Here is a common piece of trivia for New Jersey Devils fans. What accomplishment did the following five players achieve: Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko, and Sergei Brylin? The answer: They were members of all three Devils teams that won the Stanley Cup. We can look at those five names and also ask: Which one of those five does not quite belong?
Brodeur, Stevens, and Niedermayer are not only franchise legends but first-ballot Hockey Hall of Fame players. Daneyko is a legend of the franchise if only for being around since the early years of the team’s stay in New Jersey. And he has remained in the eyes and ears of the fanbase as he has been the color commentator for Devils games on MSG since 2014. Those four have their numbers retired. Younger fans and fans not so familiar with the glory years of the Devils franchise know who those four to some degree. They may not know the fifth one. The one who does not have his number retired, but he is very much favorite for those fans who were around and recall the mid-to-late 1990s through the 2000s. This is a post to help explain why Sergei Brylin is a cult hero in the history of the New Jersey Devils.
He Could Do A Lot of Things Pretty Well
The best word to describe Sergei Brylin as a player is versatility. In our annual awards, we have the Sergei Brylin Award for Versatility. This is not a tongue-in-cheek reference. In his career with the Devils, Brylin can and did play at all three forward positions. Brylin can and did contribute in all situations. If the team needed someone to step up to a higher line due to injury, Brylin would move up. If the team needed someone to take on tough minutes on a checking line, Brylin would serve that role. If the team needed someone to play in the team’s power play set-up, Brylin would do that. If the team needed a penalty killer, Brylin would do that. If the team needed someone to step on defense or otherwise be shorthanded on the blueline, then Brylin would even do that too. Outside of playing goaltender, Brylin did it all for the Devils. (And, yes, that included an appearance as a defenseman.)
The thing about it all is in whatever role he served, he did a pretty good job of it. Brylin was never a very productive player. However, he did become a consistent 30-40 point scorer throughout the 2000s as per his Elite Prospects profile. He was not only responsible in his own end but fairly responsible with himself as he never took more than twenty penalties in a NHL season and often took fewer than fifteen. On the power play, he did chip in on a secondary unit. Brylin was an regular member of Devils teams known for their incredibly stingy defense, which included their penalty kill. He was never a primary force on the attack. Or even the first or second choice forward for defensive purposes – John Madden and Jay Pandolfo were often around for that. But Brylin was very much in the picture as a secondary scorer, a special teams regular on the second PP and PK units, and often in the bottom six to support whatever the team needed. If the situation called for a gritty play like driving into traffic, getting to the net, or crashing into the boards to win a puck, the 5’10” Brylin would do it and do that pretty well too (see the video section for examples). Brylin was the utility player for the Devils in those days. He was a jack of all trades and a master of none.
He was – and is – Constantly There for the Devils
What remains most impressive to me is that he served this role for the many coaches the team went through during his NHL career. Granted, it helped that Lou was in charge at the same time. But the various coaching staffs could have been justified to request a better player or limit his minutes. There were certainly changes in his career, but per NHL.com Brylin spent the vast majority of his NHL career averaging at least 13 minutes per game and at least 11 minutes per game at even strength. In many of those seasons, he had even more ice time due to his work special teams. It did not take long for Jacques Lemaire, Robbie Ftorek, Larry Robinson, Kevin Constantine, Pat Burns, Claude Julien, and Brent Sutter and their respective staffs at the time to recognize that Brylin was more than just a guy. He could be used in a lot of different ways, and the coaches went ahead utilized him quite a bit. If there was a period where he would have to prove himself all over again, then it was very, very short. Especially after the 1997-98 season, his last one where he split time between Albany and New Jersey.
