KELLEY: Stevens quietly built remarkable career

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Jim Kelley

There was a time back when he was still with the Washington that New Jersey defenseman was mystified by another National Hockey League player. was a rookie phenom for the Buffalo back in 1989 and was playing an early exhibition game vs. the Caps. A fresh face in the league (having defected from what was then the Soviet Union), Mogilny was giving everyone on the ice fits. He had blazing speed, more moves than a FedEx driver in heavy traffic and could shoot effectively from almost any point on the ice. Through the first period, Mogilny was putting on a show that had even the in a trance. During a stoppage in play, Stevens went over and gave Mogilny what amounted to a ¿chuck¿ on the shoulder. ¿I just wanted to see if I could hit him even if he was just standing still,¿ Stevens joked afterward. The comment was only partly in jest as there aren¿t very many players in the NHL that haven¿t felt the power of one of ¿ hits over the years. That includes Mogilny, who later became a teammate of Stevens in New Jersey, where the pair won a Stanley Cup together. Still, it gives you a sense that there is a man behind a façade that many have come to describe as a machine -- a relentless hitting machine. There are people who will tell you that this Stanley Cup finals series that gets under way Tuesday in New Jersey is devoid of stars. They bemoan the fact that the big names from the big teams — names like , and are missing. They make note of the fact that the Ottawa , the top team in the regular season, is gone as are the so-called glamour clubs like the Boston , Toronto and the Philadelphia . They moan that Marian Hossa, , , Mogilny, , and are gone along with them. It¿s almost as if they forget about Stevens. Even when people talk about the and the fact that this is their third finals appearance in four seasons, they almost always talk about goalie , center , winger or their dreaded neutral-zone trap. Even when they talk about defense, it¿s usually team defense, how it¿s played and what¿s expected of it by head coach Pat Burns. Yet Stevens has quietly built a career that shines brighter than any player, coach, goalie or system in this series. This is his 21st NHL season and the resume makes for remarkable reading. Stevens was a member of the 1983 all-rookie team, a first-team All-Star in 1988 and 1994 and a member of the second team in 1992, 1997, and 2001. He played for Canada in the 1998 Olympics and in 13 NHL All-Star Games. He has two Stanley Cup rings and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in the successful 2000 campaign. Bobby Orr, he is not. But when you talk about the great defensive defenseman of all time, Stevens is on everyone¿s A list. He is in the mold of Eddie Shore, Tim Horton and Doug Harvey, quiet men who let their play on the ice do the kind of talking that delivered them into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In a more contemporary era, he is with the likes of Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin and Ray Bourque only he has proven himself to be more durable, more effective and more feared than any of those players. That last comment may surprise you because Stevens is so often cast as a ¿defensive¿ defenseman or a ¿physical¿ defenseman, but the offense is there. He once led the in scoring with 78 points (on a team with gunner Stephane Richer no less) and Stevens was a stunning plus-53 on the team¿s plus-minus charts. Still he finished second to Boston¿s Bourque that season in a very close balloting for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman). There are many who will argue that Stevens had a better all-around season that season and that Bourque won it on the strength of his offensive numbers alone, but it¿s history now. Still, Stevens showed his touch and he might have kept on doing it year after year if the hadn¿t changed to a more defensive-minded team. That was ushered in with the arrival of Jacques Lemaire and the neutral-zone trap that became the standard of play in New Jersey even after Lemaire left. Stevens, perhaps the ultimate team player, bought into it even though it meant less time up in the attack. The result was a Stanley Cup in 1995 and another in 2000 (and a trip to the finals for a seven-game loss to Bourque and the Colorado in 2001) so Stevens really didn¿t mind. For him, personal bests were second to team success. It¿s another element that makes him great. His teammates know and respect that. In New Jersey, he is simply ¿the captain¿ and the title is spoken with the same reverence reserved for in New York or Maurice ¿Rocket¿ Richard or Jean Beliveau when they were with the Montreal , Bryan Trottier when he led the or or Ted Kennedy when they were the backbone of the Leafs. His work ethic and his almost scary physical toughness — a sports stats agency once dubbed him the All-Time Wins Leader because he had played in the most regular-season games won by his team (859) — is a big part of that. When the game is on the line, Stevens is always on the ice. When the game calls for a big play, especially a momentum changing hit, it usually falls to Stevens. Even at this late date in his career, a point where his mobility is something less than it was at his peak, Stevens can still make plays on both ends of the ice. He had a key goal in the series against Ottawa that won New Jersey the Eastern Conference title again, but his bigger contribution came in the form of leadership. He is a player who refuses to lose and that rubs off on others. You could see it when he had to leave the ice in the Tampa series when he was struck in the side of the head with a puck. His team collapsed after that and Tampa went on to an easy win. When Stevens returned for the next game with a bit of his ear sewed back into place, a specially constructed helmet to protect it and shrugging off the effects of what many thought might be a concussion, the rallied. Stevens played 27 minutes in that game. He had a goal, was plus-2 and was the game¿s best player. After that performance, his team dispatched the with workmanlike efficiency. All that and he fights too. How many times did you see Robinson, Bourque or Potvin play the role of policeman for their team. Teams fear Stevens. They fear his competitive intensity as much as his monstrous hits, the kind that can (and have) leave a player senseless before they even fall to the ice. Highlight films abound of players that had to be carried off the ice or players who crawled to their bench after having been leveled by one of his fearsome open-ice collisions. took one of those hits and you can argue that he¿s never been the same since. felt it in the playoffs one season and had to be carried off. Shane Willis¿ walk with the fairies after he went through the neutral zone with his head down is a tape that collectors covet. The big hits have a tendency to overshadow the many other things that Stevens does well, but not with his teammates or those in the know in the NHL. The fact that Stevens never won the Norris Trophy is considered a travesty by many, even if he did get a Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP (almost unheard of unless the defenseman leads the Cup winner in scoring). He won¿t win it this year either, but while Detroit¿s , Dallas¿ Darien Hatcher and St. Louis¿ , all finalists for the award, are sitting around waiting for the awards banquet, Stevens will be playing for yet another Stanley Cup championship. Even Mogilny (now with Toronto and up for the Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play) can¿t match that. And if history is any kind of guide, Stevens may well again be the best player on the ice for either side. Watch for him and if someone tells you this series is devoid of stars, tell them to look for . The argument will end right there. Senior writer covers the NHL for FOXSports.com and can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Bruins, Sabres, Red Wings, Hurricanes, Stars, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Avalanche, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Joe Thornton, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Mike Modano, Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, Keith Primeau, John LeClair, Jeremy Roenick, Alexander Mogilny, Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg

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