By Greg Wyshynski
To quote Danny Ocean from the Terry Benedict heist: “What, did you really think I was going to sit this one out?”
After seeing our contributors to the National Hockey League of Nations project struggle and strain over their franchise’s best, allow me this moment of self-indulgence, as a lifelong New Jersey Devils fan opens himself up to landfills of criticism for choosing Claude Lemieux over Marty Brodeur as the franchise’s top Canadian player.
HA! Just kidding. I picked Dan McGillis, obviously.
Alright, here’s how this works: I’m selecting the best player for each nationality based only on his time with the Devils. I appreciate how incredible Igor Larionov was, but he played 49 games in New Jersey, and hence isn’t going to be my Russian of choice.
I’m focusing on impact, longevity, accomplishments and stats. And yes, that means if they helped the Devils to a Stanley Cup, that’s weighed more heavily.
That said, the Devils have been blessed to have Hall of Famers and hockey legends skate in Jersey, and I feel compelled to acknowledge them. So along with the bold-faced name that goes with each nationality, I’m spotlighting a “total career choice” player as well – although in some cases, that’s the same player for both.
Who are the best Devils for each major nationality in the NHL in their history? Glad you asked.
So there’s this guy with 669 regular-season wins in 1,220 games, eight 40-win seasons, 121 shutouts, 24 playoff shutouts, three Stanley Cup rings and two Olympic gold medals and four Vezina Trophies and a Calder who is a 10-time all-star.
But Martin Brodeur isn’t the greatest Canadian to ever play for the Devils because of those records and accomplishments. No sir and/or ma’am.
It’s because he won the 1996 ESPY Award for “Outstanding Performance Under Pressure”, and who among us can claim that?
Oh, right, Messier won it because of 1994. But let’s not dwell on the negative here. Brodeur’s the greatest player in Devils history and thus their greatest Canadian player.
Total Career Choice: Brodeur, with a stick-tap to Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Dave Andreychuk, Brendan Shanahan, Mel Bridgman, John MacLean, Ken Daneyko, Pat Verbeek, Claude Lemieux, Kirk Muller and Chico Resch.
Uh, yeah, so, Finland then …
The Devils don’t exactly have what you’d call a storied history when it comes to Finnish players. Of the 11 skaters born in Finland that played for New Jersey, eight saw less than 35 games of action. Included in that group was one of the biggest-name busts in franchise history: Esa Tikkanen, who lasted nine games before being traded for the second time in a month.
Do you give it to defenseman Tapio Levo, who was a minus-41 for the 1982-83 inaugural Devils? Anssi Salmela, who played 74 games of no consequence in three years? Reijo Ruotsalainen, a Lou Lamoriello waivers coup that played 31 games in Jersey?
With option ‘B’ being “PASS”, we’ll give this one to center Janne Ojanen, who played 98 games from 1988-1993 for the Devils. If only because he was always a phone call away and he wore three different numbers – how versatile!
Total Career Choice: We’ll never stop loving you, non-Devils Tikkanen.
One of the more difficult categories for the Devils.
The first great American was Aaron Broten, who played 581 games for the Devils and scored 430 points. He was a fantastic winger, and with Muller and Pat Verbeek formed an exceptional line.
You had a player like Mark Johnson, who had 229 points in 305 games. Or Brian Rolston, who scored 281 points in 557 games for the Devils. Or Bill Guerin, who had 214 points in 380 games for New Jersey. Or Brian Gionta, who have 312 points in 473 games. Current Devil defenseman Andy Greene should be in the conversation, albeit as an underrated option. Ditto fan favorites Doug Brown and Chris Terreri.
But the battle comes down to three names …
Zach Parise, the captain who abandoned ship to the Minnesota Wild, had 410 points in 502 games. He was a star offensive talent, a leader by example and one of the best "home grown" Devils in their history.
Scott Gomez, the incredible playmaker who had 450 points in 548 games for the Devils, before leaving for the Rangers (and watching his career get crushed under the weight of his contract).
Brian Rafalski, the defenseman who played 541 games and tallied 311 points. He was found in obscurity by Lamoriello and blossomed into one of the best puck-moving defensemen of his generation, winning two Stanley Cups.
I think Gomez and Parise are too close to call at the forward spot – if you disagree, then you never saw Gomez play at the height of his offensive powers. That leaves the door open for Brian Rafalski, who was undrafted and undersized but was a vital defenseman for the Devils in the shadow of Stevens and Niedermayer.
Total Career Choice: Outside of the names listed above, there’s also Phil Housley and Neal Broten to consider. Have to hand that one to Housley, despite his struggles with the Devils.
A surprisingly easy call: Patrick Sundstrom.
Sundstrom scored 246 points in 305 games for the Devils from 1987-1992. He never seemed to be able to harness the incredible offensive power he possessed for more than a few games here or there. But his 8-point performance in the 1988 playoffs, topping a Wayne Gretzky record, is a hell of a highlight for his clip reel:
(Stick-tap to Tommy Albelin’s 539 games with the NJD as well.)
Total Career Choice: Hey, 588 points in 679 games is nothing to scoff at. But for lack of a better entry, it’s Sundstrom here too. At least until Adam Larsson gets his act together.
Hoo-boy: Alex Mogilny vs. Ilya Kovalchuk.
Mogs had 114 points in 121 games for the Devils, winning the Cup with them in 2000 and going back to the Final the following season. Kovalchuk had 201 points in 222 games for the Devils, leading them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.
Despite the bizarre circumstances surrounding his “retirement” and the lingering bitterness over the cluster-[expletive] of a contract that was spiked by the NHL, Ilya Kovalchuk gets the nod here. He’s the best offensive player to ever lace’em up for the Devils, and his heroic performance in the 2012 playoffs erased any doubts about his dedication to the game and determination to win.
Well, at least until he ran away to the KHL.
Total Career Choice: With due respect to Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov is considered one of the greatest defensemen to ever live. He wasn’t bad for the Devils either, outside of his pedestrian effort on that Matteau goal in 1994. (Stick-tap to fan favorite and human pinball Sergei Brylin here as well.)
There’s Patrik Elias, and then there’s everyone else.
He’s played 1,090 games for the Devils and has tallied 930 points in that span. He has two Stanley Cups to his credit with New Jersey. He helped form the “A-Line” with Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora, which remains one of the best in franchise history. He doesn’t have fellow Czech Bobby Holik’s unique charms, but he has the best offensive numbers in Devils history. This was a slam-dunk.
Total Career Choice: Since Jaromir Jagr hasn’t actually played a game with the Devils yet, will give this one to Elias as well.
One of the first Devils alumni to ever make the Hockey Hall of Fame, Peter Stastny tallied 173 points in 217 games during the twilight of his career in New Jersey. A class act and one of the biggest names the Devils acquired during Lamoriello’s first seasons at the helm.
Total Career Choice: Um, 1,239 points, 36th all-time? Yeah, it’s Stastny.
Dainius Zubrus, the pride of Lithuania, has 188 points in 398 games and successfully eclipsed Valeri Zelepukin as the best foreign dude with a last name that starts with ‘Z’ in Devils history. But keep your eyes on that Marek Zidlicky …
Total Career Choice: Ukrainian Oleg Tverdovsky is a contender, and probably ate more pierogi. But we'll stick with Zubrus.
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