Little bit of Europe in MoTown
The 34-year-old who signed as a free agent with the Red Wings, July 1, made a name for himself as a professional in Europe. One season in Sweden and three in Finland proved that Rafalski could successfully play the European game. More offense. More creativity.
And that has served Rafalski well with the Red Wings, with a 23-man roster that includes 12 Europeans. Of Detroit's top 10 scorers, only Rafalski, a native of Allen Park, and Dan Cleary, a Canadian, aren't European.
"In Europe, the coaches would always say, 'Skate. Skate. Skate all the way up the ice'," said Rafalski. "You'd always get the 'Go, go go.' The style of play is different. It's not that North Americans don't play that way. It's just that more Europeans do. Playing there helped my transition to this team where it's more than 50 percent European."
In between Europe and Detroit, however, Rafalski spent seven seasons in the Siberia of hockey offense, New Jersey.
With the Devils, Rafalski found himself in a defense-first environment -- one that the team rode to two Stanley Cups and three finals appearances in Rafalski's first four seasons there.
Often paired with Scott Niedermayer, Rafalski drew the opposition's top offensive line. The pair has sterling offensive skills. Last season, Niedermayer was the NHL's top scorer among defensemen while playing for Anaheim. Rafalski, still in New Jersey, was 12th.
Back in 2002-03 with the pair in their late 20s, Rafalski and Niedermayer ranked just 19th and 20th, respectively, among defensemen in scoring.
"They wanted me to play my game but in their system," said Rafalski of New Jersey. "I was playing with Scotty so we were always against their top line. It was defense first. … Our team was built around defense, not giving up odd-man rushes. Keep the plays to the outside, let Marty (goalie Martin Brodeur) make the saves, get the rebounds."
Since coming to Detroit, however, Rafalski finds himself back in a system that encourages defensemen to think offense. For the first time in the NHL, Rafalski is being asked to play as he did in Europe.
The result is that Rafalski is second among NHL defensemen in scoring with 37 points in 45 games. That's more points than he had in two of his seven seasons with New Jersey and just 18 shy of his career high. Rafalski's seven goals is a total that he topped in New Jersey just twice -- nine in 2000-01 and eight last season.
"Here, there's obviously there's a lot more encouragement for defensemen to join the play here," said Rafalski. "It was an adjustment at first. They'd tell me on the bench that there were opportunities. Now, I know what they're looking for."
Although Rafalski is freer offensively, it's the defensive play that he developed in New Jersey that is the first thing that coach Mike Babcock mentions when asked about Rafalski.
"I like him a lot as a player because he's good defensively," said Babcock. "You don't have to hide him and he gets the puck going. He knows how to play. When you talk about the game to Raffi, he knows how the game's supposed to be played. And he's about winning. All that makes a real good fit here obviously."