As a result, if you were a fan of the Devils during those halcyon days, then you often saw #18 Sergei Brylin on the ice. You would see him in various situations. More often than not as a checking player. Back then, many teams ran a checking line that often went up against the other team’s best players. The concept of matching power against power that we see in today’s game was not the norm back then. As such, players like Madden, Pandolfo, Brylin, and so forth did not really push the play forward. (Aside: The on-ice 5-on-5 percentages in Brylin’s final season in 2007-08 at Natural Stat Trick are not very kind to Brylin, Pandolfo, and especially Madden.) But that was not their job. Their job was to slow down, frustrate, and limit the opposition as much as they can. This also meant that it was common for someone like Brylin or Madden to have about as much ice time in a game as say, Patrik Elias. Just look at the team’s ice time in 2006-07 for example. If you were watching Devils hockey back in the late 1990s and most of the 2000s, then you absolutely saw Brylin on a very regular basis. Especially from 2003-04 through to his final NHL season in 2007-08 where Brylin played in every single Devils game. Add to the fact that the team was generally successful and he served multiple roles throughout a season, it was easy to become a fan of Brylin.
It was also easy to associate Brylin with New Jersey because to this day it remains the only organization he has played for in his professional career in North America. Free agency is now a fact of life and teams can and do trade players as they see fit. It is rare to see someone spend their whole career with one team in pro sports. When Brylin came over from CSKA Moscow after the 1993-94 season, he was in the Devils’ system until 2007-08. The only other teams Brylin played for were in Russia. He started his pro career through CSKA Moscow, he played for Khimik Voskresensk in 2004-05 when that lockout ended that season, and after 2007-08 he played in the KHL for four more seasons after New Jersey did not pick up his contract.
But the split was surely amicable. After his final season as a player in 2011-12 with Metallurg Novokuznetsk, Brylin returned to the Devils. He joined Albany’s staff as a consultant. He became an assistant coach with Albany in 2013-14 and has remained in that role since then, following the team from the Capital District to Binghamton. Brylin has spent over twenty years and counting with the franchise. Few can claim being with the organization in some capacity for longer than that (off the top of my head: Daneyko, John MacLean, Bruce Driver, Chris Terreri, and Brodeur). The point remains: Brylin remains constantly a Devil. That adds to the allure.
How Brylin’s Production Stacks Up in Franchise History
Being around for a long period of time helps anyone looking to finish a fairly high position among scorers and players in franchise history. Per Hockey-Reference, Brylin put up 129 goals and 179 assists in 765 games played. (And, also, just 273 PIM. Again, Brylin was fairly well disciplined.) Those numbers on their own do not seem that impressive on their own. They are not that low with respect to the history of the Devils.
In terms of games played, Brylin is currently tenth overall among all Devils skaters as per Hockey-Reference. Including all players – Brodeur – Brylin is eleventh on the list of appearances. The ones who have played more than Brylin are the other legends of the team, other longstanding veterans, and Travis Zajac, who will surely become the fourth Devil to play at least 1,000 games with the franchise if/when the NHL resumes playing games. Here is where else Brylin stacks up to others in franchise history per Hockey-Reference:
- Brylin’s 308 points is also 19th in franchise history. Everyone below him has fewer than 300 points. The eighteen ahead of Brylin is a who’s who of legends and fan favorites in Devils history. The only current Devil ahead of Brylin is Travis Zajac, whose 532 points places him third all-time in points among skaters. The next active Devil is Kyle Palmieri, who has some way to go with 247 points.
- Brylin’s 129 goals may not seem like a lot but he is also 19th in franchise history in that stat as well. Brylin has not shot the puck a lot in his career. His shots per-game average is just below 1.33 per game. But with a career shooting percentage of approximately 12.69%, Brylin was not a total stranger to the concept of scoring goals. Zajac is ahead of him with 195 goals, the fourth most in franchise history. Palmieri also surpassed Brylin as he has 132 goals right now. The next closest Devil is Nico Hischier, who has 51. I am confident Nico will get up there in time.
