Wednesday, March 3, 2004
Noticing Niedermayer not impossible
By EJ Hradek
ESPN The Magazine
There are three reasons why you haven't noticed New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer nearly as much as you should have.
First, he plays for an organization in which the name on the front of the jersey still means more than the name on the back. Second, he's a quiet, unassuming guy who doesn't seek out the spotlight. And, third, he's so good he makes his job look too easy.
But don't worry, Niedermayer doesn't go completely unnoticed.
"Niedermayer is one of the elite D-men in the league," said Calgary Flames right winger Jarome Iginla, who was Niedermayer's teammate with gold medal-winning Team Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics. "And he's probably the best skater in the game."
Niedermayer showed off his skating prowess during All-Star Weekend, winning the fastest skater competition for the second time in his career with a blazing time of 13.783 seconds for one complete turn around the rink.
"In Jersey, we're pretty lucky that we get to see him skate all the time," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur. "But on the bench during the skills competition, the guys were really amazed by just how graceful he is. Sometimes, it looks like he's not even touching the ice."
These days, with fellow defensemen Scott Stevens (post-concussion syndrome) and Brian Rafalski (bruised leg) out of the lineup, Niedermayer is touching the ice quite often. He topped the 30-minute mark for the third time this season in a 2-1 loss in Montreal on Monday with 30:06 of playing time -- in regulation. Through 64 games, he's averaging 25:35 minutes of ice time, more than a minute more than last season.
"I love being involved as much as I can," said Niedermayer, who was selected third overall in the 1991 draft. "For me, playing more is a matter of taking short shifts and not getting caught in bad situations."
He seldom is, as Iginla can attest.
"He's a very smart player who is extremely tough to play against," Iginla said. "He's not too physical, but he's stronger than you might think. You have to battle against him.
"It's almost impossible to forecheck him. If you try to predict his passes, he skates right by you. If you go right at him, he skates right by you. He's among the upper echelon of defensemen in the league."
Along with the extra minutes, Niedermayer is carrying an additional weight onto the ice -- the captain's "C." The letter was stitched onto his jersey on Jan. 9, the first game Stevens missed.
"I've kind of gotten used to it a little bit," Niedermayer said. "At first, it was a little different. The 'C' comes with more responsibility, and you can feel that a little bit.
"When the team plays well, there's not much to do as a captain. But when things aren't going as well, you feel it a bit more."
For his part, Niedermayer would be thrilled to see the "C" on the chest of its rightful owner.
"We'd love to have Scotty back, and I can give it right back to him," he said. "But while I have it, I'll do the best I can with it."
With or without the "C," Niedermayer's game continues to improve. He was a dominant figure -- albeit a quiet one -- during last season's Stanley Cup run, controlling the game with his superior skating. He tied teammate Jamie Langenbrunner for the postseason lead with 18 points and dished out a playoff-best 16 assists. Niedermayer's stellar play easily could have earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy, but his subtle style wasn't glitzy enough for the voters, who opted for Anaheim Mighty Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere despite a losing effort.
"Niedermayer should have gotten the Conn Smythe," one league executive said. "He was great throughout the playoffs, and he controlled those games against the Ducks. In the final, they had no answer for him."
This season, Niedermayer should be a strong candidate for his first Norris Trophy. But while his play has been at a consistently high level, his numbers (9-30-39; seventh among defensemen) aren't as eye-catching as some of his peers'. Brodeur thinks those stats can be a bit deceiving.
"It's always hard for him to have the same success that Chris Pronger or Rob Blake might have because of the system we're in," Brodeur said. "It's tougher for him to get points because of the way we play the game.
"Hopefully, he'll be considered as a Norris candidate, because he deserves it."
Even though he'd pocket an extra $500,000 if he won the Norris, Niedermayer isn't too concerned about it.
"That's so much out of my control," Niedermayer said. "It would be nice to get it. It's nice to go to the All-Star Game. It's nice to be one of the three stars. Those are nice things. But the ultimate thing, and the thing I'm most proud of, is winning Stanley Cups. I wouldn't trade that."
Around the Hrinks
|2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS|
Colorado Avalanche head coach Tony Granato is skating on thin ice and could be replaced by the end of the week. The Avs have struggled in recent weeks, going 1-5-1-1 in their last eight games. And, to make matters worse, Granato and assistant coach Rick Tocchet recently engaged in a verbal battle leaving the bench that was overheard by most of the players and captured by television cameras. If GM Pierre Lacroix does make a change, he could turn to former Avs assistant coach Joel Quenneville, who was fired by the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 23. "Hiring Joel Quenneville would be a major coup for the Avalanche," said one rival GM. The move -- changing coaches despite a strong record -- would be similar to the change Devils GM Lou Lamoriello made in 2000, when he fired coach Robbie Ftorek with just eight games remaining in the season. Lamoriello handed the job to Larry Robinson, who led the Devils to a Stanley Cup. In Granato's defense, the club still leads its division and has played through a number of key injuries. Also, Lacroix never hired a strong veteran assistant to work under Granato, who came to the job with no head coaching experience at any level.
According to a league source, Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke won't be returning to Vancouver next season. Burke's stalled contract talks with the club's ownership group have been an ongoing story in recent weeks, with Burke referring to himself as a "lame-duck GM." It's somewhat surprising that the club would want to part ways with Burke, who has rebuilt the franchise since arriving on the scene in 1998. The Canucks have improved their point total in each of the last four seasons. Burke also has done a good job of identifying his core players and getting them under contract at, or in some cases below, market rates. Senior VP of hockey operations David Nonis, who came to Vancouver from the league office with Burke, and VP of player personnel Steve Tambellini are the likely candidates to replace Burke when his current contract expires in June.
In case anyone is interested in dealing for Blues forwards Keith Tkachuk or Doug Weight, here are the dollars and cents (or sense) of the matter: Tkachuk is scheduled to earn $9 million in each of the next two seasons. There's a $5M club option for a third (2006-07) season. Also, he's due $1M on March 1, 2006, which completes payment on his signing bonus. Weight, meanwhile, is slated to make $7M in 2004-05 and $7.5M in 2005-06. Both players have no-trade clauses in their contracts. Of course, in the right situation (and for a little extra cash), players have been known to waive those clauses.
EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.