Stee Bernier is a physical presence.
In terms of franchises across the NHL, the Devils success over the past 15 to 20 years has been relatively unlauded. The casual hockey fan may not realize New Jersey has been to five Stanley Cups in the past 17 years. That's pretty darn good. The organization's conservative style of play and existence in the shadow of the New York Rangers has handicapped their reputation as a league standard. Imagine if the Rangers had been so consistent over such a long period? The Devils as a franchise, are underrated.
Other things that are underrated: The Prudential center as a venue, the Devils mascot in those SportsCenter commercials and the propensity of Devils' fans to cover their jerseys in pins and listen to Iron Maiden (That last one is a bizarre, fascinating habit of fandom that is worthy of study.)
But what about the individual players? I've always felt that the act of declaring a player underrated is itself a high rating. So are they no longer underrated? Hmmm...
As the lockout shortened season winds down in disappointing fashion, here are the three most underrated players on the Devils, sans my circular logic.
Bernier was a key piece of the famed 4th line of last year's playoff success.
Known more for his physicality and big frame at 6' 3," 220 pounds, Bernier's eight goals are good for fifth on the team. He is producing at a decent rate despite lying low on the Devils salary cap chart at just $775,000 a year (according to capgeek).
Bernier's career had an auspicious beginning. He was selected in the first round of the 2003 draft by San Jose. At 16th overall, Bernier was selected one pick before Zach Parise. After the Sharks called him up midway through the 2005-06 season the French Canadian registered 27 points in his first 39 NHL games. The following season: 31 points in 62 games.
Then Bernier began to taper off, bouncing around from the AHL to the Sabres, Canucks and Panthers before eventually landing in New Jersey early last year. After a quiet regular season he was part of a fourth line, along with Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter, that became a driving force behind the Devils playoff run.
He only has 14 points, but Bernier does the dirty work. He grinds in the corners and uses his big body to forecheck aggressively and cycle the puck below the goal line. Bernier is a valuable asset whose play may not be noticed by fans around the league but is productive whether the puck goes in the net or not.
The young Swede is acclimating, slowly.
This next one might seem a little strange, but I actually think that in a complicated way, Adam Larsson is underrated.
Considering the way people perceive him as a raw, undeveloped 20-year-old defenseman, Larsson is pretty effective. The expectations of him as the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and first defenseman selected, said he was a blueliner with elite potential to contribute offensively. He was lauded as a great skater with even better vision.
But the way the Devils struggle to score goals, you should not look to far into the numbers of a young defenseman who has been a healthy scratch for 10 games. What has impressed is his skating, not offensively but defensively. He is plus-four on a team with an overall goal differential of minus-16. Larsson's one-on-one game and gap control is impressive. This aspect of his play was underrated in his scouting report and remains so today.
It might seem inappropriate for a skinny 22-year-old to say this, but Pete DeBoer may be underrating Larsson as well. 10 healthy scratches is a lot, especially for a kid that stands to gain from every single game experienced in the NHL.
Andy Greene has been wearing an "A" in the absence of Ilya Kovalchuk.
Andy Greene is one of those hockey players who is unassuming off the ice and out of his pads. His 5' 11" listing on the team website is generous. If the guy was walking around in a heavy coat it would be tough to tell he was a professional athlete. But Greene is one of the most fluid skaters on this team. If hockey is cut short this guy could make a living triple-axeling in tights.
After a 37 point putout in the 2009-2010 season Andy Greene appeared ready for launch. It was the springtime blossoming of a defenseman with the uncanny ability to rush the puck, but injuries and regression ensued and he managed just 16 points in 56 games last season.
He has looked more like the impact player at times this season, and was even mentioned as trade bait for offense. Greene Was on the ice for all three Devils goals Thursday night as New Jersey broke a dreadful 10-game losing streak. He leads the Devils with a plus-eight rating. And yet, he is seen as a mere role player and not as one of the true steady defenseman on this team.
Two of the three players on this list that made it because of their skating ability. Skating is an aspect of a hockey player's game that is not as obvious or evident as say, a hard shot or dynamic passing. There is no stat for it. It is itself an underrated skill. Especially for defenseman protecting the blueline and conversely skating the puck out of trouble. These are things Greene can do, and Larsson is learning to do.
These types of players may be overlooked by fans, but they are crucial to the success of a hockey team. Unfortunately, the end of the season for the New Jersey Devils seems to be coming soon.