Playing defense is a lot like playing bass in a band. Both positions appear boring at first. Forwards are like guitar players, scoring goals and playing flashy solos, at the front of the action. Goaltenders also get a lot of attention as they’re unique, have a cool mask and the game can ride on their shoulders.
They’re also thankless positions as fans rarely notice when defense or bass is played well, but it’s VERY noticeable when done poorly; tough gig.
But as you learn more about both, the true value of those positions becomes apparent. Anyone closely following the current NHL product is well aware of how good defensemen have become a precious commodity. The speed of the game and forecheck demand defenders who can either skate or pass the puck out of their end smoothly to initiate the transition. A quick glance at the last Stanley-Cup winning teams of the past 15 years will reveal a dominant top-pairing leading the team ‘forward’. The 2006-o7 Anaheim Ducks had the luxury of playing nearly the entire game with either Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer on the ice, not a big surprise they won the Stanley Cup that year.
With the salary cap rising slower than salaries, teams are struggling to ice the best lineup possible. Take a look around the league at the bottom defensive pairings and you’ll find rookies on their entry-level contracts and veterans on their last deal. Paying out the top-tier talent eats up such a large piece of the pie that only crumbs remain to fill out the last spots. While forward below the elite-level are finding their stock dropping, defensemen are making more money than ever. A young reliable defender in the league for several years is almost guaranteed 4-6 million. Although strangely it’s been very reliant on timing. Defensive snapped up immediately get the most money(when it’s still available) and those who wait might end up taking a much lower deal when all of that cap space is gone and rosters are set.
But that’s today’s issue.
For this list, we’ll be taking a look at the best pairings in NHL history. How will Drew Doughty stack up against Bobby Orr?
That all depends on their partner!
15. Ray Bourque & Rob Blake
These two had to come together in Colorado to finally realize their Stanley Cup dream.
The glorious pre-cap days brought fans incredible super teams like the 2001 Colorado Avalanche. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, Bourque, and Blake formed the incredible nucleus that would power past the defending champs (New Jersey Devils) in a seven-game series that wasn’t as close as you think. The Avs blew the Devils out 5-0 and 4-0 in Games 1 and 6 while The Devils could only muster a combined 11 goals in the seven games played.
Joe Sakic allowing Bourque to hoist the Cup first is also one of the classiest moments in NHL history.
14. Chris Pronger & Al MacInnis
They didn’t play together too long but the two Hall of Famers were devastating together. Pronger was entering his prime and MacInnis (and his shot) were still brutally effective, proven by each winning a Norris Trophy in 1999 and 2000 and Pronger even picking up the Hart as League MVP.
With MacInnis breaking boards with his slapper and Pronger cracking heads with his incredible size, this short-lived combo deserves their spot among the dominant duos of all time.
13. Larry Murphy & Paul Coffey
Teams battling for the Cup in 1991 had to deal with the unstoppable Penguins. Not only did they have a an All-Star forward lineup of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, and Mark Recchi, but two of the highest-scoring defensemen of all time in Murphy and Coffey.
Coffey left the following year for stints with Gretzky’s Kings, a Norris Trophy in Detroit, and one last Stanley Cup Final with Philadelphia.
Murphy would play two infamous seasons in Toronto before the hockey-mad fans ran the Hall-of-Famer out of town to finish his career up the right way with his second of back-to-back Cups with Detroit.
12. Doug Wilson & Bob Murray
Easily the best Blackhawk defensive pairing of all time. They played 13 seasons together and rank 1-2 for games played among Chicago defensemen. Their lack of Stanley Cup success and just one Norris Trophy between them hurts their overall standings but their overall legacy can’t be ignored.
Wilson’s booming shot and Murray’s defensive play were hallmarks of 80’s hockey and earn them a spot on our list.
11. Ray Bourque & Glen Wesley
So often the greatest pairings include a star and a quiet, underrated second half. Wesley is rarely talked about despite his 20 years of excellent well-rounded play and a Stanley Cup win in Carolina of all places.
Wesley was brought in under Bourque’s mentorship in Boston and it paid immediate dividends. He broke out as an offensive player, winning Rookie of the Year. He would round out his game before being traded to the Hartford franchise (to mentor Chris Pronger), where he would spend the rest of his career other than a pit-stop in Toronto.
Bourque could have played with anybody, but for the years they spent together, there were few better.
10. Chris Pronger & Scott Neidermayer
Like many on the list, these two didn’t always play on the same pairing, but the ability to play them apart was their greatest strength. With both of these juggernauts chewing up 30 minutes of ice time, the opposition had to deal with at least one on the ice at all times. It wasn’t fair, and they dismantled the opposition on the way to their 2007 Stanley Cup.
The pair were also literally led (Neidermayer-Captain and Pronger-Alternate) Canada to Gold at the 2010 Olympics.
