirits among Devil fans began to dissipate.
Elias was, for the second year in a row, a free agent. Except this year there was obviously no concern over his health, and every team in the league who had up to $8.8 mil a year in cap space (the max a player can be offered this year) salivated at the thought of adding his deadly skills to their lineup. The Devils, who weren't one of those teams with enough cap room, were considered dead in the water in the Elias sweepstakes. He'd go to Ottawa, Chicago, Montreal, or (disgust) the Rangers, who'd have loved to steal the cross-river phenom. On July 1st, the first day of free agency, I woke up with a migraine and what felt like a rock in my stomach. But a funny thing happened -- the next day, I woke up to find that Elias had re-signed with the Devils for seven years at $42M. That's hardly a shy payday, but far less than he could have received from another team. He was rewarding Lamoriello's faith by taking the rare "hometown discount." In doing this, he also likely earned himself the role of captain, a spot that was vacated all of last year after the retirement of Scott Stevens. Lamoriello didn't want to hand the "C" to just anyone, because Stevens' shoes are enormous ones to fill, but it seems obvious that on-ice and now off Elias has displayed all of the characteristics of a true captain. The contract virtually guarantees Elias will be a Devil for life, and fans are already making room in the rafters of the Devils upcoming Newark Arena for a #26 sweater to hang next to #4 (Stevens) and #3 (Ken Daneyko) -- two guys who, like Elias, understood that tradition, honor, and championships are far more important in the long run than the biggest payday.
People often complain that players show no loyalty anymore, and this is true, but it's a two-way street. Teams are awfully fast to cut or trade aging veterans who've done a lot to contribute to their success, so it should be no surprise that a player looks for as much money as possible before either getting spurned or risking a potentially devastating injury. But in this case, both sides did the right thing, and it makes me believe that people might still be inherently good.
But then I read about masturbating drunk drivers and my faith is again crushed. Sigh.