With the recent record breaking streak for goals in consecutive games by a defenseman put together by young Washington Capitals phenom Mike Green I thought it would be interesting to look back over the history of NHL hockey and make a list of the top 10 offensive defenseman to ever play the game.
Mike Green’s style of play is a breath of fresh air after a decade where the roving offensive defenseman, such an integral part of the offensive firewagon brand of hockey that was prevalent in the 80s, quietly faded away as teams concentrated on playing strict trapping systems. Hopefully with the success the Washington Capitals have enjoyed, due in large part to their roving rearguard’s penchant for jumping into the rush, we will see a return of the so-called offensive defenseman. Forget about smaller goalie equipment and bigger nets. If fans want to see more goals in the game, and more excitement in general then these riverboat gamblers need to return in numbers.
So, while there can be little question who is the best offensive defenseman in the NHL right now, there can definitely be some debate on who have been the greatest offensive d-men throughout the history of the league. I’ve compiled my own top 10 list. Read on to see if you agree with the selections I’ve made.
10 – Pierre Pilote – Wow, the number 10 pick was the toughest of all. There were some great offensive defensemen left off the list, including Phil Housley, King Clancy, Larry Robinson, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Brad Park, but ultimately I believe that Pierre Pilote manages to barely edge out this group and squeak into the top 10. This 3 time Norris trophy winning defenseman played all but one season for the Chicago Blackhawks, and racked up 80 goals and 498 points in just 890 NHL games. Though those numbers might pale in comparison to others on this list, Pilote played in an era Where defensemen rarely appeared on the score sheet. Pilote was the exception, leading the league in scoring by a defenseman on 5 separate occasions. He was even more prolific in the playoffs, scoring 61 points in only 86 career playoff tilts.
9 – Al MacInnis – Known for his booming slapshot Al MacInnis was as feared by NHL goaltenders as any player to ever pick up a hockey stick. During his playing days in Calgary MacInnis quarterbacked his team’s powerplay, and his vaunted slapshot was so respected by opposition penalty killers that they overplayed the point shot, allowing the Flames to feast on defenders and goalies down low. MacInnis compiled a staggering 340 goals and 1,274 points in only 1,416 games during his time with the Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues. He added 160 playoff points for good measure, including 31 points in the Flames 1989 Stanley Cup run, a total that saw him carry home the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP that year. Yes, guys like Al Iafrate and Zdeno Chara may have since recorded harder slapshots than MacInnis, but goalies will tell you the guy known as Chopper will be the one who lives on in their nightmares.
8 – Brian Leetch – Another defenseman on this list with a Conn Smythe trophy to his credit (to go along with 2 Norris Trophies, and a Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie), Brian Leetch, even more than Mark Messier, was the main reason the New York Rangers captured the 1994 Stanley Cup, ending that team’s dreadful 54 year drought. Brian Leetch, at his peak, controlled the play from the back end like no player since Bobby Orr, and his incredible vision on the ice and his uncanny passing ability gave opposing defenders fits, and gave teammates many easy tap-in goals throughout the years. Leetch tallied 1,028 points during his career, and though he had abbreviated stints for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins to finish out his career Leetch will always be remembered as a Ranger.
7 – Denis Potvin – As good as Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith were for the incredible dynasty that was the New York Islanders in the early 80s, this 4 time Stanley Cup champion and 3 time Norris Trophy winner was arguably the linchpin of the team during those dominant years. Potvin controlled the game from the back end, and guys like Bossy and Trottier enjoyed the success they had because of Potvin’s ability to make the first pass which was so key in the Islanders’ devastating transition game. Potvin averaged nearly a point a game in his NHL career, with 1,052 in 1,060 games, and opposing forwards will tell you that Potvin was no fun to play against, as his 1,356 career PIMs will tell you. However, more than the points and the Stanley Cup rings, the truest tribute to the impact Denis Potvin had over his NHL career is the fact that to this day the chant “Potvin Sucks!” is still regularly heard in Madison Square Garden, home of of the Islanders’ arch-nemesis, the New York Rangers.
6 – Doug Harvey – Though this 7 time Norris Trophy winning defenseman would certainly come in higher on a list of the top 10 NHL defensemen of all time I think in terms of pure offensive ability he only merits the number 6 spot. Harvey was the number one d-man on the legendary Habs teams of the 50s that won 5 consecutive Stanley Cups. His incredible skating speed, passing, and stick-handling made this revolutionary player just as dangerous as Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau or Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. Harvey won 6 Stanley Cups during his time with the Canadiens, amassing 540 regular season points, and an additional 72 playoff points during that time.
