Though goaltending is often considered the cornerstone of every great hockey team, it’s often said the best offense is a good defense. And if you can find a franchise blue liner, the one that so many GMs covet and so many teams need, to go along with a franchise goaltender, then your team is built for success. Just look at the past three Stanley Cup winning teams. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Zeno Chara. While goaltending is integral to a team’s shot at the cup, a star defenseman is as important, if not even more so. While there have been countless star defensemen to patrol the blue line in the NHL over the years, the ten on this list either paved the way for future generations, changed the game, were the best of their era, or in some cases managed to be all three.
10. Borje Salming
Perhaps a surprise to make the top ten list, Salming was a great defenseman but more so an important trailblazer for European-born hockey players. One of the first European players to make the leap across the pond and have a very successful career in the NHL, Sweden’s Borje Salming played for both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings during his 17-year NHL career which began during the 1973-74 season. Playing 16 of his 17 years in Toronto, Salming became a force on the Maple Leafs’ blue line proving his toughness and durability while also showcasing his offensive talent. During his career with the Leafs Salming was an All-Star six times. During his entire career, Borje Salming played 1148 games amassing 787 points in the regular season and a further 49 points in 81 playoff games. Salming was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
9. Brian Leetch
Another trail blazing defenseman of sorts, Brian Leetch is considered, and easily so, the greatest American-born defenseman of all time. Not only that, the two-time Norris Trophy winner is also one of the greatest American-born hockey players of all time, period. Though compatriot Phil Housley scored more points as a player, Leetch had more impact during his career. A renowned play maker known for his impeccable skating ability, Leetch was a New York Ranger for 16-an-a-half of his 17 seasons before a trade deadline deal to the Leafs during the 2003-04 season and a final season with the Bruins. It was as a Ranger where Leetch shined, with the legendary Mark Messier calling Leetch the greatest Ranger of all time, and rightfully so. Along with his two Norris trophies, Leetch also won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1989 and, most importantly, won the Conn Smythe Trophy following the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup victory. During his career, Leetch appeared in 1,205 games scoring 1,028 points, with 97 points in 95 playoff games. Leetch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
8. Scott Niedermayer
Scott Niedermayer is universally recognized on every top 20 or 30 list concerning defensemen as one of the greatest of all time. Top ten lists tend to avoid him, however. Maybe it’s controversial, maybe it’s bold, but it just seems downright obvious that the former New Jersey Devil and Anaheim Duck be included among the ten greatest blue liners to ever play the game. Niedermayer ranks higher than Brian Leetch for two reasons: he was arguably a better puck mover and skater, and although he finished his career with less points, he also played the majority of his career within the stifling, defense first system of the Devils. Imagine Niedermayer on a team like Detroit or Pittsburgh during his career. It’s remarkable he managed to put up nearly 800 points in the 1,263 games he played; Anaheim wasn’t a particularly offensive-minded team under Randy Carlyle either. Furthermore, beyond a Norris Trophy win in 2004 and a Conne Smythe Trophy in 2007, Niedermayer is the only player in history to win every major championship a Canadian-born player can win. During his career Niedermayer won a junior gold medal, a world championship, a world cup of hockey title, two Olympic gold medals and four Stanley Cups, making him the winningest player in Canadian hockey history. Scott Niedermayer was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
7. Doug Harvey
A defenseman from a bygone era, nevertheless, Doug Harvey not only helped shape the way the position is played, but he also played an instrumental role in helping establish a players’ union in order to protect the rights and welfare of NHL players who, during the 1950s were severely underpaid based on team revenue and had no recourse to air their grievances. It was on the ice where Harvey shone, however, winning a total of seven Norris Trophies and six Stanley Cups during his career, predominantly as a part of the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the 1950s. Harvey essentially invented the offensive defenseman by utilizing his skating ability and puck possession skill to transform the defenseman into a lethal part of a team’s offense. Every other defenseman in this list owes at least a bit of their career to Doug Harvey’s innovation on the blue line.
Harvey was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.
6. Denis Potvin
Denis Potvin scored at a nearly point-per-game pace during his illustrious 15-year career with the New York Islanders. An extremely gifted offensive defenseman, Potvin was also very reliable in his own end, equally as skilled without the puck as he was with it. Potvin played the game with an edge, recording 1,356 penalty minutes during his career. In fact, Potvin was a very physical defender which ultimately made him an archetype, along with Larry Robinson, for the modern day Rob Blake, Chris Pronger and Shea Weber-type player. Potvin made an impact in the NHL immediately. His first NHL season in 1973-74 saw Potvin win the Calder Trophy as the Rookie of the Year, and he went on to win the Norris Trophy three times before the end of the 1970s. Following his last Norris win, Potvin played a major role in the New York Islanders dynasty that won four Stanley Cups in a row in the early 1980s. Though injuries forced Denis Potvin to retire at the age of 35 in 1988, he was the NHL’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen at the time. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.
