Rafalski’s Place in USA Hockey History: A Look at Top U.S.-Born Defensemen

As you have probably heard, Brian Rafalski called it a career Wednesday after 11 NHL seasons split with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings. The Dearborn, Mich., native compiled 515 points in 833 regular-season games. He also did some serious damage in the playoffs, posting 100 points in 160 career postseason contests.

Rafalski hoisted the Stanley Cup three times, twice with New Jersey (2000, 2003) and once with Detroit (2008).

He also represented the United States in three Olympics, winning the silver medal in both 2002 and 2010. Rafalski was named the Most Outstanding Defenseman at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver after posting eight points (4-4) and being a rock at both ends for the U.S. He also skated in two IIHF World Junior Championships, two World Men’s Championships and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

Coming up after the jump, a look back at Rafalski’s career and where he ranks among American-born defensemen all-time.

Rafalski’s path to the NHL was a bit longer than some. He played four years at the University of Wisconsin after skating for the Madison Capitals in the United States Hockey League. After his collegiate career, Rafalski played one season with Byrnas in Sweden, before moving on to Finland, where he spent one season with HPK Hameenlinna and two with HIFK Helsinki. After skating for the U.S. at the World Championships in 1999, Rafalski signed an NHL contract with the Devils. There was no looking back.

The small, offensive-minded puck mover never finished an NHL regular season with a minus rating. His career plus/minus is plus-178. His best statistical year came with the Red Wings in 2008-09, when he posted 59 points (10-49). This past season, despite nagging injuries and playing a career-low 63 games, Rafalski still registered 48 points.

He leaves the game on his own terms, with $6 million left on the table. Rafalski said in his press conference that he wants to focus on his family and serving others and the money was no issue. It takes pretty strong convictions to leave that much money out there, so you know that he’s thought about this decision a lot.

So now, as he brings his brilliant career to a close, where does he stand in American hockey history?

In my mind, Brian Rafalski is one of the best American-born defensemen to ever play the game. He’s not at the same level as Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch and Phil Housley, but he’s definitely in the Top 10 and I feel he belongs in the Top 5.

If I had to rank American defenseman, this would be my list:

1. Chris Chelios
2. Brian Leetch
3. Phil Housley
4. Gary Suter
5. Brian Rafalski
6. Derian Hatcher
7. Kevin Hatcher
8. Mike Ramsey
9. Mark Howe
10. Mathieu Schneider
Honorable Mention: Ken Morrow, Rod Langway

As you can see by my list, which I believe is close to what the general consensus would be (unless you see someone egregiously missing from this list, in which you can lambaste me in the comments), Rafalski is right in the middle.

The 1980s and 1990s was the heyday of American defensemen. Chelios, Leetch, Housley and Suter weren’t just great Americans, they were among the best in the league, the world, whatever. They were all-time greats.

Rafalski didn’t have nearly as long a career as any of those players, however, for a good stretch of time, he was the best American defenseman playing the game, and certainly was one of the top offensive defensemen in the league. He bridged the gap from the American superstars of the 1990s to the rising stars of the 2010s.

When the big four on my list were playing into the twilight of their careers, Rafalski was just hitting his NHL stride and continued on that stride all the way until his retirement. In fact, in 2002, Rafalski played alongside those top four guys at the 2002 Olympics as the U.S. captured the silver medal. After that event, the torch was being passed to Rafalski.

Now, as he skates off into the sunset, the torch has been passed once again. This time, it’s to a younger generation of star defensemen, led by Ryan Suter, Jack Johsnon, Erik Johnson, Keith Yandle, Dustin Byfuglien, Alex Goligoski, Cam Fowler, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik, Matt Carle, John Carlson and many more waiting in the wings.

The U.S. has begun to develop NHL defenseman at a rate faster than ever before. In 2010-11, a total of 86 American defensemen skated in at least one NHL game. There are more and more coming, too.

The 1992 birth year for the United States may have been one of the best prospect classes for defensemen in recent memory. Not to mention a very strong group of 1994s, who will be eligible for the 2012 and 2013 drafts, which boasts a promising corps of defensemen ready to shine.

There may never be another group like Chelios, Leetch, Housley, Suter, Kevin Hatcher, Derian Hatcher and Mathieu Schneider. However, Rafalski deserves a lot of credit for helping usher in this new era of American defensemen. While he’ll be missed on the ice by teammates, coaches and fans alike, Brian Rafalski will go down as one of the best American defensemen in the history of the NHL.

Coming soon: A retrospective on Doug Weight’s impact on American hockey as he is set to announce his retirement later Thursday.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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One Response to Rafalski’s Place in USA Hockey History: A Look at Top U.S.-Born Defensemen

  1. Woody says:

    Nice tribute

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