Whenever I set out to do one of these "best of all time" lists I am forcibly reminded just how many great players this sport has seen over the years. I initially planned just to do a top ten, but quickly realized how many superstar Hall of Fame blueliners I'd be shunning if I were to keep the list that short. So, I expanded it to 20 and even still I found myself crossing off some true NHL legends. Still, a guy has to draw the line somewhere, so I decided 20 was the magic number. Read on to see which rearguards from yesterday and today made the cut:
Top 20 NHL Defensemen of All Time
20 - Serge Savard
The mere fact that this cornerstone of the vaunted Montreal Canadiens' blueline only eked onto the list by the skin of his teeth should give mute testimony to what an exclusive club this is. Savard was one of the "Big Three" that patrolled the blueline for the Habs during their glory days in the 1970s. At 6'3" tall and 210 lbs he towered over many of his contemporaries, yet despite his hulking size he was surprisingly fleet of foot. Though many younger hockey fans attribute the phrase, "Savardian spin-o-rama" to Denis Savard it was actually used to describe Serge Savard's commonly used tactic back in the 70s. Savard played his entire 1,040 game NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens, scoring 106 goals and 439 points. He was a 7 time Stanley Cup champion, won the 1969 Conn Smythe as Playoff MVP and was a 4 time All Star.
19 - Rod Langway
For some reason this stellar blueliner always seems to be a forgotten man when discussing the best d-men ever. Langway missed most of the glory run of the Montreal Canadiens, joining the team in 1979, just in time to play a part time role in their final Stanley Cup of four in a row. He really established himself as a member of the Washington Capitals after he was dealt in a blockbuster deal that brought Ryan Walter and Rick Green the other way. After the trade Langway went on to win two consecutive Norris Trophies in 1982-83 and 1983-84.
Langway played almost 1,000 NHL games, and though he was predominantly known as a defensive rearguard, he did chip in with a respectable 329 points. He appeared in 6 All Star games and helped lead his team to the playoffs every year but the final season of his NHL career.
18 - King Clancy
The NHL has boasted many legends over its history, but only a handful of those stars have had a major NHL awarded named in their honor. Such was the respect accorded to this star defenseman. Clancy played in 592 games over 16 seasons, first as a member of the original incarnation of the Ottawa Senators and later with the Toronto Maple Leafs. at 5'7" tall and only 155 lbs he wasn't the prototypical d-man you see in today's NHL, but his small stature allowed him to be quick and elusive and he was a more offensive threat than many blueliners of that era. He was named to 4 All Star teams and played in the Stanley Cup Finals on 6 occasions, winning 3 times.
17 - Chris Pronger
One of only two active NHL players on this list, Pronger's ultimate ranking may yet fluctuate. However, I think it's safe he isn't going anywhere but up in the rankings. Pronger was just named the newest captain of the Philadelphia Flyers following the trade of Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings, and after an injury-plagued 2010-11 campaign, he's no doubt anxious to get back to dominating on the ice like he's done his whole career.
Pronger has made a significant impact wherever he's gone. In 2000 he became the first defenseman since Bobby Orr in 1972 to take home the Hart Trophy, and added the Norris for good measure. In 2006 he helped lead the Edmonton Oilers to game 7 the Stanley Cup Finals, and in 2007 he did one better, leading the Ducks to Stanley Cup glory. In 2010 he helped the Flyers reach the cup final, and if he can remain healthy this year they have a very good shot at returning there in the spring of 2012.
Though known mainly for his imposing physical presence and his mean streak, Pronger is also a big offensive threat. To date he has racked up 156 goals and 686 points and consistently scores 50+ points season in and season out.
16 - Brad Park
Though his lone NHL award was the 1983-84 Bill Masterston Memorial Trophy, don't let that fool you into thinking that Brad Park wasn't one of the best defensemen of his era. Yes, there is a noted lack of Norris Trophies on his mantle, but before you go judging remember that this guy played at a time when a couple of guys by the name of Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin were in their respective primes. Park finished as runner-up for the Norris 6 times! Sucks to be him 🙂 Think that's bad? Park played in the playoffs each and every one of his 17 NHL seasons and never won the Stanley Cup.