9. Shea Weber & Ryan Suter
Drafted in the same year, Suter (seventh) and Weber (49th) were the NHL’s best pairing for seven years. Playing in a small-market and lacking overall team success hurts their overall standing but their combined talent is undeniable.
When Nashville lost Suter to free agency in 2012 every opposing forward in Nashville’s conference breathed a huge sigh of relief. The Preds almost lost both guys, only managing to keep Weber after matching Philly’s seven-year, $110 million offer sheet for the RFA.
8. Tim Horton & Allan Stanley
The greatest period in Toronto Maple’ Leafs history came with these two at the helm. Horton and Stanley brought four Stanley Cups to the city and will forever be heroes.
Horton possessed incredible strength but was respected as a clean player.
Bobby Hull has said about Horton ‘there were defencemen you had to fear because they were vicious and would slam you into the boards from behind, for one, Eddie Shore. But you respected Tim Horton because he didn’t need that type of intimidation. He used his tremendous strength and talent to keep you in check’
As decades of terrible Toronto hockey continue to add up, Horton and Stanley’s incredible run looks better and better for depraved Leaf-fans.
7. Nicklas Lidstrom & Brian Rafalski
Lidstrom was excellent for so long it’s easy to overlook this pairing, dubbed ‘The New Production Line’.
And produce they did, combining for 444 points in just four seasons together while bringing in a 2008 Stanley Cup and two more Norris Trophies for Lidstrom.
Lidstrom and Rafalski took their dominance to the next level when they approached coach Mike Babcock about splitting them up to increase effectiveness. Detroit’s ensuing top-four of Lidstrom-Kronwall and Rafalski-Stuart gave them two of the best pairings in hockey that could skate and hit with the best of them.
6. Eddie Shore & Lionel Hitchman
Shore was a revolutionary player and feared across the league. His explosive style of play and temper was legendary as he would run players over as he made an offensive rush. Described as ‘Gordie Howe on defense’, they say no one hit harder or had to take more hits than Shore. But the most impressive facet of his game was that he regularly played 50-55 minutes!
Lionel Hitchman was no slouch either. He was regarded as one of the best defensive players in the league and with Shore they were a near unstoppable combination.
5. Paul Coffey & Charlie Huddy
The Oiler’s 80s dynasty was loaded with so many HOF names that Charlie Huddy always slips under the radar, although at the time his giant mustache helped distinguish him to fans.
With nearly everyone on the Oilers roster obsessed with scoring goals, Huddy was the defensive conscious for the team. His steady presence and clever hockey sense allowed Coffey safely play rover.
Although Huddy doesn’t get the name-recognition of his former Oil-mates, he’s forever recognized as one of the few players to win five Stanley Cups, and that’s probably enough for him.
4. Scott Niedermayer & Scott Stevens
During Scott Stevens playoff runs his wife refused to watch the action too closely. The reason? She didn’t like the look her husband had in his eyes when he got into the ‘zone’ defensively. That mad-dog intensity and ferocious body-checking was the perfect counter-part to the swift-skating Neidermayer. Together they won Cups in 1995, 2000, and 2003.
The greatest incarnation of ‘Beauty & the Beast’ the NHL has ever seen.
3. Bobby Orr & Dallas Smith
For arguably the greatest player (not just defenseman) of all time it really doesn’t matter who was after ‘Orr &’. He was so far ahead of his time that it looked like he stepped out of a time machine. But Smith wasn’t just a pylon, in fact he was dubbed the ‘league’s strongest man’ in part due to the work he did on his Manitoba farm. Smith was the strong rock in a tough era which gave Orr even more freedom that he of course used to embarrass the other team (I mean that in the best way possible).
And like any great defensive pairing should, they brought their fans the Cup in 1970 and 1972.
2. Doug Harvey & Tom Johnson
The odds were heavily stacked in Montreal’s favor around this time and that means incredible achievements for their players.
From 1955 to 1962 Harvey (seven times) and Johnson (once) OWNED the Norris Trophy. Harvey revolutionized the game for his position and Johnson was alongside to help him do it. The duo helped power the Habs to six Stanley Cups including a whopping FIVE in a row from 1956-60.
It’s tough to separate team success from the players, but Harvey & Johnson (sounds like a Pharmacy) make it a little easier.
1. Larry Robinson & Serge Savard
You can throw in Guy Lapointe as the final member of The Big Three, a trio that dominated the League and won a combined 20 Stanley Cups.
Robinson won the only Norris Trophies out of the group but each member was just as valuable. Lapointe was a wild card with insane skill that needed to be slightly tamed before he reached ultimate effectiveness. Savard was the calmest of the three and helped mold them into the force they became. It seems more than unfair that one team had all three, not to mention Guy Lafluer, Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, and coach Scotty Bowman.
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