Before Doug Harvey, defenders were not expected to score. In fact, a defenseman accused of playing too freely would suffer the consequences from coaches and might just find themselves playing somewhere else.
Harvey changed all that, winning seven Norris Trophies and showing the rest of the league just how valuable an offensive d-man could be. Orr would come by later of course and really blow everything away. It must have been a wild time to be an NHL fan with those two evolving the sport so drastically.
The 70s would being more free-wheeling hockey with the smooth skating, Cup-winning Canadiens, and the 80s almost did away with the concept of defense entirely. Paul Coffey had three 100+ point seasons during the fire-wagon era as the goals flowed like water.
Defense would take a back seat until a bland Devils team in 1994-95 would win a Cup with their infamous trap. This instituted a horribly boring change of philosophy. The late 90s to early 00s saw an emphasis on clutch-and-grab hockey and an eventual lockout. Large defensemen water-skiiing on the backs of poor forwards was a common site. Strong players that could fight back like Peter Forsberg became the most valuable.
Since then the game has sped back up at an alarming rate. Players are no longer slowed down in the neutral zone and are now colliding at high speed. Defensemen who can’t keep up are exposed. A valuable defender must be able to skate the puck out of his zone as well as clear the crease with physicality. The hard cap thrusts affordable rookies and aging vets into positions above their pay grade. The one dimensional defensemen will find himself as a 6th or even 7th.
But as the game of hockey continues to evolve we see more specific positions arise. The shootout specialist is a brand new concept that must be considered now. Equally if not more important is the power play. Since the 2004 lockout, a greater emphasis has been put on calling penalties, if you can punish the shorthanded team in a tight league, it could be the difference between making the playoffs or watching from the outside.
This is great for those extra defensemen who can skate like the wind but also get bowled over like a feather. They may never find themselves on the penalty kill, but they can still earn a contract for quarterbacking a power play. That same seventh defenseman could score the series winner on the power play.
In this way hockey is getting closer to football or basketball: team sports that have more specific positions. Just like an offensive lineman in football, or a seven-foot center in basketball can only do one thing very well, Mike Green could be described in a similar way.
So let’s take a look at the top 15 defensemen who simply suck in their own end.
15. Cam Barker
Described as ‘The Accountant’, Barker rode the infamy of being selected third overall behind Ovechkin and Malkin.
He also potted 40 points in 2008-09, a very impressive number for any defensemen.
Unfortunately he never came close to that again and had zero defensive ability or passion to make up for it. He rarely saw PK time and couldn’t be bothered to hit anyone. He had limited mobility, poor positioning, and often skated away from opposing forwards taking liberties with his teammates.
Third overall and 40 points can only take you so far. NHL teams gave him multiple chances but that eventually dried up and he found himself in Europe.
14. Tyson Barrie
Barrie’s fantastic skating and offensive skill has him ahead of the curve, starring for the Avalanche at only 24. But with such an accelerated career, it seems his defensive skills haven’t had enough time to catch up.
Barrie is aware of this as he said: “It can be tough. Earlier, I was having some problems with it. It’s something you work on, watching video and working with the coaches. The offensive instincts, you don’t want to mess with those too much. You learn, try not to be reckless. It’s something I’ll need to focus on my whole career.”
Well said. Defensemen take relatively longer to fully develop as theirs is a mental game. The brash young instincts and passion of a young talented player can be counter-productive.
At just 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Barrie will probably never be a crease-clearing shutdown guy. But with the right team around him that won’t matter. Smooth skating defensemen are all the rage and with the game speeding up each year, he should remain a valuable piece for any team lucky enough to have him.
13. Ryan Whitney
It all started out so promising for Whitney. He was a key piece of the budding young Pittsburgh core that had just reached the Stanley Cup Final. He signed a massive six-year deal for $24 million and had previously put up a 59-point season. The sky appeared to be the limit. His defensive play wasn’t strong back then, but his personal and team success masked that.
