Kukla's Korner

Kukla's Korner Hockey

Rafalski’s next stop may be Hall of Fame

image

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.


PROFILE
Phil Coffey has covered the NHL since 1981, most recently as the Senior Editorial Director of NHL.com. He spent over 11 years there.

Filed in: NHL Talk, Phil_Coffey, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: brian+rafalski, hall+of+fame, hof, retirement

Comments

yzer19man's avatar

Good read…thanks Phil…welcome to KK

Posted by yzer19man from Chicago, IL on 05/24/11 at 05:51 PM ET

TheFreak's avatar

What do you think of the possibility of Rafalski wanting to coach - specifically filling in where McCrimmon left?

Posted by TheFreak on 05/24/11 at 06:18 PM ET

Avatar

Just my take on it, but I think Rafalski will take some time off before deciding on the next step in his career. Instantly becoming an assistant with the guys he played with for so long is a tough transition.

Posted by Phil Coffey on 05/24/11 at 06:29 PM ET

42jeff's avatar

Instantly becoming an assistant with the guys he played with for so long is a tough transition.
Posted by Phil Coffey on 05/24/11 at 04:29 PM ET

I had an experience similar to this with work.  I had been in a shop for a while and finally got promoted to running a shift.  I was too much “friends” with the fellas and not enough “boss” and it took someone pulling me aside and showing it to me to realize it.  It was reeeealll hard to change the mindsets of both myself AND the fellas.

Posted by 42jeff from The greater Howard City, MI metroplex on 05/24/11 at 06:42 PM ET

Alanah McGinley's avatar

I imagine the transition in general—from being part of a team for so many years, and all that their schedule requires, to living a ‘normal’ life—would be very difficult on its own.  Such a huge change in lifestyle… probably a good idea to take that time to figure things out.

Posted by Alanah McGinley from British Columbia on 05/24/11 at 07:02 PM ET

Primis's avatar

I understand Phil’s point, but the fact is that Rafalski was never really the Alpha Male of any of those Cup winners.  In NJ he had Stevens and Niedermayer.  In Detroit he had Lidstrom and, this year, Stuart.  I just don’t see him as HHoF material I guess.  Maybe as one of the greatest #2 d-men of all-time?...

I honestly feel a bit bad now riding the guy like I did during the playoffs, if in fact he was playing night in and night out on a truly messed-up knee.  Still doesn’t explain his poor decision-making, but certainly would his inability to get back into plays and to defend the rush sometimes.  And also why the coaches wouldn’t punish him for what seemed like not getting back—he maybe WAS trying to and they knew he just couldn’t.

Posted by Primis on 05/24/11 at 10:42 PM ET

Avatar

Just my opinion Primis. Rafalski was a No. 2 defenseman, but he did so much for both teams and Team USA. He wasn’t like Jeff Beukeboom with Brian Leetch, who was the silent partner, hanging back and filling the gaps when Leetch took off. Rafalski allowed Stevens to be Stevens and Nick to be Nick and then added an awful lot based on his own talents.

As for Rafalski being hurt in the playoffs, everyone who comes to KK knows the drill in hockey, by the playoffs everyone is banged up to a certain extent and it really becomes a mind-over-matter deal to keep playing at a high level


—Phil Coffey

Posted by Phil Coffey on 05/24/11 at 11:02 PM ET

Avatar

Welcome to KK, Mr. Coffey. Thanks for the read.

Rafalski was definitely underrated and one of the NHL’s best defenders for most of his career, and your points are all well taken. That said, I can’t put him in the hall of fame.

Short NHL career, was rarely (if ever) the best defender on his team, never made a postseason all-star team or was seriously considered for the Norris Trophy. You don’t have to have all those pieces to be considered a hall of famer, but if you don’t have any, there should be serious doubts about your candidacy.

