Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will retire their third number in franchise history. From a four-game stint in the 1991-92 season to his last (and best) season as a Devil in 2003-04, Scott Niedermayer has worn number 27. In between, Devils fans were enthralled with the way he carried the puck, his excellence at both ends of the rink, and just how effortlessly his strides looked on the ice. A few players (e.g. Mike Mottau) have worn that number since Niedermayer left New Jersey; but no more will do so after December 16, 2011.
Niedermayer oozed such skill and defensive awareness; and his importance to the team's success for a decade was massive. Like Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens, no other Devil wearing #27 can possibly measure up to what Niedermayer had done on the ice for the franchise. Therefore, it does not only make sense but it is right that his number is raised to the rafters of the Rock in honor of his service to the franchise.
Please continue after the jump for an account of Niedermayer's time in New Jersey, from the improbable way he got here, how he left New Jersey, and (mostly) everything in between.
How he became a Devil was nothing short of a stroke of luck. Way back in October 1989, the Devils dealt defenseman Tom Kurvers for Toronto's first round pick in 1991. Kurvers was only a Devil for two full seasons and he was rather productive. He put up 5 goals and 29 assists in 56 games in the 1987-88 season and a contributed 6 goals and 9 assists to their first ever playoff run in 1988. He put up even more points in 1988-89, when he earned 16 goals and 50 assists (career highs for both) in 74 games. Yet, the Devils felt he wasn't needed any more. The only detailed reason I could find was that the Devils preferred Bruce Driver to run their power play according to this article at Legends of Hockey. Either way, New Jersey didn't want him and Toronto was more than happy to take him for a high pick. Since he was so productive, I would expect that the deal was criticized at the time for New Jersey.
As it turned out, the Maple Leafs were remarkably bad in the 1990-91 season with a record of 23-46-11. (Aside: And they traded Kurvers away). That first round pick turned out to be worth third overall in the draft. Who would have bet on that in 1989? The 1991 draft is likely remembered as the Eric Lindros Draft, as he was one of the first "big man who can skate well and do it all" prospects to come out. Plus, there was a whole lot of drama about not wanting to play for Quebec, who drafted him anyway. In terms of defensemen in the draft, a not-all-that-big defenseman from the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL was touted as one of the top players in the draft. He was the CHL Scholastic Player of the 1990-91 season, named to the WHL West First All-Star Team, and racked up an incredible 82 points in 57 games. The player was Scott Niedermayer and he was available at #3 after San Jose drafted Pat Falloon second overall. I don't know whether Lou did a jig going up to the podium to select Niedermayer; but it wouldn't surprise me if he did.
Niedermayer more than fulfilled the expectations of a third overall pick, but it would have to wait a season. He was sent back to Kamloops for the majority of the 1991-92 season for further development. It wasn't for a full season, but in 35 regular season games he racked up 39 points; and put up 9 goals and 14 assists in the playoffs to help lead Kamloops to a WHL title in 1992. That would be the second of three championships Niedermayer would earn in that year, as he was part of the 1992 Canadian gold medal team in the World Junior Championships. The third came in the Memorial Cup, where Kamloops lost exactly one game to Sault Ste. Marie in the round-robin part of the tourney. Kamloops got revenge on them in a dramatic 5-4 final to win the Memorial Cup. Niedermayer wasn't just a key part of the Blazers' Memorial Cup; but he was named as the Memorial Cup MVP. On top of all of this, Niedermayer got a taste of the NHL with 4 games in New Jersey - where he earned one assist. Any Devils fan who knew about the Devils prospect must have been giddy and anxious to see what he could do at the NHL level. They would only have to wait one season.
At the start of the 1992-93 season, Niedermayer was judged to be ready for a full NHL season. He never looked back; he just soared in the NHL. He played 80 games, scored 11 goals, picked up 29 assists, and would end up a member of the NHL's 1992-93 All-Rookie Team. Niedermayer didn't really have a good shot the Calder Memorial Trophy; that was also the rookie season for Lindros, Joe Juneau, and Teemu Selanne setting a rookie scoring record. All the same, it's an achievement that correctly foresaw a player who would go on to do big things in the NHL.