But shortly after the Finals appearance, the wheels (his wheels in particular) started to come off. Whitney learned that he had unnaturally high arches in his feet and would require osteotomy surgery. This would dog him throughout his career and contribute to accelerated wear and tear on his feet and ankles.
Whitney would be out of the NHL by 30, playing for the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL and HC Sochi in the KHL.
While he was never a renowned defenseman, he still left with a respectable 259 points in 481 NHL games.
12. Sandis Ozolinsh
At times, Sandis Ozolinsh was one of the very best offensive defensemen in the NHL. He was a great spark for a talented Avalanche team.
Ozolinsh wasn’t always terrible in his zone either. For years he was quite serviceable. Like most offensive blueliners, his speed and puck control got him out of trouble often.
But as the years wore on he became more of a liability in the back end. Speed fades, but bad hockey sense is forever.
11. Mark Streit
From 2008-09 to 2009-10, Streit knocked out 105 points in 156 games. He also posted his best defensive work, with a plus-6 rating.
But after an unlucky injury during a preseason scrimmage, Streit lost his defensive mojo. He was still piling on the points but his overall game took a hit. He wound up with a minus-27 rating and eventually found himself on the third pairing.
Historically he’s always been a power play beast. The guy that gets big free agent money with impressive stats that never tell the whole story.
Streit is now in Philly, a city with a long history of ignoring defensive deficiencies. He fits in well.
10. Keith Yandle
A career minus-28, Yandle has admitted the shortcomings in his game. While with Arizona he said “I have to get better defensively, I know that. From the blue line, guys really sacrificed their bodies and did a great job. As a team, we had too many blown leads.”
He was a minus-32 in 63 games with Arizona (a pitiful team) but quickly rebounded to a plus-6 in 21 games with New York.
The Rangers have to be happy with numbers like that. Yandle was highly regarded around the league for his offense and dynamite work on the power play. With him and Ekman-Larsson on the point, it was the only thing the Coyotes did well that year.
He doesn’t need to be Scott Stevens either. If he can keep his head above water in his own end while providing excellent puck-movement and killer power play time, Sather will happily light another cigar in his honor. (Although the box security will ask him to put it out).
9. Dennis Wideman
After scoring 50 points for Boston in 2008-09, the fans turned on him the next season. The disastrous collapse to Philadelphia in the 2010 playoffs had fans looking for blood, and Wideman became their scapegoat. His offensive minded game was still quite useful but his defensive shortcomings were easy to notice and even easier to boo.
He was cast off to Florida and didn’t fare much better with a minus-26 rating in 61 games. He would however, get his revenge in the 2012 playoffs, helping Washington eliminate the Boston Boo-ins in seven games.
After a big contract with Calgary led to a couple disappointing years (on a rebuilding team), he rebounded with 56 points last year. But even with that impressive pile, it’s still blatantly obvious that he’s one-dimensional.
The Flames are stacked on defense with Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, and Kris Russell forming a formidable foursome. This is the perfect situation for Wideman to take easier assignments and still dominate on the power play.
8. Paul Coffey
Paul Coffey was so damn great at offense that not one fan minded what he did in his own end. The guy won three Stanley Cups with Gretzky and one with Lemieux. He was obviously doing something right.
In 1,409 NHL games, he produced a staggering 1,531 points. That would be Hall of Fame material for a forward. How did a defenseman manage to stay productive for that long? It boggles the mind.
He scored over 100 points three times with Edmonton, and twice with Pittsburgh. From his first season in 1980-81 until 1988-89, Coffey would play on the same team as the Art Ross winner. So either he should be thanking Gretzky and Lemieux or they should be thanking him.
However you slice it, there’s no way Coffey could have played good enough defense to come anywhere close to his scoring exploits. He was one guy where as a coach, you’d just have to let him do his thing.
7. Brian Campbell
Brian Campbell is one of the best skaters you’ll ever see. His spin-o-rama is not only flashy, but very useful for getting out of trouble. He scores points and even won a Stanley Cup as the third-best defender on a stacked Blackhawks team.
