Eveleth, Minnesota will have a new set of plaques later this year, featuring arguably the greatest hockey player to ever come out of Dearborn, Michigan. Eveleth is the home of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame; the player is former New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings defenseman, Brian Rafalski. Not Al Iafrate. Earlier today, USA Hockey announced their Class of 2014 for the USHHoF, which includes Rafalski, Lou Vairo, Jeff Sauer, and Karen Bye Dietz. They will be formally inducted on December 4 in Minneapolis/St. Paul. This honor caps off what was an improbable journey for the defender from Dearborn.
Making the NHL seemed to be an improbable task. The freshman defenseman at Wisconsin did represent the United States at the 1992 World Juniors but his stats didn't exactly jump off the page. Combined with his relatively small stature and he was not drafted. He progressed with the Badgers - another WJC appearance in 1993, a massive senior season with 45 points in 43 games, a World Championship appearance - but he did not go pro in North America. Instead, he made the jump to Scandinavia, signing with Brynäs of the Elitserien. He did OK but transferred over to the SM-Liiga in Finland with HPK. That's where it all really came together for the Michigan native. Per Elite Prospects, he was named the Best Defensemen in the league in 1996-97 with HPK; named to the league's all star team in 1997-98 with champions HIFK, and made the all-star team, won the Best Defenseman award again, and became the first non-Finnish and American to win the league's Golden Helmet as the league's best player. Rafalski was fantastic in Finland.
His success with HIFK Helsinki was too big to ignore. In the summer of 1999, the New Jersey Devils The Devils may have never had a successful draft pick from the SM-Liiga, but this was one incredible find. The Devils inserted the 26-year old rookie right into the top four, usually paired alongside legendary defenseman Scott Stevens. This was a natural fit as Stevens' own offensive game was fading but he could provide the positioning, physicality, and decision-making as Rafalski acclimated to the new league. He contributed five goals, 27 assists, and an average of 18:51 per game that season per Hockey Reference. He was named to the 1999-2000 NHL All Rookie team; but his importance only grew as his average ice time swelled to 21:30 in the Devils' second Stanley Cup run. From that point onward, Rafalski averaged at least 21 minutes in regular season and playoff action until his final NHL season - where he averaged 20:25 per game with Detroit.
In 2000-01, Rafalski became a key component of the Devils' power play with six power play goals and 16 power play assists. The man advantage would become a significant source of Rafalski's points throughout his career. His low shot and how he read the play from the point were assets. As a result, 39 of his 79 career NHL goals and 195 of his 436 career NHL assists came from power play situations. That's a little over 45% of his total points. His power play work helped him consistently post up at least forty points in nine of his eleven NHL seasons. He was a significant threat for that alone.
But the proof is in the ice time. Rafalski has played for several coaches in New Jersey and Detroit. For all of them, Rafalski was given a significant workload. While Corsi and Fenwick stats don't go far enough back to include his time with New Jersey, his high ice time average from season to season - peaking with over 25 minutes per game in 2005-06 and 2006-07 - was evidence of his importance on the blueline. From my memory, Rafalski was very good at handling the puck and moving it with accurate passes. From the numbers that are available at Hockey Analysis, he was a positive possession player in his four seasons with Detroit. Both with (at least 50.2% Fenwick) and without (at least 56.8%) adjustment for zone starts. Those were strong-by-possession Red Wings squads, but the fact that an older Rafalski didn't make them worse and contributed in a significant role speaks to Rafalski's talent as a player.
Adding to his successful NHL career, Rafalski was also a regular for the USA Hockey program. He represented the country in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Olympic Games as well as the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. He was massive in 2010 from a points perspective, putting up four goals and four assists in six games; leading all other defensemen in scoring. Rafalski was named to the Olympic all-star team as well as the top defensemen by the directorate. His total of five goals and eight assists across three Olympics as well as three assists in the World Cup is definitely not bad at all for a defender. His continued appearances for USA Hockey plus his 2010 Olympic performance certainly helped his cause to being named to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Of course, being one of the more talented American defenders from the last decade would also helped his US HHoF induction. From 1999 through 2007, Rafalski established himself as one of the best Devils defensemen of the decade. He handled heavy minutes, he produced at a level that no Devils defenseman has consistently matched since he signed with Detroit, and he helped fill in that gigantic void Scott Niedermayer left when he signed with Anaheim after the 2005 lockout. Of course, that only lasted for two seasons as he signed a five-year, $30 million deal with Detroit in 2007. At the time, I wasn't too torn up about it given the amount of money Rafalski would get. While the Devils have had some possession-strong defenders who were good at moving the puck since as well as some tough-minutes defenders, I don't know if the Devils have really replaced a player like Rafalski. That's not a knock on guys like Paul Martin or Andy Greene, the two names that come to my mind that have taken that top defenseman role on the team. To me, that just speaks to how good a player Rafalski was. No, he wasn't a massive talent like Stevens or Niedermayer. But he was very good. A level below them, I'd think. And those very good players are difficult to fully replace, if not impossible. I defer to Winging it in Motown to Rafalski's importance with Detroit, but from my viewpoint, he definitely provided value. Maybe not as much as what he brought to New Jersey; the point is that he provided quite a bit to the Devils.
Who ever would have thought that all of this would happen to Rafalski? He was a sub-six foot, undrafted defenseman from Dearborn, Michigan who needed time to develop. Now, he can look back at a career that included three Stanley Cups; 515 career points; the 2010 Olympic accolades; two silver medals in hockey; two best defenseman awards in the Finnish SM-Liiga; and a best player award in the Finnish SM-Liiga - something that wasn't given to a non-Finnish player, much less an American player who never played in the NHL at the time. This is highly improbable; no one would have guessed this in 1995. Yet, here we are; thinking back to an excellent defenseman from the 2000s who's going to be enshrined as one of the best American players to have played the game of hockey. I congratulate Rafalski for his induction. From my standpoint, it is deserved. It is not a surprise now after a surprisingly improbable journey in hockey that will be honored in Eveleth, Minnesota.