Scott Stevens – “Captain Crunch”

For the second player profile, I thought I would go with a man who was one of the final pieces of the puzzle for the Devils to get over the top and win the Stanley Cup. The unquestioned leader of the team during its glory years: Scott Stevens. Stevens was a player who came to the Devils a little bit rough around the edges despite previous individual success elsewhere and would, over time (and with world-class coaching), become one of the best leaders in the game, rivaling perhaps only his cross-river rival, Rangers captain Mark Messier.

Scott Stevens was born April 1, 1964 in Kitchener, Ontario. Growing up, he was a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan whose favorite player was the legendary Leafs’ defenseman Borje Salming. Stevens’ father, Larry, was a semi-pro Canadian football player and, in fact, Scott played middle linebacker for his high school football team at Eastwood Collegiate Institute. While an excellent all-around athlete, Scott decided to stick with hockey and, in 1981, was chosen ninth overall in the Ontario Hockey League draft by the Kitchener Rangers. That Rangers team would include future NHLers such as Dave Shaw, Al MacInnis, future Devil Jeff Larmer and Brian Bellows. Stevens would play in the 1982 OHL All-Star Game and the team would win the Memorial Cup that year. Stevens would lead rookie defensemen in scoring that season as well. In a poll of OHL coaches, Stevens was named second best defensive defenseman in the league and, in a harbinger of things to come, was named second-best body checker in the entire league.

Stevens was drafted fifth overall by the Washington Capitals in the 1982 NHL Draft. He would make the team at training camp and never look back. In addition to never playing a minor league game, Stevens was among the elite players who scored on his first shot in his first NHL game, a list that includes Mario Lemieux. It is because of his never playing a game in the minors that Stevens was the quickest player in NHL history to play in 1,500 games (he was 37 years, 346 days old at the time of his 1,500th game). He would ultimately spend eight seasons in Washington and would make the NHL All-Rookie Team in 1983 as well as the First All-Star Team in 1988. During his time with the Caps he would play in two All-Star Games in 1985 and 1989. The Capitals were a team that was supposed to be on the brink of breaking out in the mid to late 1980s but never quite got over the hump. For Stevens, coach Bryan Murray would be a calming influence on a young player who was known as hot-headed and easy to goad into a fight or a penalty. Being that Stevens was one of the Capitals’ best offensive players at the time; this would hurt his team more than anything. Once he learned to curb his on-ice temper, Stevens was well on his way to becoming one of the premier defensemen in the NHL.

Stevens would leave for the St. Louis Blues as a restricted free agent in 1990. Washington declined to match the offer sheet and were compensated with $100,000 cash and two first round picks, which would turn into five first-round picks if the Caps did not have a top seven draft pick in 1991 or 1992. Stevens was immediately named captain in St. Louis and settled in with teammates Brett Hull and Adam Oates. He would play in the 1991 All-Star Game in his only season with the Blues.

In the 1991 offseason, St. Louis would sign New Jersey Devils star Brendan Shanahan, a restricted free agent as well. Because the picks owed to the Capitals were converted, the Blues now had to give up five first round picks and, thus, had no picks to negotiate with the Devils. This meant the teams had to go another route: the Blues were willing to give up goaltender Curtis Joseph and forward Rod Brind’Amour, as well as two draft picks. A worthy package to be sure, but the Devils insisted they wanted only one player: Scott Stevens. Finally, an arbitrator awarded Stevens to the Devils on September 4, 1991.

After refusing to initially report to training camp (Stevens was a source of controversy early on for the Devils, as he and his wife had intentions of settling in St. Louis and he did not feel entirely secure in coming east again – some players on the team even asked Lou Lamoriello to trade him, feeling he was “being forced upon the team”), Scott Stevens would officially reported to camp on September 26, 1991. By the beginning of the 1992-93 season, he would be named team captain. That season, he would aslo finish with 12 goals and 57 points, good enough to lead all Devils defensemen. The next season, 1993-94, he would lead the entire team in scoring with 78 points (including 18 goals), which was also his career high to that point in his career. He would also set a league record that season, finishing with a +53 in winning the NHL Plus/Minus Award, the highest to that point and the second highest winning plus/minus rating in award history behind only Vladimir Konstantinov in 1995-96, who finished with a +60.