Park's lack of Stanley Cup success was no fault of his own. Over his career he amassed 213 goals and 896 points in just 1,113 NHL regular season games and added another 125 playoff points for good measure. He did at least have one bit of good fortune in his career. In 1988 he was rightfully inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
15 - Al MacInnis
When people remember Al MacInnis as a player the first thing that comes to mind is his booming slapshot. Yes, he had a cannon from the point, but MacInnis was far from a one-trick pony. He was the quarterback of the lethal Calgary Flames powerplay of the 1980s. He was a master of faking his dreaded shot, then sliding a down low pass to a teammate for an easy tap-in. He was not only an offensive force. He played equally well in his own end and played with plenty of sandpaper when angered.
MacInnis is one of just a handful of NHL defensemen to ever have a 100 point season, scoring 103 in 1990-91 and his 31 points during the Flames' 1989 Stanley Cup championship run are the third most in history behind only Paul Coffey's 37 in 1985 and Brian Leetch's 34 in 1994. MacInnis deservedly won the Conn Smythe that year for his efforts.
Though his greatest offensive achievements came while with the Flames, MacInnis actually won his only Norris Trophy while with the St. Louis Blues. He landed the award in 1998-99 at age 35, after putting up a 20 goal, 62 point, +33 season. In all MacInnis finished his career with 340 goals and 1,274 points, ranking him third all time in scoring by a defenseman.
14 - Scott Stevens
Perhaps the most crushing hitter the game has ever seen, Scott Stevens could make an impact on a game in a very literal sense. Stevens was famous for targeting forwards cutting across the middle with their heads down, and he didn't care if you were a 4th line grinder or a superstar if he got you in his sights. His victims included Paul Kariya, Ron Francis, and most famously, Eric Lindros, whose career he derailed after a crushing hit in the 2003 NHL playoffs.
Though best known as a body-checker, Stevens was also one of the greatest leaders in the game during his time, captaining the Devils to three Stanley Cups over his career. Though his numbers would dwindle later in his career, during the first half he was actually one of the league's biggest offensive threats from the back end, scoring 70+ points on two occasions.
13 - Pierre Pilote
Of every defenseman in NHL history, Pilote is one of just four to win the Norris Trophy three straight times. The others? Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey and Nicklas Lidstrom. Not exactly poor company. He also finished as the runner-up on three more occasions. In 1961 he led the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cup glory. Amazingly he led the team in scoring. Unbelievable considering this was a roster that featured legends Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. In all, Pilote finished with 80 goals and 498 points and played in 8 All Star games in his amazing career.
12 - Red Kelly
First of all, let me qualify this by saying that Red Kelly would have finished even higher up this list had he spent his entire career as a defenseman. He was a standout on the blueline for the Detroit Red Wings, winning the inaugural Norris Trophy in 1954. His offensive acumen and his versatility allowed Kelly to seamlessly make the switch to forward when called upon, and though the Red Wings used him sparingly in that role, when he moved to Toronto to join the Maple Leafs he spent the bulk of his time there at the forward position.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Kelly's ability was his success. In all he won 8 Stanley Cups, more than any other player in NHL history that didn't play for the Montreal Canadiens.
11 - Brian Leetch
Geez, what does a guy have to do to crack the top 10 these days anyways? Though some would give the recently retired Mike Modano the title of greatest American-born hockey player of all time, in my mind that distinction belongs to Mr. Leetch. He was an absolute wizard at rushing the puck, and always seemed to be able to find an escape route even when double or triple-teamed. His greatest moment came in the Rangers' 1994 playoff run when Leetch led all playoff scorers with 34 points. Though many people credit Mark Messier for the Rangers finally ending their 54 year championship drought, most forget that it was Leetch, not Messier, who won the Conn Smythe that year.
Leetch racked up 1,028 points from the back end during his time with the Rangers and brief stints with the Boston Bruins and Maple Leafs at the tail end of his career. Along with his Conn Smythe Trophy he also won the Calder as Rookie of the Year and two Norris Trophies for good measure.
