The Best Defenseman in the Game
Quick! Who was the best NHL defenseman ever? As far as I’m concerned there are 4 candidates who dominated in 4 different eras using 4 different styles. Three are Hall of Famers. The fourth will make it in his first year of eligibility, for sure.
Eddie Shore put hockey on the map in the US when he joined the Boston Bruins in the 1926-27 season, coming out of the Western Hockey League with the Regina Capitals and the Edmonton Eskimos, where he was known as the “Edmonton Express.” (Yes, there was pro hockey in Edmonton and Regina back then. The Patrick brothers league. And it was good hockey, too). In Beantown, Shore was a huge drawing card as the NHL’s first rushing defenseman. He scored at least 10 goals in his first 5 seasons (when the schedules were only 44 games), topped off with 15 goals in 1930-31. A First Team All Star 7 times, he won 4 Hart Trophies as the league’s MVP, still a record for defensemen. On 2 Stanley Cup teams, the ill-tempered Shore could play it rough, too, collecting 1,047 lifetime minutes in penalties in 550 games. He retired from playing in the spring of 1940 and was voted rather deservedly into the Hall of Fame 7 years later.
After a gap of nearly 10 years, Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens appeared with an easy, relaxing style that some believed bordered on being lazy. Far from it, though. It was only an illusion. At first the local Habs fans booed him, but after a few seasons they learned to appreciate him for how he got the job done. A smooth skater and excellent puck-handler, Harvey quarterbacked the killer Habs power play of the 1950s consisting of Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore, Bert Olmstead, and Tom Johnson. It was a power play performed so well that the rules were changed in 1957 to allow a penalized player back on the ice once his team was scored on. Before that the player had to stay off the ice for the full 2 minutes. (The epitome was Jean Beliveau scoring a Hat Trick during one single power play on the bewildered Terry Sawchuk). A superb all-around defenseman, Harvey could control the pace of the game all by himself once he had the puck cradled on his stick. He won the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman 7 out of 8 years, including back-to-back years with the Habs and the New York Rangers in 1961 and 1962. On 6 Stanley Cup winners in Montreal, including 5 in a row, he was considered a true master at his blueline craft. Red Wings Red Kelly was easily the second best defenseman in the same era, winning one James Norris.
Then…along came a youngster born and raised in Parry Sound, Ontario. The ultimate rushing defenseman, Bobby Orr scored 38 goals and 56 assists in 47 games his last year of junior for the OHA Oshawa Generals. The following spring, he turned pro with the Boston Bruins in 1966-67 at the age of 18, winning rookie-of-the-year honors, the youngest to do so. At the NHL awards dinner that spring, Rangers Harry Howell took the James Norris Trophy. At the podium, he informed the audience that it was a good thing he won that year because there was a kid in Boston who would own the Norris for years to come. The next season, Orr must have made quite an impression around the league because he played in only 46 games (missing a third of the season) and was still recognized enough to win the James Norris Trophy hands down. It was only the beginning. He went on to win another 7 straight awards at his position, proving Howell right. The graceful-skating Orr was the first defenseman to win a scoring championship when he collected 120 points in the Bruins Stanley Cup winning 1969-70 season. The same season, he made hockey history by winning 4 awards, the Hart, the James Norris, the Art Ross (top scorer), and the Conn Smythe (best playoff performer). No one else has won 4 since. The following year, in which his plus/minus reached a mind-boggling +124 (still the single- season record), he scored 37 goals and assisted on 102 others for 139 points, a points record for defensemen that also stands over 40 years later.
All told, he led the league in assists 4 times, scored 9 Hat Tricks, helped win 2 Stanley Cups, and wound up with 915 points in 657 regular-season games. His lifetime plus/minus stands at a staggering +597, second to Habs defenseman Larry Robinson and his even more staggering +730. Orr is the youngest player to be elected to the Hall of Fame, which he did in 1979 at the age of only 31, the same year he retired as a Chicago Blackhawk. According to many, he is the greatest all-around player to lace a pair of skates.
