Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who is the Best Defenseman of Our Time?

With the career of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom coming to an end in the next season or two, the debate has begun about his place in hockey history. Hundreds of hockey pundits have weighed in on the question and in general it appears that Bobby Orr is untouchable. It's nearly impossible to refute Orr's status as the best defenseman in hockey history: the statistics, the trophies, the legendary goals. The photo of Bobby Orr scoring and soaring is iconic and arguably the greatest photograph of hockey history.

So let's put the debate to rest. Bobby Orr is the best. He even deserves consideration for the best player of all time.

This leaves dozens of great blueliners who have changed the game on the cutting room floor. Perhaps it is unfair for us to compare a player like Orr to someone like Al MacInnis or Nick Lidstrom or Ray Bourque, who played in a different era and played a different style. In order to give proper credit to these "Modern Age" defensemen, we need to ask the question differently: who is the best defenseman since Bobby Orr?

The question is posed with the caveat that Orr was the best defenseman in all of the years he played and before him. There is something to be said about the Red Kellys, Eddie Shores, and Doug Harveys of the earlier years, but this is another blog post to be written by someone who saw those players play and is more qualified to judge their play in relation to Orr or any other player of that time.

For now, we'll say the "Modern Age" of the NHL is the 1979-1980 season. This is a nice, round season that not only saw the likes of Ray Bourque, Wayne Gretzky, and Mike Gartner join the league, but also saw the WHA merge with the NHL. As a result, the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, New England (later Hartford) Whalers, and Quebec Nordiques joined the NHL. Finally, it also marked the first season where helmets were a mandatory piece of equipment. Hard to believe in today's concussion filled discussions that players like Harvey, Kelly, Orr, and more could have played without a helmet.

Since the 1979-1980 season, fifteen players have won the James Norris Memorial Trophy, handed out to the best defenseman in the NHL. Of those fifteen players, Rod Langway, Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, and Nick Lidstrom have won more than one trophy. Of these six players, only Ray Bourque and Nicklas Lidstrom have won more than three. Finally, Nicklas Lidstrom currently has six trophies, with a potential seventh coming in the current 2010-2011 season.

If the title of "best defenseman of our time" was to be delivered based on individual trophies alone, Nicklas Lidstrom would be king.

But that would be too easy and no fun. And it discounts the efforts of defenseman who won less trophies than he has, including players who didn't win a Norris but were still outstanding. Furthermore, there's the Dennis Potvin problem; he won all of his Norris trophies while Orr was still playing. He went on to win four Stanley Cups with the Islanders from 1979-80 until they were finally toppled in 1983-84 by an Edmonton Oiler team filled with Hall of Famers.

So, shall we explore the statistical avenue of judging defensemen? The conversation gets even more muddled when statistics are included because some defensemen are scorers, some are physical, some are geniuses in their own end. Nonetheless, here's a simplistic look at the top ten scoring defensemen since 1979-1980 (not including this season's numbers):

Name Games Played Goals Assists Points Playoff Games Playoff Goals Playoff Assists Playoff Points
R. Bourque 1612 410 1169 1579 214 41 139 180
P. Coffey 1409 396 1135 1531 194 59 137 196
A. MacInnis 1416 340 934 1274 177 39 121 160
P. Housely 1495 338 894 1232 85 13 43 56
L. Murphy 1615 287 929 1216 215 37 115 152
D. Potvin 1060 310 742 1052 185 56 108 164
N. Lidstrom 1412 237 809 1046 247 50 125 175
B. Leetch 1205 247 781 1028 95 28 69 97
L. Robinson 1384 208 750 958 227 28 116 144
C. Chelios 1651 185 763 948 268 31 113 144

Whew, those are incredible statistics. Again there must be a caveat that Potvin and Robinson's totals include seasons before 1979-80, but both played beyond that point and both outscored Orr in their careers. It's interesting to note that playoff points tell a story on their own, especially in the case of Housley and Leetch. Interestingly, neither Murphy or Housley won the Norris in their careers, and Housley is the only player on the list who never won a Stanley Cup.

So how does this help us measure who is the best? The truth is, statistics tell a big part of the story when it comes to the careers of these defensemen. However, it isn't the whole story. Scoring is great, but individual accolades must be taken into consideration as well. Let's establish a scoring system of our own.
First place in regular season scoring gets 10 points, with second getting 9 points, and so on. First place in playoff scoring gets 10 points, second gets 9, and so on. A Stanley Cup, while an amazing accomplishment, warrants a single point. A Conn Smythe Trophy, handed out to the NHL's most valuable player in the playoffs, deserves 10 points because it is remarkably more difficult to win than most other NHL trophies. The Norris Trophy, handed out to the league's best defenseman, deserves 5 points. A Hart Trophy deserves 10 points. All other trophies, including Olympic gold, deserve 2 points. We're not going to get into Hall of Fame status because, arguably, everyone who lands in the top ten on this list will be a Hall of Famer. Att Star Team status is also something that can be discounted because they're all going to be multi-time All Star team members, and that's too many additional calculations to make. This leads us to the following scores for NHL defensemen since 1979-80:

Final Standings:

Nicklas Lidstrom: 58
Ray Bourque: 51
Paul Coffey: 38
Chris Pronger: 36
Larry Robinson: 32
Dennis Potvin: 32
Al MacInnis: 32
Brian Leetch: 31
Chris Chelios: 28
Scott Stevens: 16
Larry Murphy: 15
Phil Housley: 8

Interestingly, despite not making the top 10 in offensive stats, Chris Pronger and Scott Stevens fare relatively well. Murphy and Housley, on the other hand, do not. Rod Langway's two Norrises alone would place him ahead of Housley! There is a bit of a logjam at 32 points, good for 5th on the list, between Robinson, Potvin, and MacInnis. If anyone is interested in seeing where all of the points come from in detail, feel free to leave a comment and I'll post them. Trust me when I say it took hours to compile the data.

So this leaves us with Nicklas Lidstrom winning the title of "best defenseman of our time" according to the scoring system. Ray Bourque is a respectable 2nd, with Paul Coffey in distant 3rd. It could be argued that this system punishes non trophy winners, which is true, but it also rewards scoring defensemen like Housley and Murphy.

Where do you fall on the "best defenseman of our time" argument? Personally, I believe Lidstrom, Bourque, and Potvin come 1-2-3. Let the debate continue!

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