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.
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.
"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.
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