In a surprising move, Brian Rafalski is expected to announce his retirement. The All-Star defenseman who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Devils over a decade ago became one of the game's best blueliners and a premier power play quarterback. His rookie season, he helped lead New Jersey to its second Stanley Cup along with fellow rookies Scott Gomez, John Madden and Colin White.
The former Wisconsin standout spent his first seven NHL seasons with the Devils, teaming with Hall Of Famer Scott Stevens for two championships ('00, '03). New Jersey also reached Game 7 of the '01 Cup Final before falling to Colorado. A smooth skating defenseman with great vision, Rafalski was one of the game's best passers, often able to spring teammates for breakaways up the middle. He also possessed a deflectable low shot that drove opponents crazy while killing penalties. An unselfish player who also was underrated defensively despite his 5-10, 174 pound frame. Rafalski always battled hard and used the body when called upon.
After two Cups, three All-Star selections and an Olympic Silver in Salt Lake City ('02), Rafalski departed New Jersey to play for hometown Detroit where he again got to team with a future Hall Of Famer in six-time Norris winner Nick Lidstrom. It didn't take long for him to adjust to the Red Wings, matching a career high with 55 points including a career best 13 goals while winning a third Cup in his first season ('07-08). Rafalski added 14 points (4-10-14) during the postseason for Detroit's fourth championship since '97. He followed up with a new career high 59 points including 49 helpers during '08-09. Once again, the Wings reached the Final but fell in a tough seven games to the Penguins.
In 2010, there was Rafalski as one of the leaders of surprising Team USA's run to another silver in Vancouver where they just fell short in a dramatic overtime loss to Canada. He played two more years with the Red Wings continuing to be productive, following up a 42-point '09-10 with 48 in what looks to be his final season. If it is indeed the end, Rafalski finishes with 79 goals and 436 assists totaling 515 points over 833 career games in 11 seasons. With two goals and an assist this postseason, it allowed him to reach 100 (29-71-100) in 165 games.
Rafalski never missed the playoffs in a brilliant career. Just imagine if he had been drafted instead of being forced to go overseas where he played in Finland for three years before Lou Lamoriello discovered him. Sometimes, hidden gems exist. A classy man on and off the ice, that's what Rafalski was.