10 - Tim Horton
It's not all about offensive stats on this list of best defenseman. Sometimes it's your ability to crack ribs with the strength of your arms that gets you there 🙂 That's not to say that Horton wasn't offensively gifted. He put up a very respectable 518 points over his career in an era when d-men didn't have much involvement in the offense. However, it was his fearsome physical play that made other players dread lining up against him. Horton played for 24 seasons in the NHL, most with the Toronto Maple Leafs, before finishing out his career with brief stops in New York, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. He never won a Norris Trophy but did appear in 7 All Star games, and most importantly helped the Leafs win 4 Stanley Cups, including their most recent in 1967.
9 - Chris Chelios
Younger hockey fans might be scratching their heads, wondering what Chelios is doing on this list. That old dude who used to play for the Red Wings? Well, before Chelios was playing the "veteran leadership" role in Detroit he was winning Norris Trophies and punishing opponents both physically and on the score board while a member of the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks.
Though he only retired back in 2009-10, Chelios was actually drafted by the Habs way back in 1981. He didn't suit up for a full season with the club until 1984-85, but immediately proved his worth, racking up 64 points that year. Over the next several seasons he was a steady point producer, all the while cultivating a reputation as one of the league's most vicious players. This combination of skill and toughness made him a nightmare to play against, and Chelios was recognized for his dominance as he won three Norris Trophies between 1989 and 1996.
Chelios finished his incredible career having played more Stanley Cup playoff games than anyone in NHL history, winning three Stanley Cups along the way, and scoring 948 regular season points.
8 - Larry Robinson
As great as Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe were, it was this "Big Bird" that was the linchpin of the Habs' defense of the 1970s. Robinson was almost as adept as Bobby Orr at rushing the puck up the ice and when angered he could punish his opponents physically like few players before or since.
In the 1976-77 season Robinson had a season for the ages. That year he finished with 19 goals and 85 points and had a mind-numbing +120 plus/minus rating. Robinson went on to win his first of two Norris Trophies following that year.
In all, Robinson would win 6 Stanley Cup championships over his career, earning a Conn Smythe in 1978, finish with 208 goals and 958 points and an NHL record +730 career plus/minus rating. He reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in every one of his 20 NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings, and appeared in 10 All Star games.
7 - Paul Coffey
Remember I said that list was not all about offensive stats? Well, that was true, but 396 goals 1,531 career points simply cannot be ignored. Yes, the role of a defenseman is to play defense, and that was never Coffey's strongest suit, however his amazing offensive ability alone pushes him up to #7 on this list.
For those who would argue that Coffey's offensive totals are inflated due to the great stars he played with I would suggest they don't have a clear recollection of watching the Edmonton Oilers back in their heyday. It was Coffey, not Gretzky or Messier who jumpstarted that vaunted Oilers' offense. Coffey would grab the puck behind his own net, then, seemingly without effort, skate past the entire opposing team before dishing the puck off at the last minute to a teammate for an easy tap-in. Much like Bobby Orr was in the 70s, Coffey was all but untouchable when skating at full speed with the puck.
In 1985-86 Coffey did the unthinkable, breaking Bobby Orr's record for goals in a single season by a defenseman (46) when he notched 48. He also fell just one point shy of Orr's record for points, finishing with 138 that year. That season was just one of five times that Coffey had over 100 points.
Though best remembered as an Oiler Coffey was also a key member of other franchises as well, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom he won a Stanley Cup with in 1991. In all he finished with 4 Stanley Cup rings, 3 Norris Trophies and played in an amazing 14 All Star games.
6 - Denis Potvin
Rangers' fans are going to hate seeing this guy's name 5 spots higher than Brian Leetch's. Sorry, but Potvin was better. Not only was he an offensive weapon, but he was also stellar in his own end, and wasn't shy about throwing his weight around either (just ask Ulf Nilsson). Though Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith and Butch Goring were all key cogs of the powerful Islanders' dynasty that won 4 straight cups in the early 80s, it was Potvin that was the straw that stirred the drink in New York, and his ability to control the game from the back end made him an invaluable asset to his team during those championship years.
