Fans like great goals, big saves and big hits. The majority of the great goals come from forwards who spend the most amount of time in the attacking zone. Obviously goalies are charged with making the big saves so the classic ideal of an NHL defenceman gives players of this position few opportunities to excite fans with their skills.
Next to the goalie, a team's top defenceman or top defence pairing spend the most amount of time on the ice. A star defenceman can be described as the anchor of a penalty killing unit or the quarterback of a team's power play. Defencemen have a huge impact on a team's fortunes through the large amount of time they spend on the ice and the importance their play in specialty teams.
The evolution of the position of the defenceman has come about with rule changes like the forward pass, but more so because of the incredible talent by some special players. These pioneers demolished stereotypes of what was thought a defenceman should be. They challenged conservative thinking coaches and general managers and transformed the game for the better and to the benefit of all young defensmen to follow.
In the modern NHL, defencemen are asked to be dominate in all areas of the ice. They are responsible for being strong defensively as they always have, but much of a team's offensive strategy begins with puck possession in the defensive end.
The way defencemen play today gives every type of fan something to celebrate. There are rushing defencemen with great speed and flair like P.K. Subban. There are also cerebral defensman who seem to mesmerize opponents like Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith. There are also physically dominant defencemen like Alex Pietrangelo. With these players and others like young prospects Seth Jones in Nashville and Aaron Ekblad in Florida, the NHL is full of exciting young defencemen that will entertain fans for years to come.
Here are the top 25 NHL D-men of all time.
25 Tim Horton
Tim Horton was a dependable stay at home defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs through the 1950's and 1960's. Players of that generation will talk about how strong Horton was and that battles for position and loose pucks were feeble endeavors when going up against the bullish blueliner. In an era that preached conservative play from its D-men, Horton was still a strong skater who made the occasional rush down the ice. He was a multiple all-star and Stanley Cup champion and was still an impactful player for the Buffalo Sabres at the age of 43 and if not for a tragic car accident which cut his life short, he was signed to play again the next autumn. With Horton's incredible physical gifts there is no telling how long he could have played at such a high level.
24 Pierre Pilote
Pilote was a key member on some excellent Chicago Blackhawks teams of the late 1950's and early 1960's. He won the Norris Trophy as top defenceman three years in row from 1962 to 1965 and was the runner up in 1961, 1966 and 1967. Until the emergence of number 1 on our list, Pilote was consistently regarded as either the best of second best defenseman throughout the 1960's. He was a smart pucking moving defenceman and along with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita made the Blackhawks power play a feared weapon.
23 Shea Weber
Weber is in the midst of a great career so his place in the history of hockey has yet to finalized. Not even 30 years of age, Weber is a two time Olympic Gold Medalist, owner of one of the NHL's hardest slapshots and a fearless competitor who seems to be an impenetrable wall on Nashville's blueline. There is not a team in the NHL who wouldn't love to have Weber on their side. His value to Nashville can be seen in how they allowed another skilled defenceman in Ryan Suter to walk away so they could ensure locking up Shea Weber long term.
22 Larry Murphy
Murphy was a smart defenceman who could slow the game down to his pace. Never considered the fleetest of foot, Murphy didn't possess a blistering slapshot and was not often seen laying guys out with heavy body checks, but over 21 years in the NHL he rarely missed a game and was always at the top of his team's scoring for defencemen. He was at times a point a game player and whether playing on bad teams in Toronto and Washington or great teams in Pittsburgh and Detroit, he consistently produced offence.
21 Art Ross
The trophy for the highest scoring player for a season is named the Art Ross Trophy. Ross played long before television and highlight packages could show his talent to the masses, but newspaper accounts and tales from the people who saw him play said he was a spectacular rushing defenseman, one of the first of his kind. Innovations made to the puck and net along with other rule changes were the brain child of Ross. He was a great thinker of the game and when the Hall of Fame could have inducted him in a number of categories, they chose to honor his playing ability and inducted him as a player in 1949.
20 Brad Park
Brad Park was an excellent defenceman who played in the shadow of the man who claimed the number one spot on our list. He was a solid all around defenceman who possessed many great offensive instincts. He was never fully appreciated in his time through unfair comparisons and playing on some underachieving teams in passionate hockey markets like in New York and Boston. He was a Hall of Famer, a multiple all-star and if he played 10 years earlier there is little doubt he'd have a Norris Trophy or two of his own.
