- Jim Kelley
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It's equal parts fitting and convenient that Scott Stevens, the New Jersey Devils stellar defenseman, is hitting the top of the National Hockey League's games-played-by-a-defenseman list before he actually turns 40.
That way, he'll have peers he can still invite to the party.
Stevens, 39 years young, will pass Larry Murphy for first place when he played his 1,616th game tonight against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the teams' first meeting since the Devils won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on June 9.
But those players -- the only three ahead of Stevens in games played in the NHL -- are forwards. It used to be different for defensemen; the rigors and the demands of the position wore players down and limited the lengths of careers. But not any more.
"I think with the conditioning programs they have now if you have the will to keep going you can," said Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, who played 20 years in the NHL, 17 of them as a stalwart for the Montreal Canadiens. "They always say the legs are the first to go, but I don't think that's the case any more. You can condition yourself to keep playing and as long as you have the will and enjoy the game, you can keep at it. Having a head for the game nowadays may be more important than anything else."
There's not much doubt about that.
NHL defensemen take a long time to develop because of the intricacies of the position. But if a player is physically talented enough and smart enough to master it, he can stay in the game a long time and, more importantly, be even more effective at the position than an aging forward is at his.
"I can't do all of the same things I did when I was younger, but then I can see a lot of things now that I didn't see back then," said James Patrick, a former New York Ranger and Calgary Flame now plying his trade as a 40-year old for the Buffalo Sabres.
"A lot of this game is about anticipation and reading the plays. There might only be a handful of people who see me make a little play in the corner that maybe helps us get possession of the puck or even win the game, but I enjoy doing that. And if it helps the team win, I take a certain amount of satisfaction in that."
Patrick, the ninth overall pick in the 1981 draft, used to be regarded as an offensive defenseman and a power-play producer. He has scored more than 50 points in a season five times in his career, once managing 71 points for the Rangers in an 80-game season (1991-92).
In what may well be his last season in the game, Patrick doesn't get a whole lot of power-play time anymore. He rarely makes a rush up ice (although he will jump into the offense from the back line if the occasion warrants) and he doesn't automatically garner a spot in the lineup on a nightly basis.
Still, even at 40 and with seven other defensemen on the NHL roster, the Sabres protected him in the waiver draft at the start of this season. A kind of player like Patrick is simply too difficult to replace.
"He's smart," said head coach Lindy Ruff, an ex-NHLer who spent the bulk of his time in the NHL on defense. "He's like, what they always say, a coach on the ice. I don't worry about James Patrick when the puck is in our end."
There are a slew of NHL defensemen like that, but Stevens is perhaps the most notable. Even after what would normally amount to two careers for most players, he is still one of the game's elite. He's a physical force, plays as much (or more) than any other player on the New Jersey squad, remains one of the Devils' best performers at the point on the power play and continues to be a fearsome force in his own end and the neutral zone.
For Stevens, that's not unusual.
"I guess, trying to be the best you can be and trying to improve every year and, obviously, staying in good shape and liking the game and enjoying the competition -- all those things are a factor," he said of his longevity. "I guess because I have always played a physical, rough game I really don't know any better, so my body doesn't know any better. I don't know any other way, and I guess you just get used to it and you just go out year after year and keep playing."
It's the way Stevens plays that makes his achievements all the more noteworthy, but in addition to his rock-solid strength, he's also smart. It's the special ingredient that allows him and others like him to keep on playing a game that by its very nature is a sport for people a good deal younger.
"Don't forget the game has changed a bit as well," noted Robinson who was almost every bit as good the day he stepped away as the day he entered the NHL. "The way the game is played now, a defenseman doesn't go up the ice as much anymore and teams play a system now where they aren't on the ice as much."
During Robinson's era, defensemen would play extended shifts. Most teams dressed six defensemen but played four the bulk of the time. Great ones like Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Tim Horton, Paul Coffey and Robinson would play extra minutes.
In today's game, which is dominated by systems, positional play, short shifts and extensive travel, there is more of an emphasis on limiting a player's ice time to short bursts of effort in order to keep the units constantly fresh. It may take some of the luster off, but it adds years to a player's career, especially if he's smart enough to read and react to what's going on around him.
"The game's much quicker and the players are much bigger than when I first came in," Stevens noted. "I guess that's been something myself and the older players had to adjust to, (we've) had to evolve as the game's evolved. That has been a big part of staying in the game this long. I think the games are exciting. I think some games are more exciting than others, but everybody is playing a smart, disciplined game. If you don't play the smart, disciplined game and play the system like the good teams are, then you will have trouble."
"Defending is a different game today," noted Patrick. "You tend to have a lot of help in your zone what with all the forwards coming back. You also don't have to carry the puck as much (or have the opportunity to do so). A lot of times all they ask of you is to make the safe play, chip it out and let someone else carry the play."
Scouting makes a difference, too. Teams break down video and study it, a lot. According to Robinson, it's a given that every player on every team is going to know the strengths and weaknesses of every player he plays against.
"Today's players know exactly what they are facing and what their opponent can and can't do," Robinson said. "You can prepare yourself for exactly what's going on out there."
"When I came into the game (in 1983-84), a coach would tell you this guy is good or watch out for that guy and then we'd go out an play," Patrick said. "It took maybe 30 seconds for a rundown on an entire team. Now we spend hours looking at tape and they break them down in regards every facet of a guy's game."
In addition to the scouting, both Patrick and Robinson argue that the players of today are much better conditioned than players of the past. While that sometimes makes it harder to play against them, getting a jump on conditioning has helped the veteran defensemen keep up.
It certainly appears to be the case for Stevens.
"There are still great talents in the game," Patrick said. "The difference today though is that guys on the third and fourth lines have closed the gap. The money is so good that guys hire personal trainers and they work at their strength and skills all year round. Guys also work on their defense. Defense is something you can teach and guys who learn it and stay at it stay in the game for a long, long time."
The next Scott Stevens will have to be big, strong and smart, but he'll have to love playing every bit as much as Stevens does.
He has too. There simply won't be any other way to get past him.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
How do aging NHL defensemen manage to stay in the game so long? It's all in their heads.