Over his career, Potvin won the Calder Trophy, 3 Norris Trophies, played in 9 All Star games and was the first defenseman in NHL history to eclipse the 300 goal and 1,000 point marks.
5 - Eddie Shore
Old time hockey! Just like Eddie Shore! That quote from the classic hockey movie Slap Shot is a fitting tribute to a player who was one of the most dominant of his era. Shore laced up the skates for the Boston Bruins way back in the 1920s and 1930s. There was no Norris Trophy back then, but Shore just made up for that by winning the Hart Trophy 4 times, more than any other defenseman in NHL history, including Bobby Orr!
Shore went on to win 2 Stanley Cups with the Bruins, and though his 105 goals and 284 points in 550 career games might seem paltry by today's standards they were actually a very impressive total back in the day.
4 - Ray Bourque
More career goals (410) and points (1,579) than Paul Coffey (or any other NHL defenseman for that matter), Ray Bourque also had the defensive ability to place him three spots ahead of the smooth-skating former Oilers star. Though Bourque didn't have the jaw-dropping offensive years that Coffey did, he did put up big numbers and consistently for many years. He never had a 100 point season but he did have over 80 on nine separate occasions, notching a career-best 96 in 1983-84.
Bourque won a Calder Trophy and five Norris Trophies with the Boston Bruins, but he couldn't capture the prize that he ultimately wanted: the Stanley Cup, despite reaching the finals twice with the Bruins. In 2001, he finally added that big silver cup to his already impressive resume, winning it all with the Colorado Avalanche, and then promptly retiring from the game.
3 - Doug Harvey
Before Bobby Orr came along there was no debate who the greatest NHL defenseman of all time was. Doug Harvey was a standout for the Montreal Canadiens during the 1940s and 1950s, and was a key reason that team won five straight Stanley Cups during the late 1950s. Over his career he won a total of six Stanley Cups with the Habs, and won seven Norris Trophies, an NHL record that has since been eclipsed by only Bobby Orr. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 540 points, and played in 13 All Star games, including 12 straight between 1951 and 1962.
2 - Nicklas Lidstrom
A couple of years ago when I wrote my list of the 50 Greatest Hockey Players of All Time I actually had Harvey ranked ahead of Lidstrom, but Lidstrom, though in the twilight of his career, has continued to dominate the game like a player 15 years his junior. In 2011, at the ripe old age of 41, Lidstrom was awarded his seventh career Norris Trophy, tying him with Doug Harvey and putting him just one behind Bobby Orr for most all time. You'd think the odds of him winning a second straight Norris to tie Orr would be ridiculously long, but I've stopped betting against Nicklas Lidstrom.
If ever a hockey player was a Swiss watch it is Nick Lidstrom. He just keeps working smoothly with unerring precision year after year. It is truly amazing. Among his contemporaries perhaps only Teemu Selanne, the ageless Finnish forward, can come close to comparing.
In addition to his seven Norris Trophies, Lidstrom also has a Conn Smythe, four Stanley Cup rings and 1,108 points. He has committed to at least one more season with the Red Wings, so don't close the book on this guy's amazing career just yet.
1 - Bobby Orr
If Lidstrom continues to play at his current level for another decade then we can maybe open the debate on who the greatest defenseman of all time is. Until that happens (not gonna) this is an open and shut case. Not only is Orr the best blueliner to ever play the game, he is arguably the best player period. High praise indeed considering the numbers Wayne Gretzky - his main competition for that title - put up during his career.
Orr's dominant position as the NHL's best d-man would be even harder to surmount had he had the benefit of a long, healthy career. Orr played only 657 games, most of those on bad knees, yet still managed to make a huge impact in his relatively short time in the league. Over that span he won a record eight Norris Trophies, led the Bruins to two Stanley Cups, winning the Conn Smythe and scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in both those years. He twice won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, though not in the year he set the NHL record for most points in a single season by a defenseman. His +124 plus/minus rating in 1970-71 remains an NHL record 40 years later. He finished his career with a points per game average of just under 1.4, ranking him 4th behind just Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy. There is so much more I could say about him, but you get the point. Bobby Orr was the best NHL defenseman of all time.