Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Writer
Jan 22, 2007, 12:00 PM EST
All of Brian Rafalski’s deficiencies were supposed to be exposed when he lost the cover he hid behind on the New Jersey Devils’ stacked blue line, which, in its heyday, featured sure Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer as the focal points.
The two “Great Scotts” are long gone now and Rafalski has emerged as not only New Jersey’s best defenseman, but one of the elite defenders in the entire NHL. This week, he will play in his second All-Star Game, selected as a reserve to the Eastern Conference roster. He also played in the 2004 Game and was selected to play in 2002, but missed that appearance because of injury.
Heck, even his goalie, Martin Brodeur, wasn’t sure what the future held for Rafalski when the 2005-06 season rolled around. Niedermayer had bolted as a free agent, signing in Anaheim and Stevens retired, perhaps sooner than anyone expected, because of a lingering head injury. Now a player who was a virtual unknown in his own dressing room upon his arrival back in 1999-2000 was being asked to accept a starring role on a blue Line that has been dominant for most of the past decade
“I didn’t even know who he was when he came here,” Brodeur said of Rafalski’s arrival as an undrafted free-agent back in 1999. “He came in as an older guy from Europe and I didn’t know much about him. So for him to come in his first year (1999-2000) and have the kind of season he had was great. He had a lot of support around him, a little bit like when I started. I had a lot of people to help me out to become the player I am now.
“I think Brian is the same way. He got the leadership last year of the defense and he was an offensive guy and now he has been put into different roles. He’s our top guy, so he has to play a lot of minutes -- kill penalties, play the power play, play 5-on-5 -- so there is a lot asked of him. So, it’s been nice to see him get some recognition around the League.”
Rafalski admits life without the two Scotts -- especially Stevens, who often served as his defensive pairing partner – was quite the adjustment; one he had not completely made by the time New Jersey was ousted in the second round of the playoffs last season.
“I’m doing the little things better now,” Rafalski says. “Am I more consistent? I think so. I’ve adjusted because last year I played a lot more minutes for the first time and this year I’ve been able to handle it better mentally.”
This season, Rafalski has been the unquestioned foundation of a New Jersey defense that lacks big names, but still gets the job done on a nightly basis.
Through 47 games, the Devils have allowed the fewest goals (108) in the League despite starting an unheralded rookie (Johnny Oduya), two third-year players (Paul Martin and David Hale) and a veteran journeyman (Brad Lukowich) on a nightly basis. Rafalski and physical Colin White are the only two stalwarts on the back end.
Yet, the Devils sit comfortably atop the Atlantic Division and have the second-best record in the East.
Claude Julien, in his first year as the Devils' coach, is not surprised at how dominant Rafalski has been. He calls on the unassuming – both physically (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) and vocally – Rafalski to log more than 25 minutes per game, a total that puts him in the Top 10 in the League for average time on ice.
“For me, he’s one of those guys that just competes every night,” the coach says. “He goes into the corners and it doesn’t matter who he’s going against, he’s going in there to be first and wanting to get the puck. He doesn’t get intimidated by physical play, he’ll take the hit to make the play.
“He’s a guy that has great skating skills, moves the puck very well and gives us that offensive element we need from the back end. To me, he’s been a pretty complete player. At the beginning of the year, he was in a minus area (in plus/minus rating) that people hadn’t seen in many years, but if you look at it now, he’s turned that part of the game around now.”
In fact, Rafalski is now plus-1 on a New Jersey roster amazingly littered with minus players. He also has 28 assists and 30 points, numbers that comfortably lead the team’s defensemen in production.