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11 Best NHL Defensemen of All Time

by: Esteban On  Monday, June 4, 2012

greatest nhl defensemen

Nw that Nicklas Lidstrom has decided to call it a career—he officially retired this past Friday—it’s time to once again attempt the absurd: ranking the greatest NHL defensemen of all time.

Why is it absurd? Because there are a hell of a lot of good defensemen who’ve played the game and, more importantly, there are so many different ways to play the position effectively. Canadiens legend Doug Harvey, for example, may be the best “stay at home” defensemen of all time. But no player ever revolutionized any position the way Bobby Orr revolutionized defense.

So how do you compare two different type of players like this? Here’s my method: I simply ask myself, if I were starting a team and I could choose any defensemen who ever played the game, who would I pick? Asking yourself that question helps you get past the stats and Norris Trophies and Stanley Cup Championship rings, helping you see the bigger picture.

So anyway, here it goes. Be sure to tell us what you think—did I get it mostly right? Or did I totally blow it? Don’t worry, I won’t be offended.

11. Scott Stevens

scott stevens

Quick quiz: how many Norris Trophies (awarded to the best defenseman at the end of each season) did Scott Stevens win?

Answer: 0.

Crazy, isn’t it? Scotty Stevens is probably the best NHL defensemen never to win the position’s top award (tied for 13th all-time with a plus/minus rating of plus-393). His punishing open-ice hits made superstars afraid to touch the puck in the neutral zone. Just ask Eric Lindros.

10. Chris Chelios

chris chelios blackhawks captain

Chris Chelios became so renowned for his longevity by the end of his career that people almost started forgetting what an amazing defender he was in his prime. The guy won three Norris Trophies with two teams—the Canadiens in ’89 and the Blackhawks in ’93 and ’96. And it’s not like there weren’t other worthy candidates in those years. In fact, we’ll meet a few of his contemporaries shortly. But Chelios was as good as any of them in his prime. He’d completely tie up opponents in the defensive zone, then he’d man the point on power plays. In fact, he had exactly 58 assists in each of his three Norris Trophy-winning seasons.

9. Al MacInnis

al macinnis blues captain

At #9 we have a Hall of Fame defenseman who was actually two different players. During the first half of his career with the Calgary Flames, people considered him an offensive-minded defenseman—probably because he wracked up 822 points in 11 seasons, including a 103-point campaign in 1990/1991. But during the second half of his career with the St. Louis Blues, MacInnis transformed into a brilliant defensive player as well, winning the Norris Trophy as the best all around defenseman in 1999.

Of course, I’d probably pick him for my hypothetical all-time greats hockey team just for his wicked slap shot. It was one of the best in the history of the game.

8. Paul Coffey

paul coffey edmonton

Honestly, sticking Paul Coffey all the way up at #8 feels wrong to me. He had five 100-point seasons, missed one by only 4 points and another by only 7, and had two seasons in his prime shortened by injuries—and even in those seasons he averaged well-over a point per game. In other words, the guy missed out on nine consecutive 100-point seasons by a hair. He broke Bobby Orr’s record by most goals by a defenseman in a season with 48 in 1985-86, and is second in career points by a defenseman.

How was he on defense? Who knows? He was so fast, he practically never had to play it. Once he got the puck, he’d turn on the jets and be at the other end of the ice in about 1.5 seconds. This is why the guy won 3 Norris Trophies (two with Edmonton, one with Detroit) and 4 Stanley Cups (thee with Edmonton, one with Pittsburgh). If he were just a little bit better at actually playing defense—like the next guy on our list—Coffey would easily crack the top 5.

7. Ray Borque

ray bourque

Paul Coffey is #2 among defensemen in career points, 48 points behind Raymond Bourque. Of course Bourque was never as prolific a scorer as Coffey, but 14 point-per-game seasons aint exactly bad.

Still, it’s not the career points that puts Bourque ahead of Coffey on our list but the fact that he was a more well-rounded player. He was just as reliable behind his own blue line as he was in front of his opponent’s. That’s why Bourque is 3rd on the career plus/minus list with a plus-528, and Coffey is 30th with a plus-294.

