Devils adjust to loss of leader

The Devils without Scott Stevens on the blue line is a strange sight, but a welcome one for opponents.

Updated: January 21, 2004, 2:37 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

Scott Stevens hasn't played his whole 22-year career with the New Jersey Devils.

It just seems like it.

That's why it's so strange to see the defending Stanley Cup champions without their captain, who has been sidelined since Jan. 9 by a still undiagnosed malady.

"It's something new," said Bruins defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who played with Stevens and the Devils during the 2000-01 season. "You always assume that a guy like Stevens is going to be there, anchoring the blue line and playing against the other team's top line."

Right now, though, Stevens isn't there and no one knows when -- or if -- he will be again. On Jan. 15, the club said he'd miss another 7-10 days. Two days later -- in his only meeting with the press since his absence -- a careful Stevens wasn't making any promises.

"There's no time frame," said Stevens, who, since his Devils debut in 1991, had played in 96.4 percent of the club's games coming into this season. "I need to take a step back and make sure everything is fine."

At first, the club attributed Stevens' unusual absence to the flu. But when Stevens continued to feel fatigued, the team changed its stance.

"He could've had something that could've resulted in a possible concussion," said Devils GM Lou Lamoriello.

Stevens told the media that he and his wife, Donna, had flown to Montreal on Jan. 15 to meet with Dr. Karen Johnston, a neurologist who has been involved in the treatment of several high profile NHL players in recent years. Stevens said he made the appointment at the urging of his lawyer, John Hauser.

"It sounds like I have the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome," Stevens said. "Right now, I just have to rest."

While Stevens rests and tries to figure out exactly what's wrong, the Devils have to figure out how to go on without him.

"Not having him in the lineup is a change," said Brian Rafalski, Stevens' defensive partner since entering the league in 1999. "He's never been out for a long period. There will be more responsibility on other guys. We just have to play smart."

"You can't replace him," added longtime Devils left winger Jay Pandolfo. "It's definitely a different team without him."

In their first six games without their captain, the Devils went a respectable 3-2-1. However, two of the three wins came at the expense of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference. If the 39-year-old Stevens can't return -- and there's no guarantee he can resume his career -- opponents might have a little different feeling playing the Devils.

"Stevens and Martin Brodeur have been constants for that team for the past decade," O'Donnell said. "So, I think it's obvious that they'd be hurt them if he can't play. I'm not saying they won't make the playoffs, but I definitely think it's a psychological thing because he's such a dominant force."

Another ex-Devil/current Bruin, center Brian Rolston, isn't as pessimistic. Rolston believes his former team is built to withstand even the loss of such a valuable player.

"The Devils are so deep on defense with Scott Niedermayer, Rafalski and Colin White," said Rolston, a Devils' first-round pick in 1991. "Those guys have been there for Stanley Cups.

"Scotty is a world-class defenseman and he leaves a big hole, but I think they have the depth to continue on."

They will continue on by feeding more minutes to the smooth-skating Niedermayer, who's finally being recognized as one the league's elite defensemen. Niedermayer has worn the "C" in Stevens' absence, but he doesn't have designs on keeping it.

"I don't think I'll be wearing it for the rest of the season," Niedermayer said. "At least I'd rather not."

White, who is usually paired with Niedermayer, and Rafalski will get a bit more ice time, especially in key defensive situations.

After that, things get a little more interesting.

Rookie David Hale was selected in the first round of the 2000 draft with the intention that he would someday fill Stevens' role. Of course, the Devils were planning on someday occurring in 2006 or 2007. In his first pro season, the 22-year-old Hale was been predictably inconsistent. Now, with Stevens out, coach Pat Burns may deploy him for a bit more than his current 14 minutes a night.

Burns already trusts his other 22-year-old rookie D-man Paul Martin, as evidenced by his ice time (more than 18 minutes per game). A talented offensive-defender, Martin needs to add muscle, as he sometimes gets pushed around below the dots in his own zone. He is better suited to complement Stevens, not replace him.

Veteran Tommy Albelin, who arrived at training camp without a contract, hoping to earn a spot on the roster, suddenly becomes a more important player and will be asked to play simple shifts. At some point, though, you wonder if he'll hold up under a heavier workload. A younger vet, Sean Brown, could figure more prominently into the equation if Stevens can't return.

Yes, the Devils without Scott Stevens on the blue line is definitely a strange sight, but it's a welcome one to rivals around the league.

Around the Hrinks

  • The Bruins have gotten a quick return on the recent acquisition of defenseman Jiri Slegr. The veteran blueliner scored two goals in his first two games for the B's, helping them to back-to-back wins over the Rangers. Which leads to the question: Why was Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke willing to deal Slegr for a conditional draft pick? His $800,000 salary isn't unwieldy and defenders like him are valuable insurance come playoff time. If Burke loses one (or more) of his regular defensemen, he will regret sending Slegr to Boston.

  • Speaking of defensemen, New York Rangers GM Glen Sather will be working the phones trying to add some blueline help after learning that Darius Kasparaitis will be lost for 10-12 weeks with a left knee injury. The Rangers, already without Greg deVries, also were missing Tom Poti from Tuesday's game against the Bruins due to back spasms. "I'd like to get somebody in here by midnight," Sather barked after Tuesday's 4-1 loss to Boston. If Sather tries to sign someone off the street, he could call Dmitry Yushkevich, Richard Smehlik, Oleg Tverdovsky or Lubomir Sekeras. If he's looking to deal, the Columbus Blue Jackets might be willing to unload high-priced defenders Scott Lachance, Luke Richardson or Darryl Sydor. Bob Boughner of the Carolina Hurricanes might be another option, although Boughner became more valuable after the 'Canes dealt Danny Markov to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday.

  • If you're looking for one reason why the San Jose Sharks have resurfaced in the Pacific, check out their penalty-killing numbers. The club ranks third in the league with an 87.4 percentage behind the Devils and Colorado Avalanche. Last season, the Sharks finished dead last, with an 81 percent success rate. The difference? Goaltending. Top stopper Evgeny Nabokov has regained his form of two seasons ago and backup Vesa Toskala did a great job filling in for Nabokov when he was out with injury. The two goalies have combined for a 2.07 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. "Last year, they gave up too many soft goals," said a Western Conference coach. "This year, that's not happening. And, that's huge for the penalty killers."

  • University of Michigan goaltender Al Montoya, fresh off backstopping Team USA to its first World Junior Championship gold medal, is the top ranked North American goalie in the NHL Central Scouting Services' midseason rankings for the 2004 draft. In case you missed the tournament finale against Team Canada, it will be re-broadcast Thursday on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. ET.

    E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    E.J. Hradek

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
    E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.
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