This Friday, the Devils get to do something they haven't in 20 years. They're slated to pick fourth overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn., marking the first time since 1991 that they've had a top-five pick.
For the Devils, who are more accustomed to drafting later in the first round, this is a golden opportunity. The last time they picked this high, it helped change the course of team history.
The 1991 Draft was held at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium. Much of the buzz surrounded Eric Lindros and whether or not he'd play for the Quebec Nordiques, who wound up taking him first overall.
San Jose took Pat Falloon second, and the Devils tapped Kamloops (WHL) defenseman Scott Niedermayer with the third overall pick.
Central Scouting called Niedermayer: "a good skater with balance and agility … Has good lateral movement … Has hard, accurate shot fom the point." Tom Renney, then Niedermayer's head coach, offered his own Niedermayer capsule: "Has vision and mobility … Is agile and accelerates well … Has great puckhandling skills … Has good hockey sense … Style resembles Paul Coffey … Is a quiet leader."
Niedermayer would prove to be all that and more. He enjoyed a 19-year career with New Jersey and Anaheim that included four Stanley Cups.
The native of Cranbrook, British Columbia, anchored the Devils for 13 seasons and Cup titles in 1995, 2000 and 2003. He claimed the 2004 Norris Trophy as top defenseman, the first of three straight seasons in which he was a finalist for the award.
Niedermayer led the Ducks to the Cup in 2007 and earned the Conn Smythe Award for playoff MVP. By the time he officially announced his retirement on June 22, 2010, he was the only player in history to have won a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, World Championship, World Cup, Memorial Cup and World Junior championship.
But it started with that third overall pick in 1991, the one the Devils had acquired from Toronto two years earlier in exchange for defenseman Tom Kurvers. We caught up with Niedermayer last week for a trip down memory lane.What jumps out the most from that draft day?
I think, obviously, which was probably the biggest emotion, is just the nervous excitement about the whole thing. Getting this opportunity to be surrounded by NHL general managers. Coaches are obviously there, and different people that you associated with the League, growing up watching. They’re all over and it’s your turn to potentially get drafted. It’s quite a day. It’s obviously tremendously exciting but you’re not sure exactly how everything works or how to handle everything, so there’s a bit of that nervous energy, as well. It was exciting, no doubt. I vaguely remember Lou [President/CEO/GM Lamoriello] getting up there and he started by saying ‘Kamloops’ and when he said it, he kind of stressed a different syllable than we do back in B.C., so there was a little chuckle. But obviously after he says that, you know you’re probably going to be drafted when he says your team name. I was pretty excited about that, for sure. I kind of had a feeling that’s probably where I would’ve ended up, but you never know, I guess. What made you think it’d be the Devils?
I think a combination of things. Probably the fact that Lindros was the guy that was going to go number one, no matter what. There was no real question mark there. After that, it was a little more wide open, but Pat Falloon, who went second that year, had a great season, then his team went on and won the Memorial Cup. He had a great playoff, great Memorial Cup. I just kind of felt with what he accomplished that spring, he’d probably be number two. I just felt that’s maybe where I would fall with New Jersey. But also, I had a visit, came down to New Jersey-New York area before the draft. I just felt things went well, I guess. I think the combination of those things were maybe why I felt that. What was that visit to New Jersey like for a western Canadian kid?
It was an eye-opening experience, no question. I think we went to a Yankees game and one thing that sticks out in my head is that it was so hot and humid. In the summers there, that’s sort of how things can be. But it was pretty exciting to go down into Manhattan for dinner. I think we went out to an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, so that’s like a whole new world for a kid from a small town in western Canada. It was quite a trip. They did a bit of physical testing and things like that, but there wasn’t a lot of that. Probably not as much as the teams do now. It was a fun trip, and I was there with other players they were considering to pick. Did it feel like a place that could be home for the next few years?
I don’t really remember thinking that. I just remember being impressed and amazed at how big the place was and how fast things move and just how different it is, really, than the west. Obviously things have been going on out east a lot longer than some of the towns out west, so you’ve got a lot of older buildings and the history of things like that. It definitely had a different feel, but I don’t remember planning out my future at that point. I was still trying to fit in, trying to enjoy and do my best in any sort of testing or whatever. Who was with you at the draft?
Just my parents and my brother were there. It was in Buffalo, New York, which was a little ways away from Cranbrook, British Columbia. If it was closer I might’ve had some friends drive down or up. It was exciting. At least for me, it was really when you actually thought there was a possibility you might play in the NHL. I think before that it was just sort of a dream. Dreams aren’t always real, I suppose, but when you finally get drafted, you realize, ‘I have a chance here.’ Were there things that you needed to work on?
For sure, and maybe a lot of times I didn’t work on it by my own choice. Sometimes with the coaches, they forced me to learn things. They forced me to think a different way about playing the game and it wasn’t easy at times. But looking back now, it was a good thing. I learned important things about the game, about how to win and have success, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you were to ask me at the time, I was maybe frustrated and not enjoying it, but over the long haul it was a good thing. The Devils had acquired your pick from Toronto two years earlier for Tom Kurvers. In 1990, they had traded down in the first round to pick Martin Brodeur. Was that some pretty shrewd maneuvering in back-to-back drafts considering what the Devils went on to accomplish?
I’m very thankful because I think it made our team as strong as it was over the years because they have drafted very well. There always seemed to be somebody coming along that turned out to be a very good NHL player, and I think that’s a very big reason why the team had so much success over the years and was able to win a few Stanley Cups. I had played against Marty a little bit, just at a World Junior tryout one year. I didn’t really know him at all, but obviously, he was a great teammate and I’m glad he was on our side for sure. Had you ever considered what life as a Leaf might’ve been like?
Not a whole lot, but it was funny this past season, I ran into Tom Kurvers (currently an assistant GM in Tampa Bay) and he came up and introduced himself and we kind of had a couple of laughs about the whole thing. Obviously, he takes a bit of heat, not that he had anything to do with the trade, but it was very nice of him. He was friendly about it and it was interesting, for sure. What advice do you have for someone going in the top five this year?
I think first and foremost at the draft, enjoy it. The kids have put a lot of hard work into getting where they are today, so no reason not to enjoy it and celebrate it a bit. I guess on the other side of that is, there’s still a lot of hard work and a lot of things left to be done to make yourself a real NHL player. It’s kind of two sides to the coin there, but enjoy it when the time is there and realize that the work continues and definitely doesn’t get easier.