Every NHL team has its marque players or players that make up the “core.” Some franchises rely on their core more than others, but what separates the good teams from the great teams are the other guys, the role player, the grinders, the unsung heroes. Throughout its existence, the New Jersey Devils have had their fair share of unsung heroes. This is the first post in a series dedicated to those guys. The non-flashy guys that didn’t make all the headlines, but made a difference when it counted most.
Today, we look at Valeri Zelepukin, a Russian-born winger drafted by the Devils in the 11th round, 221st overall in the 1990 NHL draft. Zelepukin was part of the new wave of European players entering the NHL in the early ’90s. At 6’1” and 220 pounds, the young Russian was known for his hard work around the net and his ability to excel at both ends of the ice. Plus, he wasn’t afraid to demonstrate some nastiness and drop the gloves every now and again.
Zelepukin joined the Devils farm team, the Utica Devils, for the start of the 1991-92 season, and it didn’t take long for the big club to take notice. In his first 22 games with Utica, he scored 20 goals with nine helpers. Once he hit the NHL, he quickly endeared himself to fans with 13 goals and 18 assists in 44 games. He played four of the Devils seven playoff games that season picking up a goal and an assist. Although his playoff heroics would have to wait for another yeah, it would eventually come and would forever cement his place in franchise history.
The following two seasons would turn out to be Zelepukin’s most productive in the NHL. He solidified his role on the team and a spot in the lineup with back-to-back 20-goal and 70 penalty minutes seasons. He also recorded a career-high 41 assists in ‘92-93.
Zelepukin’s time in New Jersey would reach its pinnacle during the 1993-94 season. He played in all 82 games, leading the team in shooting percentage (16.8%), finishing fourth in team scoring with 57 points and helping the Devils record the franchise’s first 100-point season. However, Zelepukin wouldn’t make his mark on the team for eternity until later that spring.
The Devils finished second in the NHL to the New York Rangers that season, setting up one of the greatest Conference Finals series of all time. Zelepukin scored three of his five playoff goals in that series, including the game-tying goal with 7.7 seconds remaining in Game 7. The Devils would eventually go on to lose the game and the series on Stephane Matteau’s double-overtime goal, but by that time Zelepukin had solidified himself as a cult hero in New Jersey.
Despite his quickly rising popularity, that playoff run would spell the beginning of the end for Valeri’s days as a Devils. A career-threatening eye injury that he suffered when Bruce Driver hit him during practice cost him all but four regular-season games in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign and although he played in 18 playoff games his impact was minimal. Zelepukin’s lone contribution to that run was the series-clinching goal in a first-round victory over the Boston Bruins. The Devils would go on to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, but Zelepukin’s efforts earned him little more than a footnote in history.
Zelepukin struggled to regain the form that made him a fan-favorite early on. It was clear the eye-injury had a major effect on his scoring ability. However, it didn’t seem to quell his feistiness.
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In 1995-96, he had a career-low shooting percentage (7%), but compiled a career-high 107 penalty minutes.
Sadly, Zelepukin only managed to score a total of 22 goals over the next two and a half seasons before his time as a Devil unceremoniously ended. In 1997-98, New Jersey dealt him, along with Bill Guerin, to the Edmonton Oilers in a package that returned Jason Arnott and Brad Muir to the Garden State. We’re all familiar with what Arnott meant to the Devils in his tenure, so in a way, it’s fitting that Zelepukin continued to make a difference even in his exodus.
Zelepukin played 375 games with the Devils, collecting 85 goals, 133 assists and 349 penalty minutes. He rose to stardom quickly culminating in the biggest goal in franchise history to that point. It is unfortunate things didn’t end well for him, but Zelepukin will forever be remembered as one of the franchise’s most popular unsung heroes.
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