5. Paul Coffey
During his 20-year career Paul Coffey managed to break and maintain 11 records set by a defenseman. Originally a first round draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers, Coffey was the most mobile and offensively dominant defenseman of his era, as evidenced by him not only becoming the second, and fastest, defenseman to reach 1,000 points in 1990, but also by the highest-scoring defenseman of all time in 1992, nine years before he retired. Coffey is also a four-time Stanley Cup champion, wining the title three times with the Oliers, and once more with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a three-time Norris Trophy winner. Well over a point-per-game player, Coffey was often times thought of as a fourth forward on the ice due to his skating and ability to create offense by jumping up into the rush. Coffey was the second leading scorer of all time amongst defensemen, and the 13th leading scorer in NHL history. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005.
4. Larry Robinson
Six-time Stanley Cup champion Larry Robinson did most of his damage as a player patrolling the Montreal Canadiens’ blue line, and along with Doug Harvey is considered one of the greatest Canadiens ever. Scoring 958 points during his 2o-year career, 17 of those with Montreal and the final three with the Los Angeles Kings, Robinson never once missed the playoffs. At 6’4’’ and 225 pounds, Robinson was much like the quintessential modern day defenseman, a big bodied, physical player who was also highly mobile and offensively minded. Along with his six Stanley Cup wins, Robinson won the Norris Trophy twice, and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1978. Though his entire career was impressive, perhaps the most shocking statistic Larry Robinson retired with was his career plus/minus rating of +730, an NHL record to this day. Robinson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.
3. Bobby Orr
Most lists regarding greatest defensemen place Bobby Orr at number one, and the argument for doing so is extremely compelling. At the same time, Orr, perhaps more than any other player save Wayne Gretzky, has been mythologized to such an extent that he has become the de facto greatest defenseman of all time, regardless of whether stats and facts backs up such a claim. There is no doubt, Bobby Orr is one of the greatest hockey players to ever live, and furthermore, Orr solidified the offensive defenseman as an integral component of a hockey team. The difference between Orr and the remaining two defensemen on this list is that their careers were in an era where hockey was a tougher game to play; the players were bigger and faster, more used to the offensive defenseman, and, most importantly, the goalies were much, much more skilled.
That said, to a point, Orr could very well be tied for number one on this list; the man was an incredible hockey player who won the Norris Trophy a record eight times, the Conn Smythe trophy twice, the Calder Trophy, the Hart Trophy three times, and remains the only defenseman to ever win the league scoring title, winning the Art Ross Trophy twice. Orr also won two Stanley Cups. Furthermore, in only 12 seasons, the last three cut short by injuries, Orr recorded 915 points in a mere 657 games. If not for recurring knee injuries, Orr could very well have played another ten years, and then there likely wouldn’t be any debate who number one on this list would be.
2. Ray Bourque
Like the defenseman before him, and the one following him on this list, a case can be made for Ray Bourque being considered the greatest defenseman of all time. In his 23-year career, 21 of which he spent with the Boston Bruins, Bourque established himself as one of the most reliable, and complete defensemen to ever play the game. Bourque won the Calder Trophy in his rookie season as a Bruin and never looked back, becoming one of the most consistent defenders of all time. He is the all-time leader among defensemen in points and goals, as well as the NHL’s all-time leader in shots on goal. A five-time Norris Trophy winner, Ray Bourque is 11th overall in total points by an NHL player as well, proving his offensive prowess, while his overall plus/minus is third among defensemen, behind only Larry Robinson and Bobby Orr. Though Bourque never won a Stanley Cup in Boston, he finally realized his goal of a championship in his final NHL game, a game seven Stanley Cup victory as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. Ray Bourque was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.
1. Nicklas Lidstrom
The first European-born captain to lead his team to a Stanley Cup title, while there may be some debate about Nicklas Lidstrom topping this list, there really shouldn’t be. The most consistent defensemen of all time, at both ends of the ice, Lidstrom never missed the playoffs during his entire 20-year career, all with the Detroit Red Wings. Seemingly incapable of making a poor play, Lidstrom won the Norris Trophy seven times, second only to Bobby Orr, who played in a league with less teams and far less defensive competition. Furthermore, Lidstrom was also the first European-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy following Detroit’s Stanley Cup title in 2002. He is also a member of the Triple Gold Club, playing a major role in Sweden’s Olympic victory in 2006.
If most General Managers were asked to pick one defensemen to build a team around, Lidstrom would be the obvious choice. As incredible as he was in his own end, he was as prolific offensively, tallying a career total of 1,142 points in 1,564 games. If not for an entire season lost to a lock out, Lidstrom would have most definitely improved upon his career totals, and may well have won an eighth Norris Trophy in the process. While every one of the defensemen on this list were spectacular hockey players, and Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque in particular may be others first choice for greatest defencemen of all time, Nicklas Lidstrom gets the nod here due to the level of competition he faced, and his level of success in the era in which he played.