- As for assists, Brylin’s 179 helpers is 17th in franchise history. Again, this was more of a function of longevity than anything else but he was making contributions while not necessarily serving in a lot of offensive situations. Zajac has long passed Brylin. He is actually tied with Stevens with 337 assists right now. The closest current Devil to Brylin’s assist total is Damon Severson, who has 126 at the time of the league pausing 2019-20. He could get there provided he remains with the Devils for a while longer and continues to get offensive situations.
- Since Brylin did get power play time with regularity in most of his career, he did end up scoring 34 power play goals. Per Hockey-Reference, he is tied with Patrik Sundstrom and Brian Rolston for 18th in power play goals in franchise history. Zajac (53, tied with Pat Verbeek) and Palmieri (52) have long past Brylin in PPGs. The next closest Devil is way back and is a surprising name: Pavel Zacha. He has 14.
- Hockey-Reference does not have power play points as something to search for in their player season finder search. NHL.com does. From the league’s stat section, Brylin sits in 31st in franchise history in a nice position with 69 power play points. It is not a large amount but for someone who was mostly on secondary units, that is not nothing either. Again, Zajac (147) and Palmieri (101) have long past Brylin. The closest current Devil in this category is Severson, who has 51 power play points.
- Lastly, let us go back to Hockey-Reference and briefly go over the playoffs. Brylin is again 11th all time with 109 playoff appearances and one of twelve with over 100 playoff games at all with the Devils. He is 17th in goals with 15 playoff goals, 19th in assists with 19 playoff assists, and 18th in points with 34 playoff points. Analgous to his regular season numbers, Brylin’s numbers alone may not be large enough to take notice, but he rated fairly well among others in franchise history.
One additional point to be made across all of these. Brylin is currently the franchise leader in goals, assists, points, and games played among Russian-born players. The Devils were early adopters in bringing Russian talent to the NHL. Brylin himself was a second round pick in 1992 and the team was content to have him play the next two seasons in Moscow before coming over. They recognized his talent and had the patience to wait for it. They were well rewarded.
Selected Video Highlights
It is hard to point out a particular set of highlights for Brylin, but there are a few videos to check out.
- Brylin’s first ever playoff goal came in a big moment: Game 4 against the Detroit Red Wings in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. The Devils were up 3-2 and at home. It was the third period. Who drove to the net to make something happen? Brylin. Who missed his first attempt and was effectively taken down into the corner? Brylin. Who got back up and charged all alone to the slot? Brylin. Who slammed the rebound from Brian Rolston’s shot? Brylin. It was an important insurance goal that took the pressure off what would be a sweep-ensuring win.
- The NHL’s second attempt in Atlanta began with a game against New Jersey on October 2, 1999. Brylin scored on this one-timer to put the Devils up 3-1 in what would be a 4-1 win. The one-timer came after a failed jam-in attempt that somehow did not go for him.
- Sergei Nemchinov is one of the few players to have played for every single NHL team in the tri-state area. Brylin set up Nemchinov’s first goal as a Devils with a fantastic pass to him in the slot right off a rebound.
- Those who followed the Devils back in the glory years would not be surprised at the idea of Brylin joining Alexander Mogilny on a rush up ice. But that is what happened. With great support by Vladimir Malakhov, Brylin put home a rebound at the left post past Ed Belfour in Game 4 in the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals. This goal was massively important as it tied up the game 1-1 early in the third period. The Devils went on to win the game 3-1, the second and final game in that series that was decided by more than one goal.
- Brylin scored the first goal of the Devils’ playoff run in 2001. Late in the first period, Brylin broke the deadlock against Carolina with an unassisted goal. Well, the massive giveaway by Marek Malik set it all up but he was on the opposition so he does not get a point for it. The Devils would go on to win Game 1, 5-1.
