When it comes down to it, there might not be a more underrated, underappreciated player in NHL history than Brian Rafalski. And, it’s reasonable to assume it’s because A.) he did not play 1,000 games, and B.) he didn’t make his NHL debut until age 26 (!!!).
One of the best of his era, Brian Rafalski was everything a team could want out of a defenseman and more. Wildly productive and relatively ageless, Rafalski scored 40 or more points in all but two of his NHL seasons: his rookie year in 1999-00 and the 2003-04 season. The latter was the only season Rafalski played fewer than 70 games aside from his last, wherein he was 37 years old.
Brian Rafalski received Norris Trophy votes six times in his career but never came away with the prestigious award. Instead, Rafalski can take solace in his three Stanley Cup triumphs, two of which came with the New Jersey Devils.
Ironically, the Devils won a Stanley Cup in Rafalski’s rookie year, where the then-26-year-old stepped into the NHL for the first time, regularly ate up 20 or more minutes a night, and flat-out dominated in those minutes.
With another, say, five years under his belt in the NHL, Brian Rafalski could easily have four or five Stanley Cups. He missed the 1994-95 Cup, and it’s easy to imagine he could’ve helped the Devils secure another championship between that Cup and the 2000 Cup. Rafalski was truly a special, special defenseman from the very start of his career to the very end.
Rafalski left the New Jersey Devils in 2007 after seven years to join the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he won his third and final Stanley Cup. Rafalski retired sixth all-time in plus-minus as a Devil with a +100 rating; he never finished any season with a negative rating. Rafalski is 11th all-time in Devils assists with 267 and was on the ice for 252 power-play goals for the Devils.
Brian Rafalski was inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014 but hasn’t been named to the Hockey Hall of Fame we all recognize today.