Rolston making name for himself in Minnesota

He's near the top of the league in goals, game-winning goals and plus/minus and his team sits atop the Northwest Division. Still, Brian Rolston hasn't received a lot of attention -- until now.

Brian Rolston Rolston

In this week's Facing Off, the Wild captain tells us what it was like to be traded for Ray Bourque, why St. Paul is a better hockey town than Boston and who he thinks is the game's next Mario Lemieux.

Question from David Amber: You keep getting tagged as the "NHL's most underrated player." What does that mean to you?

Answer from Brian Rolston: Not much I guess [laughs]. That's great being underrated, but I think that comes from the media. Over my career, I have seen a lot of players who aren't that good built up by the media. I haven't had that kind of buildup, but I would like to think the people in the organization and my teammates appreciate what I do.

Q: For so many years, you were characterized as a defensive forward, and here you are on pace to score more than 50 goals this season. Did we in the media misrepresent you or has your game changed?

A: My game has evolved. When I first came in the league with New Jersey, I played in a defensive system with Jacques Lemaire as the coach. He put me on a checking line, so I have always been classified as a checker. As the years have gone on, I have put up better numbers. Here in Minnesota, we're a young team, so my role is different. I've been called on to step up my game.

Q: And you have. You scored a goal in seven of the Wild's first 10 games. How do you explain that?

A: Jacques [now coach for the Wild] gives me the opportunity to play on the power play and on the penalty kill, so I log a lot of ice time and that helps. I play with Todd White and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, two very good players that complement me very well.

Q: As someone who has often been called on to check some of the league's most skilled players, who is the most difficult player to try and control one-on-one?

A: That's tough to answer because we don't play against every team. We have great teams in our division, but we don't have the Ovechkins and Crosbys, the individual stars, as much. But I have had a few minus nights, one night I was minus-5 in a game as a checking center against Lemieux and Jagr, and they dumped it in the whole third period [laughs].

Q: Of all the young players in the game today, who has the best chance to be remembered in the same breath as Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Mario?

A: I watch Crosby pretty closely, and he's impressive. We played against him last year and one of the biggest things that stood out to me was how well he plays even without the puck. He works so hard every night, that's what you need to be a marquee player. Still, last season during the Olympics, I think Malkin impressed me even more. He was 18 years old and one of the best players at the Olympics. He's going to be scary, I have a feeling.

Q: You did something Malkin would love to do and that's win the Stanley Cup as a rookie. What do you remember most about that?

A: I remember thinking, "This isn't so difficult." We breezed right through to win the Cup. Mike Peluso, Ken Daneyko, John McLean, Bruce Driver, they were all emotional on the bench during the final game, and I didn't get it. But then, you figure out during the rest of your career how elusive winning the Stanley Cup can be. To win it in my rookie year, maybe I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I definitely appreciate it now.

Q: When you signed with Minnesota, you said you wanted to play in a place that loves hockey. Explain Minnesota's love affair with the game.

A: I don't know, it's hard to explain. I'm from Michigan, and of course the fans in Detroit are nuts, they are crazy about the sport. Here in Minnesota, when the game returned on the pro level, everyone was so excited, the fans here missed the game so much. The Wild owners have done a great job of bringing the community in and letting them embrace the team.

Q: As a hockey city, how does St. Paul compare to Boston?

A: In Boston, I think the organization has fallen out of favor with the fans. When I played in Boston, we had games that didn't sell out, we even had playoff games that didn't sell out. That shouldn't happen in Boston, in an Original Six city. The fans in Minnesota have been through a lot. In preseason, we come out on the ice and the arena is sold out and the fans were on their feet screaming, even though we have had only one winning season in five years. It's a unique place and there are not many markets like that in the United States.

Q: You were traded to Boston during the 1999-2000 season. What was your reaction when you heard you were traded and then also found out that Ray Bourque would be going the other way?

A: I had just been traded a few months earlier to Colorado from New Jersey, and right away, when I got to Colorado, I just felt it wasn't going to be the place for me. Hockey just didn't work out for me there, I wasn't comfortable there. Then, at the trade deadline, I was traded to Boston. I was thrilled to be going back into the Eastern Conference. I thought the style of play there suited my game. When I arrived in Boston, the first thing anyone asked was, "How does it feel to be traded for Ray Bourque?" And I was quick to point out it wasn't a one-for-one deal, it wasn't that at all. Ray is an icon in Boston, so I knew I wouldn't fill his shoes, but it was cool to be in that deal.

Q: You were part of the United States' 2006 Olympic team. Was that experience the low point in your professional hockey career?

A: Actually, it wasn't, I had a great time at the Olympics. We went over there and we didn't have tremendous expectations. Obviously for Canada, if they don't win the gold medal, it's the end of the world; for us, it was different. We played well for the most part, close games and good effort, so I enjoyed my experience over there. My family was there, I felt I played well, I represented my organization well and I was honored to play for my country again.

Q: How would you describe the state of U.S. hockey right now?

A: I think it's as strong as ever. Just look at the first round of the draft last year, so many Americans were taken. USA Hockey is developing players and it will only get stronger as the game grows into more U.S. cities.

Q: The Wild appoint a team captain on a month-to-month basis. Don't you think at this point you deserve that as a full-time title?

A: It's just one of those things. Jacques has done it that way since he's been here. He feels it gives other guys opportunities to wear the C and I'm fine with that, I think it's a good thing. They appointed Wes Walz and myself with A's as assistant captains all year, but the C gets rotated, that's just the way it works here.

Q: Yeah, but you've played so well this season that you've had the C all year so far.

A: [Laughs.] Well, the first month was terrific, this month was a little tougher, we've struggled a little bit, so we'll see.

Q: Looking at the Western Conference, which team is the best right now?

A: I think there are three teams that are really amazing, I'm going to give you three because these are the teams we have played so far. We have played San Jose and Anaheim a few times already, and whenever we play these teams, it's like a playoff game. Nashville is also an extremely good team. If I were to give you one team, I would say Anaheim is the top team right now.

Q: You scored the NCAA championship-clinching goal as a freshman for Lake Superior State University. What was the best part of that experience for you?

A: I was an NHL first-round draft pick going into my freshman year at school and you want to go in and do well and show people why you were taken so high, so to win a national championship my first year was amazing. To win a Stanley Cup my first year in the NHL and an NCAA title my first year at college is pretty cool. When my career is over, it will go down as one of the biggest highlights.

Q: The championship game was in April. Did you bother going to class the rest of the semester?

A: [Laughs.] We partied nonstop the rest of the year. Actually, our coaches were sticklers about us going to class, so I had to still go to classes.

Q: You have three young sons. Knowing how tough and physically demanding the game is, will you encourage them to play hockey or would you hope they choose another profession?

A: I don't know if I have a choice in that. My eldest son just turned 5 and started playing this year, he loves hockey. He sees what I do and he just loves the game, it's nonstop, he can't get enough. My second son doesn't take to it as much, but whatever they want to do is fine with me, as long as they have fun doing it. My first son has a genuine love for the game and I can see that, and it's a great sport, so I'm not complaining.

Q: So in 2019, we may see another Rolston first-round selection?

A: You never know, you never know [laughs].

ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.