But while his excellent foot speed, puck control, patience, and vision are wonderful for getting the puck out of the zone, he lacks the traditional defensive attributes.
When the opposing team has established control in Campbell’s defensive zone he starts getting into trouble. He lacks the physical power to win the puck back and frequently gets out-muscled where it counts.
When he’s got the puck it’s all gravy, but when he doesn’t, watch out!
6. Joe Corvo
None other than his coach Claude Julien called him a “defensive liability”, and Corvo himself spoke of his strictly offensive role when he was traded to Boston.
“From what I hear, it’s some power play time, some shots on the power play and getting it to guys, just moving the puck, skating the puck, trying to bring a little of the offensive flair to it and making plays with some of the guys on the team, the skill guys.”
This ‘defensive liability’ still had a very productive NHL career. He notched at least 25 points seven times, and had 37 or higher three times.
5. Andy Delmore
In 2002-03 with Philadelphia, Delmore became the first rookie defenseman to score a hat trick in the playoffs. It was very fitting that the Flyers would beat the hated Penguins by three goals in that game 6-3, ensuring that Delmore become a local hero.
He also tied the NHL record for most goals in a playoff game by a defenseman and was the first rookie defender to have two multiple-goal games in a playoff year.
His rookie offensive exploits weren’t enough to keep him in one place for too long.
He would play in Nashville, Buffalo, and Columbus for short stints before winding up back in Europe. Along the way he spent time in the AHL, picking up the Eddie Shore Award for top defenseman.
4. Marek Zidlicky
Even at 38, Zidlicky popped for 34 points combined with the Devils and Red Wings, including 11 in just 21 games for Detroit. He moves the puck well and obviously knows how to distribute for offensive effect, but his d-zone skills are not earning him paycheques.
His offensive abilities earned him a very impressive cheque with Long Island for 2015-16. Not many limited defensemen pushing 40 are able to pull in $3 million.
Unless he gets another great offer, Zidlicky has spoken of this likely being his last year.
3. Jack Johnson
Fancy-stat fanatics have told us for years that Johnson is blinding people with his elite offensive skills. He’s a flashy player that takes big risks, but according to Corsi lovers, he’s terrible at defense.
He was ranked in the bottom of advanced stats for years before the Jeff Carter trade as well, making it doubly painful for Blue Jacket fans.
The eye-test doesn’t fare much better. His positioning is dreadful and he telegraphs his moves about four years in advance. If they counted turnovers that led to goals as evil-assists, he would be evil-Gretzky.
Johnson is still relatively young for a defenseman and I’m hoping that he finds the right situation to put it all together.
2. Mike Green
In 2008-09 Green set the NHL on fire with 31 goals and 42 assists for 73 points in just 68 games. He was a lethal weapon on the power play with 18 man-advantage tallies.
He would score 12 less goals the following year but still ended up with a whopping 76 points. With two years of great production, he seemed locked in as a consistent producer.
He dropped off significantly however, and it would take him three more seasons before he cracked the 40-point mark again.
He went from all-star to cast off in that time and has found his way into the waiting arms of Detroit. Even with Babcock gone, most would agree that the Red Wings franchise is a great place for talent to round out their game. Green won’t be the next Lidstrom, but I’m sure they’d be happy with Rafalski.
1. Phil Housley
He would have made a fantastic rover.
It wasn’t even that Phil Housley was bad at defense, it was more like he flat-out ignored it. He would frequently abandon his defensive post to spring for a breakout pass.
Housley came around at the perfect time. He hit his prime during the NHL’s most high-flying era, and racked up a ridiculous amount of points. How many? Well for a time he was the highest scoring American player of all time. Modano would eventually restore balance to the universe, but Housley’s 1,232 points in 1,495 games remain one of the more impressive stats in NHL history.
If defense wins championships, you might hold his lack of playoff success against him as well (but would you say the same about Ray Bourque?).
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