Controversy would return to Stevens and the Devils in the 1994 offseason, as the St. Louis Blues again entered the picture trying to re-sign Stevens (who was once again a restricted free agent). The Devils would match the offer sheet ($17 million over four years), but would later learn that St. Louis had approached Stevens before the free agency period officially began. It took the NHL five years, but they eventually found the Blues guilty of wrong-doing and fined them $1.5 million and gave the Devils two of the Blues’ first-round draft picks. There was no evidence that Stevens was aware of any of the wrong-doing on St. Louis management’s part.

Stevens would lead Devils defensemen in scoring again in the lockout shortened 1994-95 season with 22 points. But the biggest achievement for the team and for Stevens was the defeat of the heavily-favored Detroit Red Wings for the team’s first Stanley Cup. Stevens memorably knocked Slava Kozlov out of Game 2 temporarily due to a massive body check. It is here that Stevens turned to Red Wing Dino Ciccarelli and, from the Devils bench said “You’re next!” after Ciccarelli complained about the hit to officials.

Stevens would finish second among Devils defensemen in 1996-97 in scoring with 24 points. The years 1996 to 1999 were tough ones for the Devils and their fans, with early playoff exits and completely missing the playoffs in 1996 (becoming the first team since the 1969-70 Montreal Canadiens to miss the playoffs the year after winning the Cup), however Stevens remained the rock on the defense, never finishing with a minus rating for that entire time. In fact, Stevens would never finish with a minus rating in any season his entire career, a feat that truly speaks to his consistency.

The Devils were back on top in 2000, winning their second Stanley Cup by defeating the Dallas Stars. Stevens was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. But it was the Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers where Stevens’ physical play shone brightest. Stevens took Daymond Langkow out in Game 2 with a thunderous hit and then, in probably his most famous (or infamous, depending on which side you are on) hit, he leveled Eric Lindros coming through the neutral zone with his head down. Lindros received a concussion, but Stevens has contended that the hit, like all of his body checks, was legal and would stand up even today. His philosophy was essentially that hockey is a contact sport and he was fair game just as any of his opponents were. That stance would never be more tested than in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. It was there that Stevens would notch another hit on his stick when he knocked Mighty Ducks superstar Paul Kariya out cold. In a famous scene, Kariya would recover with a puff of breath on his visor and return to lead the victory, forcing a Game 7, which the Devils would win to claim their third Stanley Cup.

In 2003-04, Stevens played in his 1,616th game making him the all-time NHL leader in games played for defensemen. On September 6, 2005, Stevens would retire. His final tally includes 1,635 games played, a +393 plus/minus rating and 2,785 PIMs. He won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup and represented his country at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. With the Devils, he would play in the 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003 All-Star Games. He would become the first Devil to have his number retired as his number “4” would hang from the rafters of Continental Airlines Arena and, now, the Prudential Center where he currently works as an assistant coach for the Devils. He was named to the First All-Star Team in 1994 as a Devil and the Second All-Star Team in 1992, 1997 and 2001.

Scott Stevens epitomized the Devils during their glory years as a no-nonsense defense-first player who played the game to win. In 2007 he was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto an honor that solidified his toughness and, above all, his willingness to win.

Brian Rafalski to Be Honored By U.S. Hockey Hall

Another former Devil is going into a hockey Hall of Fame. Joining former coach Pat Burns, who is joining the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto next November, Brian Rafalski was named one of the newest members of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame last week. Rafalski, a Dearborn, Michigan native, will join Karyn Bye Dietz, Jeff Sauer and former Devils assistant coach (under Doug Carpenter from 1984 to 1986) Lou Vairo as this year’s inductees into the U.S. Hockey Hall in Eveleth, Minnesota this December.

Much like the subject of last week’s post, Andy Greene, Rafalski was another find by the Devils scouting staff and General Manager Lou Lamoriello. Going undrafted after four years at the University of Wisconsin from 1991 to 1995 (where he played under coach and fellow inductee Sauer), the defenseman played in Europe for Brynas IF of the Swedish Elite League and Hameenlinnan Pallokerho and Helsingin IFK in Finland for four seasons from 1995 to 1999 before being signed as a free agent by the Devils. Over his seven years as a Devil, Rafalski had 44 goals and 311 points in 541 games over the regular season. He won two Stanley Cups with the team in 2000 and 2003. After joining the Detroit Red Wings in 2007 as a free agent, he would add another Stanley Cup with them in 2008.