I get that some of those factors weren’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault that NHL scouts overlooked him, and it wasn’t his fault that he was always overshadowed by legends like Stevens, Niedermayer and Lidstrom. Maybe if some team had given him a shot straight out of college, maybe if he had played a few more years, maybe if he had been given the chance to shine as the undisputed No. 1 defender on his team ... who knows?

That said, Mark Howe is not in the hall of fame. Phil Housley is not in the hall of fame. Hard to imagine Rafalski in and those guys still out, especially Howe.

Posted by Sven22 from Grand Rapids on 05/24/11 at 11:56 PM ET

Avatar

Hi Sven22

In my estimation, the three Stanley Cups and additional trips to the Final, combined with his international success trump the lack of postseason all-star status and a Norris. But that’s just me.

Plus, I really liked Rafalski’s game. His puck-moving skills are well documented, but the rest of his game was played at a high level as well. He was durable and intense and perhaps most importantly, he made his teams better. That’s another big quality in my book. But the HOF folks are smart enough to not have me making these decisions.

Your points are well taken, but I think Rafalski was a 1B defenseman and is at least deserving of serious consideration

—Phil Coffey

Posted by Phil Coffey on 05/25/11 at 12:11 AM ET

Avatar

So happy to be reading your stuff again, Phil. On the subject of Rafalski, it’s definitely a toss up for me. While the post-season appearances and international success came as being an important part of some very good teams, it is not necessarily a direct reflection of Rafalski’s individual accomplishments. With that said, he was still one of the greatest players to come out of the U.S., but he was also no Brian Leetch. Additionally, Rafalski was a very good defenseman, but he was never the best d-man on any of his respective clubs, playing in the shadows of Scott Stevens and Nick Lidstrom. While Rafalski is without question a United States Hockey Hall of Famer, I am not totally sold on him making the main Hall of Fame.

The best way I can support my opinion is this way: Remove Rafalski from the Devils or Red Wings Cup teams and there is a very good chance those teams still win it all. Now, take away any of Rafalski’s contemporaries (Lidstrom, Stevens or Leetch) from those respective Cup teams and I am confident none of those teams have as much success as they had. I will support Rafalski as deserving consideration, but the Hall of Fame is reserved for true game changers and it’s difficult for me to put him in the same class as Messier, Lemieux, Gretzky and Howe or even among other d-men like Orr,  Bourque or Harvey.

Posted by Eric Goodman from Brooklyn, NY on 05/25/11 at 02:07 AM ET

Avatar

Hey Eric, hope all is going well on your end of things. Busy time for sure.

Got to love Hall of Fame talk because no one is ever really wrong. You are absolute right that Rafalski doesn’t rank with Messier, Gretzky, Howe, Orr and Bourque.

But I still believe his game merits serious consideration because he stubbornly refused to accept he couldn’t play in the NHL. As for not being the best defenseman on his team, again true, but how much did his strong play help boost Scott Stevens and Nick Lidstrom, obviously two of the sport’s greats? I’m sure they would say having Rafalski as their partner made life that much easier for them.

For the U.S. Hockey Hall, Rafalski is no-brainer. For the Hockey Hall of Fame, Rafalski’s status isn’t as clear cut, but he is deserving of the conversation.

—Phil Coffey

Posted by Phil Coffey on 05/25/11 at 12:31 PM ET

Avatar

Yes, Hall of Fame talk is always fun. But, if you are using Rafalski’s grit and stubbornness as a supporting factor for the Hall, then we also must include my favorite hockey player of all time to that conversation: Adam Graves.

Your thoughts?

Posted by Eric Goodman from Brooklyn, NY on 05/25/11 at 06:58 PM ET

Add a Comment

Please limit embedded image or media size to 575 pixels wide.

Add your own avatar by joining Kukla's Korner, or logging in and uploading one in your member control panel.

Captchas bug you? Join KK or log in and you won't have to bother.

Smileys

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Feed

Most Recent Blog Posts

About Kukla's Korner Hockey

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.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

Email Paul anytime at pk@kuklaskorner.com

 

image

image

image