Noticing Niedermayer not impossible
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.
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."
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