6. Denis Potvin

denis potvin islanders stanely cup

Denis Potvin doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he played a more “traditional” defensive game in the post-Bobby Orr NHL. Yet the guy still finished his career with three Norris Trophies, four Stanley Cups, and more goals or points than any defenseman in the history of the game (though he did play about 400 more games than Orr). He would have won even more Norris Trophies were it not for the fact that he played at the same time as the next guy on our list.

5. Larry Robinson

larry robinson canadiens

Larry Robinson only won the Norris Trophy two times (’77 and ’80), so why is he higher than guys like Bourque, Coffey, and Potvin?

It’s simple, really. Despite wracking up “only” 958 points in 1,384 career games (500 points behind Bourque and Coffey, 300 behind MacInnis, and 100 behind Potvin), Robinson is the all-time plus/minus leader…by a lot. And not just among defensemen, but among all players—even Gretzky. Robinson was a plus-730 for his career. Next on the list is Bobby Orr with 597, then it’s Bourque with 528 and Gretzky with 518.

Do you know how insanely good a defensive defenseman has to be to have a plus rating that high? (Really insanely good.)

4. Eddie Shore

eddie shore boston bruins defensemen

We don’t have the stats for Eddie Shore that we do for most of the guys on this list. There was no such thing as plus/minus back in 1935. There was no Norris Trophy either.

There was, however, a Hart Trophy awarded to the NHL’s most valuable player, and Eddie Shore won it four times.* That’s more than any other defenseman, and 3rd all-time behind two dudes named Gretzky and Howe. Not bad, right?

So what made him such an effective defender? He was one of the nastiest guys to ever play the game. In just his second year Shore set the all-time record for penalty minutes in a single season, and he almost killed (literally) the Maple Leafs’ Ace Baily in 1933 when he gave the guy a brutal check from behind. So in other words, Shore was no fun to play against, and that kept the puck out of the net.

*1933, 1935, 1936, 1938

3. Doug Harvey

Montreal Canadiens Doug Harvey, 1956

Doug Harvey won 7 of the first 9 Norris Trophies ever awarded. So I guess the people who watched him play on a daily basis thought he was pretty okay. Only one player has won the award more than him, and only one player has won as many. And guess what—they’re the next two guys on this list.

Harvey is widely considered to be the best of the old-fashioned, stay-at-home NHL defenseman. He didn’t score many goals; he didn’t set up many goals. But he sure as hell made sure the other team didn’t score or set up many goals, either. That’s why his Montreal Canadiens won a whopping 6 Stanley Cups during his tenure.

2. Nicklas Lidstrom

nicklas lidstrom stanley cup

The newly retired Lidstrom became a full-time NHL player in 1991-92 when he joined the Red Wings at the age of 21. That year he had a plus/minus rating of plus-36. Two years later he posted a plus/minus of plus-43. So, you know, he had a pretty okay start

By 1997, Scotty Bowman thought so highly of Lidstrom that he assigned him (and not the veteran Konstantinov) the task of defending the dangerous Eric Lindros on the Flyers’ famed “Legion of Doom” line in the Stanley Cup Finals. The result? The Wings swept the Flyers, and the only goal Lindros scored was when his team was down 2 goals and had the goalie pulled in the waning seconds of Game 4.

But Lidstrom didn’t win his first Norris Trophy until 2000-2001, when he was 30 years old. Then he won is 6 more times, the last coming in 2010-11 at the age of 41.

What made him so great? Coyotes coach Dave Tippett put it best when he said “he anticipates defensively the way [Wayne] Gretzky and [Mario] Lemieux anticipated offensively.” How’s that for high praise?

1. Bobby Orr

bobby orr gordie howe

Bobby Orr won 8 Norris Trophies. Was he the best defenseman in NHL history in terms of pure defense? Well, probably not. But of course, that depends on how you think of defense—and Bobby Orr made everyone think of defense differently. What I mean by that is, before Bobby Orr, people considered “defense” to be how a player played when he didn’t have the puck. But Orr made people realize that defense starts with what you do once you get the puck. If you have blazing speed or incredible vision or beautiful passing skills, you can get that puck out of the zone and make sure the other team doesn’t get it back. That’s defense, and those are the skills Bobby Orr possessed. He changed the game more than anyone else in hockey—even more than Gretzky—and for that reason he’s the #1 NHL defenseman of all time.




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