19 Rob Blake
Beginning his career with the L.A. Kings, Blake formed a promising defence tandem with Darryl Sydor. Along with strong goaltending from Kelly Hrudey and the offensive punch from some guy named Gretzky, the Kings reached the Stanely Cup Final in 1993. The Kings were not able to sustain their play and it would take Blake several years and a trade to Colorado to win his one and only Cup. Throughout Blake's career he was a force at both ends of the ice, using his long frame to punish players with devastating body checks and terrifying goalies with bone crushing slap shots from the point. He was also a member of that rare breed that was as effective in his first game as he was years later in his last game.
18 Red Kelly
Leonard "Red" Kelly was truly one of a kind. He had the versatility to play and excel at every position on the ice. Early in Red's career he was the foundation on the blue line for a Detroit dynasty, winning four Cups as a member of the Red Wings. He won multiple Lady Byng awards as the NHL's most gentlemanly player while also earning a Norris Trophy as the games top defenceman. Then a trade took him to an aging Maple Leafs team where he was moved up to play center and helped Toronto earn four Cups of their own. He is the only player in the history of the game to win that many Stanley Cups and not play for the Montreal Canadiens. Kelly was a dynasty unto himself.
17 Phil Housley
For many years Housley was considered the greatest American defencemen who ever played the game. Through his longevity and consistent point production he slowly but surely climbed the ranks of the NHL's top scoring defencemen. He was such a smooth skater who possessed unnerving composure with the puck. Housley never seemed out of control or nervous. The elegance in which he played the game, it would be no surprise if Phil played many games without ever dropping a bead of sweat.
16 Borje Salming
If you look at Borje Salming today, many speculate that he is still in good enough shape to play in the NHL tomorrow. Salming was a pioneer, a Swedish born and trained defenceman who came over to the NHL to show everyone that Europeans could compete and succeed among North America's best. Borje never took a shift off because the opposition was always eager to challenge the Swede and test his metal. It's hard to imagine Swedes being questioned for their toughness today, but before Sundin, Forsberg and Lidstrom, it was just Salming and he set the course from Europe over the Atlantic and into NHL arenas.
15 Scott Stevens
One of the game's all time best body checkers, Stevens hit players so hard that you feared for players' safety when he was on the ice. He was often underrated for his positioning and ability to make a smart and accurate first pass out of his own zone to a teammate in full flight because people focused so much on his physical play. He was the embodiment of a stay at home defenceman for the stingy New Jersey Devils teams of the 1990's and 2000's. He was astoundingly reliable in that he played such a tough game and logged heavy minutes and yet still played over 1,600 games spanning 20 years.
14 Al MacInnis
For many years Al McInnis was viewed as a one dimensional player. He was the guy with the big shot from the point. The type of slapshot that other teams and goalies had to worry about and plan to defend because if Al was allowed to shoot, the puck was likely going to end up in your net. The pride of Nova Scotia had to wait until the latter part of his career when the hockey establishment recognized and appreciated his all around skills. McInnis was a Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe winner. He was always a part of the team's top defensive pairing. He was a member of Team Canada on several occasions and won Gold at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. McInnis was a complete defenceman who could affect the game in a number of different ways, he just so happened to have a slap shot that could score a goal from the neutral zone.
13 Chris Pronger
Chris Pronger was one of the meanest, nastiest, toughest players to ever lace up a pair of skates in the NHL. He put to use his entire 6-foot-6 frame to swarm opposing forwards. He was a feared competitor who showed no mercy on players fighting for position in front of the net or battling for possession in the corners. In an era when using your stick to control players and holding and clutching to impede someone's progress were overlooked by referees, Pronger was the game's biggest villain. He combined his ferocious play with smart offensive instincts and racked up plenty of points as the cornerstone of some excellent St. Louis Blues teams. Injuries eventually took a toll on Pronger and forced his retirement, but not before his style of played defined his generation.
12 Larry Robinson
Over a 20 year NHL career, Robinson never missed the playoffs. He was the big gangly defenceman on the Habs' blueline during their Dynasty years in the the late 1970's. Robinson had the skill to match the rest of Montreal's team, but had the toughness to fend off brutal tactics employed by the rough and mean Philadelphia Flyers of that era. Robinson's Hall of Fame career continued into the coaching fraternity where he mentored and guided young players as the bench boss of the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings.
