Since 1999-00, Patrik Elias has scored 231 goals and 314 assists for 545 points in 593 games, with a +130 rating. The points may not seem all that impressive, but he put up those numbers playing on a team with a primary focus on defence. In the one season the reins were loosened a bit, 2000-01, Elias scored 40 goals and 96 points to finish 3rd in the league in scoring.
Elias contributes in many more ways than the scoresheet. He combines his offensive strengths with excellent defensive play, and his plus/minus rating reflects his two-way dominance. A recent development in hockey analysis has been the use of the Corsi number, which is the difference between the number of shots directed at the opposition net and the number of shots directed at the player's own net while he is on the ice. Last season, Detroit Red Wing players dominated the Corsi numbers as they were the most dominant outshooting team in the league. The best player in the league in terms of Corsi numbers who did not play for Detroit? Patrik Elias.
But didn't Elias have a bad year last year? Not really, he was just unlucky. With Elias on the ice, New Jersey took 32 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, and allowed just 21. Elias' only problem was that when he was on the ice this season the goaltending just happened to be much better at the wrong end of the ice: the save percentage on shots by him and his teammates was .930, while it was just .904 for shots against. Elias' shooting percentage has dropped in both of the last two seasons so he may be losing his scoring touch, but this season it afflicted his linemates as well. Some of this may be attributable to a difference in shot quality, but it seems unlikely Elias and his linemates were giving up large numbers of dangerous scoring chances against. When Elias is playing, the puck is usually in the other end of the ice and that is a tremendous advantage for his team as well as for his goaltender.
Perhaps the best way to express Elias' impact on the team is to show New Jersey's record with him in the lineup compared to without. Last season, they were 3-4-1 with Elias out of the lineup, and 43-25-6 with him. In 2006-07, 4-3-0 without Elias, 45-21-9 with him. Two seasons ago, when Elias missed a substantial amount of time, the Devils were 19-18-7 without him, and 27-9-2 with him. Overall for those three seasons, the Devils were a .508 team (26-25-8) without Patrik Elias, and a .660 team (115-55-17) with him in the lineup.
New Jersey's goals for and against splits were substantially different with and without Elias:
2007-08: 2.47 GF, 2.28 GA
2006-07: 2.53 GF, 2.31 GA
2005-06: 2.92 GF, 2.50 GA
2007-08: 1.88 GF, 3.00 GA
2006-07: 2.29 GF, 2.86 GA
2005-06: 2.77 GF, 2.95 GA
How did the Devils do without Martin Brodeur over that same time period? New Jersey was 6-7-5 in games without Martin Brodeur for a .472 winning percentage, and 135-73-20 with MB30 between the pipes (.636). That's a gap of .164, compared to Elias' difference of .152 (although the "without Brodeur" sample is much smaller). New Jersey allowed a lot fewer goals with Brodeur in net (2.30 per game) than with his backups (3.20).
Interestingly, though, the defensive impact of Elias was not too far behind that of his goaltender. With Elias the team allowed 2.34 goals per game, and without him it was 2.95. Most of the games the Devils played without Elias came in 2005-06, a season where the team played poorly during the first half and got on a roll in the second half. Elias missed the entire first half and played most of the second half, which was the ideal scenario to put up positive with/without win/loss splits. It is likely that Elias' contribution explains some of the improvement, but there were probably many other factors at play. However, even if we exclude 2005-06 entirely and look at just 2006-07 and 2007-08 the results are almost exactly the same. In those two seasons, the Devils were 7-7-1 without Elias (.500) and 88-46-15 with him (.641). There was also a combined average of 2.30 goals against per game with Elias in the lineup compared to 2.93 goals per game without him. The numbers certainly suggest that Elias has a very strong impact on New Jersey team success and goal prevention. They are especially impressive when you consider that when Elias was not available, the Devils would most likely elevate an established NHLer from the second or third lines to take his spot. Because of this it would have been reasonable to expect the Elias differential to be much smaller than the gap between Brodeur and his replacements (primarily infrequently-used backup/minor-leaguer Scott Clemmensen), yet the effect on team success by Elias and Brodeur might not be that different at all.
Vic Ferrari did a post on this topic last year, investigating the difference between when a star player is playing compared to when they are out. Often teams do much worse without their best player, since it creates a ripple effect throughout the lineup - the great player benefits his teammates not only directly by playing with them, but also indirectly makes things easier for the rest of the team by taking on extra minutes and tougher opponents, as well as often drawing penalties or ending their shift in the offensive zone. Earl Sleek made a similar "trickle-down" argument for explaining the importance of Scott Niedermayer to the Ducks in the second half of '07-08.
These types of effects are a lot more difficult to see. Everybody knows when the backup goalie is in the game, but not everyone notices when a second-pairing defencemen has to suddenly start playing 25 minutes a game, or when a second-liner accustomed to playing against checking forwards finds himself moving up to play against the opposing top line, or when a rarely used forward has to be pressed into service as a replacement on the penalty kill unit. And this subtlety is another reason why the importance of goaltending tends to be overrated compared to other positions. Valuable, of course, but still generally overrated.
Is Patrik Elias more valuable to the Devils than Martin Brodeur? I don't think so, but Elias is nevertheless underrated player. Led by Elias, the Devils have a strong group of forwards that usually wins the territorial battle and outshoots the opposition. This talent is recognized by informed hockey fans - over 80% of the people who voted in a recent poll on this site predicted New Jersey would still make the playoffs despite losing Brodeur to injury. Unless Elias or several other key forwards join Marty on the injury list then I agree with that assessment.