The Two-Way Threat
When most Devils fans remember Scott Niedermayer, a number of common thoughts come to mind. He usually was paired with Scott Stevens, even as a rookie. #4 and #27 was a pairing that New Jersey supporters can count on time and time again. Niedermayer was such a great skater, he could lead a breakout on his own - even going end-to-end. It's not common for most players to be able to do that regularly, much less a young defenseman in the NHL. Niedermayer was never a big or physical player; and he didn't have to be with all of the finesse he possessed. Yet, it never prevented him from being in the right position to make plays on defense. Most of all is the term "two-way defenseman."
The two ways are quite obvious to the hockey fan: a defender who can contribute on offense as well as on defense. Not leaning towards one way or the other; but about balanced in both ends of the rink. Scott Niedermayer was an exceptional two-way defenseman. Let's try and break it down to see how good he was.
The offensive numbers from Niedermayer are ridiculously good. Here are his career numbers at Hockey-Reference. Niedermayer only had one season in his Devils career where he didn't put up 20 or more assists, 30 or more points, or 100 or more shots on net. That one season was the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season; and he was on pace to break those levels as well. In 892 regular season games with New Jersey, Niedermayer scored 112 goals, 364 assists, 1,650 shots on net, and 51 power play goals. Niedermayer is the only Devils defenseman in franchise history to exceed 100 goals as a Devil; the only defenseman to exceed 40 power play goals much less 50 of them; and one of two to exceed 400 points (Stevens is the other at 430). As for the postseason, Niedermayer was tied for the team lead in points in 2003; and overall he put up 17 goals and 47 assists in 147 games. Niedermayer was an offensive force from the blueline throughout his career. That alone makes him an exceptional player.
But we can't ignore the defense. Unfortunately, advanced stats at Behind the Net only go as far back as 2007-08. (Aside: And he was good then with Anaheim). In fact, even simple stats like average time on ice wasn't recorded until 1998-99. So you are going to have to sort of take my word for it when I say that Niedermayer was just as good in his own end as he was on the attack. Two people come to mind as far as his development in that regard: Scott Stevens and Jacques Lemaire.
Even early on in his career, Niedermayer regularly played with Scott Stevens, a veteran two-way defenseman in his own right. We know him best as a dominant defensive defenseman, but back in the early 90s, Stevens still brought plenty to the offensive table. All of that time spent with the captain definitely rubbed off Niedermayer. As Stevens slowed down on the offensive end and reverted to be more defensive-minded, Niedermayer was more than able to pick up the slack and assist when ever possible. As Niedermayer his prime while Stevens was pushing his late 30s, it was Niedermayer who became the team's #1 defenseman, reliable in all situations and playing a ton of minutes.
Jacques Lemaire became the head coach in 1993-94, which was Niedermayer's second season in the NHL. As a 20-year old defenseman, Niedermayer definitely was impressive but still stood to learn more. As Lemaire preached the 1-2-2 neutral zone trap to a willing team, Niedermayer was nurtured in terms of positioning and decision making. Again, he was never a big or physical player and that's not where his strengths lie. Rather than hem him into a role that didn't suit him, Lemaire made sure he was paired with someone with size and can be physical and emphasized that he was to be the puck-carrier and to make plays on the puck.
Between the two, Niedermayer went on to become an important part of the Devils' defense even before he was even 21. In the regular season or in the playoffs, if the Devils needed a big defensive stop, the Stevens-Niedermayer pairing was usually out there. If the Devils got a power play, #27 was a constant on the point. If the Devils needed to kill a penalty, they could rely on Niedermayer to get the job done (and he'd usually not be in the box). The average time on ice from 1998-99 onward says it all: about 24 minutes per game in the regular season and usually at least a minute more in the postseason. Niedermayer was a crucial defenseman for the Devils at both ends of the rink.
Some Niedermayer Highlights
When you have as an accomplished career as Niedermayer, you're bound to have a few sweet highlights. Here's a few that I found on Youtube that show off his goal scoring prowess:
- 1992-93 Regular Season vs. San Jose - Niedermayer's first NHL goal. Sick deke.