Ten years after Orr called it quits, a certain six-foot-one defenseman of Swedish nationality was drafted in the 3rd round, 53rd overall in 1989 by the Detroit Red Wings. Niklas Lidstrom was a gentleman of a defenseman who very seldom drifted out of position. He preferred to poke check and intercept passes, instead of nailing an opposing forward coming over the blue line with a stiff body check. The less rougher style of play worked in Lidstrom’s favor by lengthening his career to a good, solid 20 years in the NHL, where he won the James Norris 7 times, including 6 out of 7 years (3 in a row twice). In his last 14 seasons, he was nominated for the award on 12 occasions. His mere 514 minutes in penalties testifies to his clean play. At the age of 41 in 2011, he was still a standout, winning his last James Norris Trophy. One year earlier, he was the oldest player to record a Hat Trick. It was also his only Hat Trick. By the time he retired in 2012, he had scored 1,142 points (264 goals) in 1,564 games. A major contributor to 4 Red Wing Stanley Cups, he never missed a post season in his entire NHL career. He’s 10th on the all-time plus/minus list with +450. Note: plus/minus didn’t come into being until the 1967-68 season, leaving Shore and Harvey out of that stat race.
Interesting enough, it just so happened that three of these defensemen were involved in newsworthy scuffles in their careers, scuffles that show the darker side of the dog-eat-dog sport of hockey. First, in December, 1933, at Boston Garden, Eddie Shore hit Leafs forward Ace Bailey from behind hard enough to flip him into the air causing his head to smash to the ice. Leafs defenseman Red Horner skated over to Shore. With one punch, Horner cold-cocked Shore, who fell backwards, his head hitting the ice. Both Shore and Bailey were down, bleeding, unconscious, and taken off on stretchers. Shore recovered first. For the incident, he was suspended 16 games for his cheap shot, the longest NHL suspension up to that time. Horner received 6 games. Meanwhile, Bailey suffered a fractured skull and never played again.
In a 1956 game with the New York Rangers, Doug Harvey was flattened by a pesky forward named Red Sullivan, who had a bad habit of kicking skates from under opposing players, a very dangerous maneuver for anyone on the receiving end. Harvey decided that Sullivan had to be taught a lesson. The very next game the 2 teams met, Harvey took matters into his own hands by deliberately spearing Sullivan severely enough to send Sullivan to hospital with a ruptured spleen. With the Ranger player close to death, it’s reported that a Catholic priest was called in to administer last rites. After being out of action for 3 months, Sullivan came through it and continued to play until 1963. Unapologetic, Harvey was never even penalized for his stick work because the officials didn’t see him do anything.
In a 1969 playoff game at the Boston Garden between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs (2 teams with bad blood between them all season), Bobby Orr came out of his own end with the puck, his head down. Leafs young, tough-guy defenseman Pat Quinn stepped up and nailed Orr, smashing him to the ice and rendering him unconscious for several minutes. Quinn received a 5-minute major for elbowing. While in the penalty box, Bruins fans pelted him with beer and garbage, forcing the police to escort him to the Leafs locker room once he returned to the ice.
After putting this article together, I realized that the 4 candidates were born and raised in 4 different areas of the globe. Shore was from Saskatchewan, Harvey from Quebec, Orr from Ontario, and Lidstrom from Sweden.
So, who was the best defenseman ever? How much longer are we going to wait for the next great defenseman to rise above the rest and dominate the game? Is he going to be drafted this year or has he already been picked or is he far in the future? Can anybody be as good or better than Eddie Shore, Doug Harvey, Bobby Orr, Niklas Lidstrom, or Ray Bourque? By the way, I have to give Bruins Ray Bourque, another Quebecer, at least an honorable mention for his 5 James Norris awards and his +528, third on the all-time plus-minus list. Or what about the often-overlooked Larry Robinson (Ontario boy) with his +730, 2 Norris Trophies and one Conn Smythe?
Hmmm. Get’s ya thinking, don’t it?