Some of Rafalski’s other honors over his career include: All-WCHA Rookie Team (1991-92), All-WCHA First Team (1994-95), AHCA West First-Team All-American (1994-95) and WCHA Defenseman of the year in 1994-95 in college. In Europe: 1997 and 1999 recipient of the Pekka Rautakallio trophy for best defenseman in the SM-liiga (Finland), Matti Keinonen trophy for best plus/minus in 1999 in SM-liiga, and the 1999 Kultainen kypara award for the best player in the SM-liiga. Over his 11-year NHL career, he was honored with: a place on the 1999-2000 NHL All-Rookie Team, Rookie of the Month for February 2000, a spot on the 2003-04 Eastern Conference squad at the All-Star Game in Minnesota and a spot on the 2007-08 Western Conference squad at the All-Star Game in Dallas. In international play: named best defenseman of the 2010 Olympic Men’s hockey tournament as well as an All-Star selection in that same Olympic Games in Vancouver. Rafalski represented the U.S. in three Olympic Games: 2002 in Salt Lake City where he won a silver medal, 2006 in Torino, Italy where the Americans finished a disappointing eighth and the 2010 games where Team USA won silver after losing a thrilling Olympic Final to Canada. That final game included Rafalski’s former Devils teammate Zach Parise scoring the game tying goal for the Americans with less than 30 seconds on the clock, stunning the Canadian crowd and sending the game to overtime.

His other international appearances include: the 1992 World Junior Championship, winning bronze, the 1993 World Junior Championship, finishing just out of contention in fourth, the 1995 World Championship, where the Americans finished in sixth and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, where the U.S. again finished just out of medal contention in fourth. His best international tournament undoubtedly came at the 2010 Olympics, where, in the American’s 5-3 win over Canada early in the tournament, he scored two goals and added an assist. This win won Team USA their group and earned them a bye to the quarterfinals. Rafalski led all defenceman in scoring in that tournament.

Professionally, Rafalski was named in 1999 by The Sporting News as the best hockey player not in the NHL. Upon his signing by the Devils, Rafalski made an immediate impact: he was paired as a defensive tandem with Scott Stevens (who would remain his defensive partner until Stevens’ retirement in 2004). Although 26 years old in 1999-2000 (much older than an average NHL rookie), he led all rookie defensemen with a +21 rating that season. Although that plus/minus rating was only second among Devils defensemen and tied for first among all rookies (forwards and defensemen). Rafalski was talented offensive defenseman: he totaled 79 goals in the NHL over 833 games and tallied another 43 in Europe in 142 games played on that continent. He notched 436 assists in the NHL for a total of 515 points while adding 68 assists in Europe for 111 points. In the NHL he finished his career with a +178 rating (a testament to his solid two-way play) and 282 PIMs (he had 68 PIMs in Europe). The playoffs were a stage that Rafalski truly shined on. Never missing the postseason during his entire tenure in the NHL with the Devils and Red Wings, he finished his career with 29 goals, 71 assists and 100 points in 165 games. He was +42 with 66 PIMs. In European playoff tournaments, he scored 16 goals and 20 assists in 30 games for 36 points and had only 8 penalty minutes.

Rafalski retired in 2011 in his final year of a contract with Detroit. His lengthy career had taken a toll on his knees and back. In 2014, after three years away from professional hockey, Rafalski attempted a comeback by signing with the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). However, after 18 days, he was released due to a bad back. Rafalski’s career is now over for all intents and purposes, but he is now getting his due with his inclusion in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

It was his size that kept him from being drafted by an NHL team right away, as many teams did shy away from his smaller stature, but it was his passion and speed that got him into the NHL, according to Wings GM Ken Holland. It was Brian Rafalski’s two-way skill and winning attitude that would keep him in the NHL.

As for the other Devil-related inductee, Vairo, although he did have a cup of coffee in the NHL, it was his service to USA Hockey that gained him the most notoriety. He is the current director of special projects for USA Hockey, a role he has held since 1992. He has worked for national and professional teams in the U.S. and Europe for three decades. He also served as head coach of Team USA at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo and an assistant coach for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic team. Vairo, according to Mike G. Morreale of NHL.com, studied under the father of Russian hockey, Anatoly Tarasov and won the Lester Patrick Award in 2000. He received the 1994 John “Snooks” Kelley Founders Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association for his lifetime commitment to hockey and, that same year, the Walter Yaciuk Award from the Coaching Education Program of USA Hockey.

Congratulations to the men and woman honored this year by the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, as they are all exceedingly deserving and have helped contribute to the popularity of the game in the United States as well as the high-caliber of play that Team USA has become known for on the international stage.