- 1995 - Stanley Cup Final Game 2 - For many, the quintessential Niedermayer highlight as a Devil. A defensive stop, an end-to-end rush, and torching Paul Coffey and Mike Vernon with a shot off the boards and collecting his own rebound.
- 2000 - Stanley Cup Final Game 6 - Niedermayer scored only two shorthanded goals in the playoffs. Here's one of them. Yeah, it was important.
- 1997-98 Regular Season vs. Rangers - Proof that Niedermayer can score from distance.
- 2003 - Stanley Cup Final Game 5 - Occasionally, Niedermayer could throw a big hit. Stanislav Chistov learned the hard way
These are not all of Niedermayer's highlights, just a few. If you'd like a highlight video of his whole career, this one does as good of a job as any. Check it out if only for the opening of Lou announcing his draft selection in 1991. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.
I'm loathe to describe a professional athlete as a "winner," but Niedermayer certainly fits the bill. Just look at the list. He's won a World Junior Championship, a Memorial Cup, three Stanley Cups with New Jersey, a World Championship, two Olympics, and a World Cup of Hockey gold. He's the only Canadian to have ever won all of those championships as a player in their career; which speaks volume to his longetivity and talent.
With Stevens injured; he captained the Devils in the second half of the 2003-04 season - a natural fit as there ever was one. That season was his arguably finest as a Devil. He was a total stud on the blueline all season for the Devils, finished second in the league for scoring among defenders, and playing a mind-boggling average of 25:37 ice time per game. As a result of his sensational season, he won the James Norris Memorial Trophy for the league's most outstanding defenseman in 2003-04. Considering how long and how well Stevens has played as a Devil, being the first Devil to win the Norris was a remarkable achievement. In fact, anyone not named Nicklas Lidstrom at the time winning the Norris (he won three straight) must have had a fantastic season - and Niedermayer measured up
The accomplishments didn't stop when Niedermayer left New Jersey. He was named captain of the Ducks and remained so with some exceptions in his four seasons with Anaheim. He was instrumental to their defense as he was to New Jersey's; as well as for Anaheim's first Stanley Cup in 2007. How important was he? Enough to be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs in that fated year. Just at the end of his career, he was named the captain of Team Canada, who won the gold in the 2010 Olympics - another achievement in a career full of them. He retired in June 2010 at the age of 36 and with no regrets.
As with life in general, Niedermayer's tenure as a Devil was never completely smooth sailing. He was at the center of a few that come to mind. The most begnin were his two contract hold outs. The first wasn't too long, it only lasted a few weeks of the season in 1998. The second was for a considerably longer length of time in 2000. Even with the hold-outs, his spot on the team was never in doubt. He still played big minutes, he managed to contribute in both ends of the rink, and he was still considered important to the team. Still, holding out for deals in the beginning of those seasons wasn't ideal. Your mileage may vary on who was in the right then; though it turned out to be meaningless since he remained a Devil at the time.
Niedermayer's lowest act as a Devil happened on March 17, 2000. After being hit with an elbow by Peter Worrell, Niedermayer put both hands on his stick and swung it right at Worrell's head. It was an absolutely dangerous move, so far over the line that it couldn't be seen by anyone. Niedermayer was tossed and he fully deserved a 10 game suspension. Niedermayer never had a reputation for dirty play or taking a lot of penalties in general. Yet, I suppose everyone has their moments of madness. The two-hander to Worrell's dome was definitely Niedermayer's when he was a Devil.
Niedermayer was on the end of a gutless act of his own a year later; the victim instead of the perpetrator. In the dying seconds of Game 4 against Toronto in the 2001 playoffs, Tie Domi elbowed Niedermayer in the face. Here's a video of the Devils' broadcast as it happened and the aftermath. This was not a standard elbow, where Domi went in for a hit and his arm came high. This was straight-up assault. Niedermayer was going in on a forecheck, a meaningless gesture given that the Leafs were about to win, and he was just skating back with time running out. All of the sudden, Domi flies in and crushes his face with an elbow. There was no provocation or justification; it was just Tie Domi being Tie Domi. While Domi received a lengthy suspension, he literally knocked Niedermayer out. Thankfully, Niedermayer was OK and continued to log heavy minutes in the playoffs. One could argue it spurned the Devils on to hammer Toronto to win that series and took out further frustration on Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals. I'd rather have Niedermayer not knocked out cold and taken out on a stretcher at all.
