Kukla's Korner Hockey
by pcoffey on 05/24/11 at 05:29 PM ET
We’re very pleased to welcome Phil Coffey—well-known to many in the hockey world—as a guest blogger at Kukla’s Korner.
Sight unseen, would you consider a player with three Stanley Cup championships and two Olympic medals worthy of a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame?
Perhaps, but you need more info to make the correct decision. After all, it is possible that a player with those credentials might well be a depth player who was truly fortunate to go along for the ride.
Brian Rafalski never was a bit player during what was a tremendous—if unlikely—NHL career. Rafalski ranks as one of the top American players ever to have laced on skates. A strong, puck-moving defenseman with uncanny instincts and a work ethic to match, In a word, Rafalski was great to watch.
But at age 37, Rafalski retired Tuesday after helping the Detroit Red Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup and a return trip to the finals in 2009. He also appeared in three finals with the New Jersey Devils, winning in 2000 and 2003.
And let’s not forget the two silver medals earned at the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics for Team USA.
Not bad for a player who was never drafted. Yep, 30 clubs could not find a reason to draft Rafalski back in the day, forcing the defenseman on a European vacation of sorts to prove himself worthy of a North American career.
Back in 1999, I was speaking with Mark Czerwinski of the Bergen Record in New Jersey. As an old beat guy for the Devils during my newspaper days, I always liked to see what was going on with the team. Czerwinski couldn’t stop talking about this smallish defenseman who Devils GM Lou Lamoriello signed out of Europe.
“It’s weird because he is an American,” Czerwinski said when I asked for details. “Nobody drafted him and he is going to make the team.”
Rafalski did a lot more than simply make the team. He became a foundation player in New Jersey, seamlessly moving into a Top 4 that included Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko. His partnership with Stevens was just about perfect. Stevens would play the front of the net with controlled ferocity and Rafalski was the puck mover, grabbing a loose puck and springing a beautiful breakout. During his rookie season of 1999-2000, Rafalski was a plus-21, tops among NHL rookies. He also made the NHL All-Rookie Team, but missed out on the Calder Trophy that went to teammate Scott Gomez.
And he just continued to get better. In seven seasons with the Devils, Rafalski never was a minus player and he was durable, never appearing in fewer that 69 games. And with each season, Rafalski was the guy you pointed to when discussing the difficult job NHL scouts have.
Rafalski’s return to his Michigan roots for the 2007-08 season hurt New Jersey as much as it helped the Wings. In Detroit, Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom combined to form an elegant and productive pair on defense and another Stanley Cup followed in 2008 and helping the Wings to Game 7 against the Penguins in 2009. The Devils are still looking for a puck-moving defenseman to replace him.
So why, at just 37, would Rafalski opt to retire with a year left on his deal with the Wings? As weird as it sounds, in the NHL, success can stifle longevity. In 11 seasons, Rafalski’s teams never missed the playoffs. His total of 165 Stanley Cup Playoff games—where he scored 29 goals and 71 assists—is the equivalent of two more regular seasons, probably a bit more considering the intensity and pace of playoff competition. And Rafalski could see the wear and tear. During the 2010-11 regular season, injuries limited Rafalski to 63 games, the fewest of his career.
And truth be told, it makes sense to be able to leave under your own power with a trophy case that would make the vast majority of players envious. It would’t be at all surprising to see a Hall of Fame ring in his future.
Another American stalwart, center Doug Weight, will follow Rafalski into retirement after two injury-plauged seasons with the New York Islanders. He will announce his intentions at a Thursday press conference.
Because of the injuries, Weight hasn’t spent much time in the spotlight of late, but it should be remembered that he played in 1,238 regular-season games and produced over 1,000 points—278 goals and 755 assists. He also was a mainstay for USA Hockey with appearances in three Winter Olympics—1998, 2002, 2006—and two World Cups, where he was part of the US squad that won the inaugural title in 1996. Weight also was a member of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup team, so he leaves the rink with a very impressive resume.
Phil Coffey has covered the NHL since 1981, most recently as the Senior Editorial Director of NHL.com. He spent over 11 years there.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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