5 – Ray Bourque – It is only fair that the guy who is the all-time leader in career points by a defenseman should have a high spot on the list of the top 10 offensive defensemen in NHL history. Between 1979 and 2001 this versatile rearguard racked up a whopping 1,579 points, and averaged a point per game or better in 14 seasons. Talk about consistency! Bourque won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year following the 1979-80 campaign, and was awarded the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman 5 times over his career. He spent all but 2 seasons as a member of the Boston Bruins, and twice helped that team reach the Stanley Cup finals (1988 & 1990) only to bow out to the powerful Edmonton Oilers. However, Bourque would eventually capture the Stanley Cup glory he desired so strongly, hoisting the silver chalice as a member of the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche.
4 – Eddie Shore – No team in NHL history has been blessed with as many great defensemen as the Boston Bruins. Shore is the 2nd Bruins’ defenseman (3rd if you count Leetch) to grace this list (and you know he won’t be the last). Shore was one of hockey’s most dominant players at any position in the 1920s and 30s, and his 4 Hart trophy wins are the most in NHL history for a defenseman. Though Shore’s 284 career NHL points certainly can’t stack up against Bourque’s 1,579, Shore played in a far different era where defensemen almost never scored goals, and his 5 consecutive seasons reaching double figures in goals in that era are as impressive as any offensive stats put up by d-men in the free wheeling 80s.
3 – Red Kelly – Though many hockey historians might have Harvey or Shore ahead of Kelly on the list of the best offensive defensemen of all time if you look at the numbers you will see that Kelly trumps both of these guys, and should be considered the greatest offensive defenseman of the “old school” era. Kelly, along with legends like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, helped make the Detroit Red Wings a dynasty in the early 50s. After angering Detroit GM Jack Adams Kelly was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs where he showed his incredible versatility by becoming a star center for the team. Over his career Kelly compiled 823 points. Many of them may have been scored from the center position, but few can dispute this guy was one of the greatest offensive defensemen to ever pick up a hockey stick.
2 – Paul Coffey – 2nd only to Ray Bourque on the list of the highest scoring NHL defensemen of all time this guy makes Mike Green look like Rick Green when it comes to roving around the ice. Arguably the greatest skater in hockey history, Coffey blew past opposing players with effortless grace, and his breathtaking rushes resulted in highlight reel goals on most nights the Oilers played in the 80s. Coffey put up staggering single season numbers with the high-flying Oilers teams of the 80s, including the 1985-86 season when he scored an NHL record (for defensemen) 48 goals and his 138 points that season left him only one shy of Bobby Orr’s single season record for points by a defenseman. After winning 3 Stanley Cups with the Oilers, Coffey would go on to win 2 more with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. After that he became something of a suitcase, spending time with the L.A. Kings, Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Carolina Hurricanes, and Boston Bruins. Though he would never recapture that same offensive magic he brought to the Oilers few can dispute that in his prime this 3 time Norris Trophy winner was as electrifying as any player to ever play the game.
1 – Bobby Orr – Despite Coffey’s incredible offensive ability this one was still a landslide. Guys like Eddie Shore, Red Kelly and Doug Harvey might have been pioneers as offensive defenseman it was Bobby Orr who turned the hockey world on its ear with his offensive dominance from the position. No player, before or since, has owned the puck like Orr did. Not even Wayne Gretzky, considered by most as the greatest player in NHL history, dominated his peers like Orr could in his prime. He looked like a man playing against boys many nights, and many of his goals and assists looked completely effortless. Over his Hall of Fame career Orr captured the Norris Trophy an NHL record 8 times, the Hart Trophy 3 times, and the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer twice! He won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins, and the picture of him flying through the air as he scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in 1970 is arguably the most famous image in hockey history. Sadly, this incredible athlete’s career was cut short because of ongoing knee problems, and there can be no doubt that if he had enjoyed a long, healthy career players like Bourque and Coffey would trail Orr in all offensive statistical categories.
There you have it, my list of the top 10 offensive NHL defensemen of all time. Disagree? Leave your own top 10 list in comments.
Check out Hockey Hermit’s previous Top Ten Hockey Lists