The End of His Time in New Jersey
Of course, the end of his time with the Devils came abruptly, upsetting many fans. After Niedermayer on the Norris, the NHL and the NHLPA could not agree to a new contract bargaining agreement and so there was a lockout. After a lost season, Niedermayer was an unrestricted free agent and Lou did his best to try and keep Niedermayer. Lou even offered him a maximum salary contract, choosing to focus on Niedermayer at the expense of going after other UFA defensemen. Scott rejected the offer, choosing to sign for less money and play with his brother in Anaheim. The Devils ended up going with a Plan B of Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis. They turned out pretty bad as Malakhov clearly didn't care and McGillis clearly wasn't good. Niedermayer became a Duck and continued to be, well, himself in terms of piling up points, eating up minutes, and being a two-way boss defenseman on the ice. Needless to say, Devils fans weren't happy about this turn of events. He spurned big money, the opportunity to continue leading the Devils as their captain, the chance to fully pick up after Stevens' legacy, and so forth to essentially play with his brother. It left a hole in the team and, from a fan's perspective, it hurt. That happens when legends are no longer playing for a team.
Now, I don't think there are many hard feelings anymore. After all, he's coming here to have his number retired by the organization. If there's any bad blood between Lou and Niedermayer now, then it's not enough to avoid #27 from being retired in his name. We can agree that at that point in his career, Niedermayer could do whatever he wanted. He was an unrestricted free agent, Anaheim still offered him a significant sum of money, and he had nothing to prove as a Devil anyway. 3 Cups, the franchise's only Norris winner, and so on. Back in 2005-06, many fans had a different, more Gomez-esque like attitude. Time did heal that wound.
I'm somewhat confident that Scott Niedermayer will be in the Hockey Hall of Fame at some point. He's won nearly every championship a professional ice hockey player could possibly win when he was active. He amassed a load of points (740) despite how low scoring got and his position on the ice. He played for an incredibly long time with 1,263 games played (only Alexei Kovalev in spite of missing one and a half seasons when active. While he only won one Norris trophy and made only three all star teams (second team in 1997-98; first team in 2003-04; first team in 2006-07), he was still one of the best two-way defensemen playing in this time period. Perhaps it's my bias, but I think he'll get to Toronto one day.
Even if he doesn't, he's definitely a legend here in New Jersey. So what if he signed with Anaheim? He was a key player for three Stanley Cups, four Stanley Cup Finals appearances, and a whole lot of wins in between. It shouldn't be a question as this point. The giant #27 banner alone that will go up tonight in the Prudential Center will ensure his spot as a franchise legend - assuming it was ever in doubt. In my view, I'm still amazed at what had to happen for him to become a Devil in the first place. Had Lou not made that deal with Toronto for Tom Kurvers, had Toronto not been awful in 1990-91, and/or had San Jose taken him at second overall, who knows what would have happened. Maybe Niedermayer becomes a star with another team, like San Jose for example. Or maybe he doesn't become a star at all. Maybe the Devils find some other player who would turn out to be legendary; or maybe the Devils don't have the run of success that they had. It all belies perspective.
Thankfully, Niedermayer did become a Devil, he became a stud defenseman and went from strength to strength as a player. He didn't fade when his long-time partner and the Devils' first stud defenseman, Scott Stevens, was starting to regress as a player due to age. The holdouts or his other mistakes didn't deter his quality. To this very day, fans still miss how calm he was in his own end, how deft he was in skating with the puck, and how smooth he was in just skating forward or backward. Niedermayer was the very best of a two-way defenseman: a credible threat on offense and a constant reliable stalwart on defense. Those players are simply rare and to have such a player in New Jersey for 12 full seasons was a privilege to watch in retrospect.
Thank you, Scott Niedermayer.