- The Devils had a hectic series with Toronto in the 2001 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Game 2 in New Jersey went to overtime. The Devils would win it on a play that began with a big shot block by Brylin at the left point. Brylin charged up ice and found Bobby Holik trailing into the offensive zone and wide open. Holik sent it across to an open Randy McKay and the Devils won Game 2 in OT. Brylin’s secondary assist is absolutely a highlight.
- The 2001 Stanley Cup Finals against Colorado did not go the way anyone who matters really wanted it to go. The Devils did win Game 5, 4-1, and again, Brylin provided an insurance goal to help ease the pressure. Brylin ended up having a two-point night. Here is the goal, a re-direction of a Mogilny shot past Patrick Roy’s left.
- The Devils opened up their home schedule in 2003-04 against Toronto. The Devils were less than a minute away from losing that game 1-2. Enter Sergei Brylin. He banged in his own rebound amid traffic in front of the net with two seconds left in regulation. The game ultimately ended in a tie, but Brylin secured the first point of the season for New Jersey.
- On March 8, 2007, the Devils beat Pittsburgh 4-3. Brylin did not score the game winning goal. He scored arguably the game’s gutsiest when he put in a rebound while laid out in the ice. Never question the man’s desire.
- Sergei Brylin’s NHL career was near its end when the NHL instituted the shootout. Brylin has scored two shootout goals in his career. This is his first one, the only one he would score in the 2006-07 season. It was a very pretty one too. That skate fake was sweet.
- Brylin’s last goal in a Devils uniform came in Game 3 against Our Hated Rivals in the 2008 playoffs. This was, unfortunately, the only game the Devils won in that series. Brylin’s goal was the first one in what would become a 4-3 overtime win. The goal was initially waved off for the claim of a kicking motion. Upon review, the goal was good as there was no distinct motion. Brylin just went hard to the net and the puck rebounded off of him and in. Not exactly the prettiest final goal with the franchise, but all goals are beautiful in their own way – especially against Our Hated Rivals.
Final Thoughts on Brylin
One could look back at the majority of the Lou Era and point out how the Devils were driven by their system and identity and so the players were interchangeable parts. However, I see Brylin is an argument against the players being interchangeable.
Yes, Brylin was and should be best known for his versatility. But it is not something that most players can do regardless of skill level. Not everyone can play well with varying types of players and in varying types of roles. Not everyone can do so across multiple coaching staffs and with annual high expectations of team success. Brylin was the kind of player that a team could build around without necessarily being a top-line or top-pairing caliber player. Those players are not easy to find, much less keep for over a decade. Lots of players get to be called a “glue guy,” usually for purposes of leadership and morale. Brylin was a glue guy in a practical sense on the ice. If there was a hole on a given night, Brylin could be and was called upon to fill it in. If there was a gap in the team’s set-up, Brylin could and did fill that in too. Someone as versatile as Brylin should be seen as special.
I will agree that Brylin has not really accomplished nearly as much as the others who have their numbers in the rafters at the Prudential Center. Three of those five are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Daneyko is a Devils-lifer, and Patrik Elias is one of the best Czech-born players in history in addition to being the franchise leader in scoring. Brylin rates fairly well in franchise history. However, he is still someone with 308 points in 765 games with no individual trophies, never in contention for any individual awards, no all-star appearances, no roles as a captain, and was never the best player at his position in any season. I like Brylin a lot. But he was not that accomplished. I think it would be too much of a stretch to retire his #18.
I would agree to some level of honors. Newer fans should know who he is; after all, I am writing this post to help with just that. That if the Devils resume their Ring of Honor, they should put Brylin there. They can also rename Section 18 as the Brylin Section or something like that. Brylin, who is still with the organization as a coach in Binghamton, deserves some recognition. As the halcyon days of the mid-to-late 1990s and 2000s become more entrenched in the past, the Devils and even the fans would do well to help newer fans know who helped make those championship teams and successful seasons possible beyond the Hall of Famers. Brylin was one of them. And for many fans who were there when it happened, like myself, we know Brylin was an important player on those teams.