Scott Niedermayer went into the Hall of Fame this Sunday and it made me reflect on some of those great New Jersey Devils teams of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
The three players that stand out most were Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur. The two defensemen are already Hall of Famers, and Brodeur is a sure shot first ballot entry. Looking back on Stevens and Niedermayer historically, where do they stand?
Most great defensive pairings have one guy who is still a little bit better than the other, but that wasn’t the case for these two. They were perfect contrasts for each other. Since being on the team together full time in 1992-93, these two had a ton of success on the Devils. They carried a young 1994 team all the way to the Conference Finals, until they met the team of destiny in the New York Rangers. They won their first Stanley Cup the next season and that started a dominant ride that included two more Cups and another year where they won the Eastern Conference.
It is hard to argue that it helped having one of the best goaltenders of all time between the pipes, but who knows what could have been if he didn’t have the kind of dominant defense in front of him. Maybe Brodeur gets lit up those first couple of years and his career ends up like Trevor Kidd, who was chosen before him in their draft. Maybe it was Niedermayber, Stevens and Ken Daneyko who helped him gain the confidence needed to become one of the best at his position ever.
That is the impact that a top-tier defensive pairing has. Stevens ranks 12th all time for defensemen with 908 points on his career while Niedermayer came in a 23rd with 740. Stevens held back on the scoring once he saw the skill that he was playing with to his left. He focused on becoming a defensive defenseman while still finding a way to stay out of the penalty box. He became one of the most feared players in the NHL. His hits are still revered today, even with the new restrictions on hits. Stevens always put himself in position to get the big hit without taking him out of position to get in the way of a shot or pass. He wasn’t flashy by any means, but he got the job done better than anyone in the league.
Niedermayer showed that he could become more than just an offensive defenseman. Even with his frustrations that the neutral-zone trap may be holding him back offensively, Jacques Lemaire’s system gave him the time to raise his skill on the back end of the ice. He became one of the most underrated players in the NHL until later in his career. Niedermayer was also part of another “best defensive pairing of all time” candidate when he was with Chris Pronger back on the Anaheim Ducks.
The debate will continue to go one well after this year. The fact is you have almost a decade in which you have two Hall of Fame players together for three Stanley Cup winners with three different coaches (something that should not be overlooked). Did the system help? Yes, of course, but you need great players to make the system work. The Devils will always go down as an underrated team because of their style of play, but you cannot ignore the greatness that this duo had on the ice. They were a spectacle that hopefully you readers were able to see before it was too late. I would take this pairing against any other pairing ever including Niedermayer and Pronger, Nicklas Lindstrom and Brian Rafalski, and Bobby Orr and….whoever he was playing with on that given night.