Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Messier and Stevens

Here are some thoughts..... (there's a connection to my previous post):

Mark Messier is one of the 5 best players ever to play NHL hockey. Maybe one of the 3 best. His legacy is truly awe-inspring. As a leader of men and fans, he is as accomplished as anyone in the history of professional sports. And on top of all that, his sincere charitable off-ice actions speak of a truly noble soul.

I hate him.
As a Devils fan since they moved from Colorado to NJ, I detest this man, who singlehandedly led the Rangers to come from behind and eliminate the Devils in '94, and to go on to the Rangers' famous Cup win.
The sight of that bald, Mad-Max-villain's scalp, that big face, that number 11 on a blue jersey, just sticks completely in my craw. I've been tickled with delight at all of the years of Ranger futility to follow up that Cup victory, especially as the Devils have maintained elite status, winning THREE Stanley Cups. To see Scott Stevens, another truly great, sorely underappreciated captain, leader, and player lead his team to those championships, and to get the Conn Smythe in lieu of the Norris Trophies he's owed. It was especially satisfying to see the Rangers suck year after year, even with Messier back on the bench.

But this is unfair --- it's an entirely biased stance, from the viewpoint of a heavily-biased Devils fan. Mark Messier is a great hockey player, and from all accounts, a great man. It's a shame that his chances at the Stanley Cup were basically non-existent after '94, and that his career numbers suffered from so many seasons spent on such a pitiful team. I hate Mark Messier as the icon of my team's biggest rival, but if I ever met him, I'd shake his hand and congratulate him on an amazing career. Though it suits my agenda to praise the Devils successes, and to make people aware of Scott Stevens' too-oft-overlooked or dismissed, incredible career amd talent, I have to also credit Messier where he's due. And I have to grudgingly admit that Messier ranks higher than Scott Stevens on the list of all-time greats.

However, Scott Stevens is the greatest NHL defenseman to play the game during my lifetime. Arguably the second-best of all time, behind Bobby Orr. Now I know that hockey fans with their own agendas will cry out against this statement (namely Flyers and Rangers fans), so I'll outline a few facts:
I've watched countless great blueliners over the years, including Denis Potvin, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, etc. All of those guys were (or are) great, but none can match Stevens' on-ice accomplishments. Forget the Norris trophy, given each year to the highest-scoring defenseman. There will eventually be a trophy for best defensive defenseman, and who will it be named for?
You can talk about how Potvin captained the Islanders to 4 straight Cup wins. It's true, and he was a big part of all 4. But. That team's roster was stacked with amazing talents. If he'd been lost to trade or injury during that run, the Isles still would have taken the Cup in each of those years. The Devils won 3 Cups with Stevens wearing the 'C'. In all those of those championship seasons - without Stevens, there would have been no Devils' Cup win. Jacques Lemaire was a brilliant coach, yes. Brodeur is a great goaltender, yes. Scott Niedermayer's talent is obvious to all, yes. Praise is also due for Elias, Madden, etc. But Scott Stevens was the integral piece of each of those Devils' Cup teams, each team with a different coach and each with a notably different roster. He deserved the Conn Smythe in 2000, and a share of it in '95 and '03. His leadership isn't as flashy or media-friendly as Messier's (no predictions in the papers), but it's undeniable, nearly tangible. The low-media side of the Hudson River suited his low-key, understated, modest, lead-by-example approach to captaining a team -- a highly succesful team, I might add, with three different Stanley Cup parades within 8 years in the Meadowlands parking lot.

Also - No defenseman can match Scott Stevens' skill or on-ice intelligence (in his prime).

Yes, he was a hothead early on for the Caps, but by the time Lou Lamoriello had acquired him for NJ, he'd developed into a mature, calm, cool, strong, smart, intimidating leader, on and off the ice. Yes, Bourque, Chelios, Lidstrom, and co. are all highly skilled hall-of-fame worthies, but I'd rather have Scott Stevens back in my zone any day to defend against a 3-on-1 or 2-on-1, regardless of the goaltender. I'd rather have Scott Stevens on a penalty kill any day. There have been many other defenseman better on the power play, but Scott Stevens also proved his value there, using his size, strength, and quick wits to create chances. Let's not forget that this "Defensive-minded blueliner" once led the Devils in scoring (I don't recall the year, offhand).

And finally, let no one tell you he was a cheap-shot artist. All of his most reknowned hits were entirely clean and legal. I met Scott Stevens once and shook his hand -- my normal-sized hand disappeared inside of his huge mitt. He's just bigger and stronger than everyone else in the room, even most of those guys on the ice. There was never any chippy, dirty malicious stuff, as per Ulf Samuellson, Dale Hunter, Brian Marchment, or (yes, yes) Claude Lemieux ---anyone who tells you otherwise is pushing their own fan-biased agenda. If you got in the boxing ring and took a legal punch from Lennox Lewis that broke your skull, it would be unfortunate, but it wouldn't be because he "cheap-shotted" you. It would be because he's just way too strong for you.

So let's recognize Scott Stevens and Mark Messier for the great careers, talent, and spirit they've both known. Let the number 4 be retired in NJ, and let the number 11 be retired in NY AND Edmonton.


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