11 Brian Leetch
It would not be a stretch to describe Leetch as a generational talent. Not many players controlled the game like he did. He was an offensive dynamo for the New York Rangers throughout the clutch and grab 1990's. He combined great vision and offensive instincts with a skating ability rarely seen. He was able to twist and turn and escape and elude forecheckers that left opposing teams befuddled. He was remarkably durable for a player not that big in stature and who controlled the puck for such a large percentage of the game.
He won multiple individual awards and was a star internationally for the United States, but what he'll most likely be remembered for was winning the 1994 Conn Smythe Trophy as the first American born player to win the award. That spring, Leetch netted an incredible 34 points in 23 playoff games, on route to helping the New York Rangers end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought.
10 Paul Coffey
A person who had never seen a hockey game in their life could instantly tell Paul Coffey was special. Coffey was possibly the greatest pure skater the game has ever seen. He could play an entire game at top speed without ever appearing to be using much energy to do so. He would glide down the ice with long fluid strides, passing every other player on the ice as if they were stuck in cement.
His offensive achievements are only matched by number one on our list. He regularly put up more than a 100 points in a season as a defenceman and finished his career with 1,531 and better than a point per game average. He is the owner of several offensive records by a defensive including most goals in a season by a defenseman with 48.
9 Denis Potvin
Denis Potvin was the ultimate competitor. He never took a shift off and when the stakes were highest he seemed to be more effective. He played the game with such intensity that you could see him willing his team to victory. Potvin resembled a bull waiting in the locks before being released and free to buck off any poor cowboy who was saddled in for the ride. He was the emotional leader of the New York Islanders of the 1980's that went on to win four straight Stanley Cups. Potvin was able to match great talent with a tremendous desire to win which made him a premier defenceman.
8 Eddie Shore
The name Eddie Shore has become folklore. It's a name that evokes myth and intrigue as the stories of his play, management style and personality are the stuff of bed time stories for young hockey players. As much as broken telephone has made the truth about Shore difficult to gather, there are some irrefutable facts. He was a four-time Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP and playing for the Boston Bruins he was one of the game's first true superstars and marquee attractions. As much as the legend of his eccentricities are fun to imagine, they should never overshadow his early contributions to Pre-World War II NHL and the position of the defenceman.
7 Zdeno Chara
He had a slow start to his NHL career just trying to find a place with a struggling New York Islanders team and become a regular in the lineup. He was so tall at 6-foot-9 that coaches, teammates and the entire league looked at him with curiosity. How could someone so big move around and keep up with the speed of the game?
It was a trade that brought Chara to Ottawa where he began to flourish and then finally it was his run in Boston where he came to be the games dominant d-man. Over his career he has shown that he has enough quickness to stay on top of the speedier players and his giant reach and imposing size combined with sheer brute strength make him an imposing force. His skills are also used for offence as he is equally effective creating screens in front of opposing goalies or blasting 100 mph plus slapshots from the point. Chara has certainly carried the mantra of the "Big Bad Bruins" into the 21st century.
6 Chris Chelios
There was nothing Chelios wouldn't do or couldn't do throughout his long and storied career. Chelios played his first game at the age of 21 for the Montreal Canadiens and didn't play his last NHL game until the age of 47 for the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers. Chelios was a multiple Stanley Cup winner, multiple Olympian and multiple Norris Trophy winner. He was tireless on and off the ice, never shying away from a post-game microphone.
He played in the hockey hotbeds of Montreal, Chicago and Detroit for the majority of his career so their were plenty of passionate and knowledgeable fans who appreciated Chelly's work ethic. His dedication to his physical conditioning was legendary and combined with his desire to play kept him in the best league in the world longer than every other player of his generation.
5 Ray Bourque
If you are looking for a career to emulate as a young defenceman, picking Ray Bourque as a model would be wise choice. From his first NHL shift until he finally won that elusive Stanley Cup 21 years later, Bourque played all-star caliber defense. Bourque had a strong stocky build along with a powerful skating stride and deadly accurate shot. He also had a mind for the game that allowed him to change the way the game was played to his desire. He had every ability so regardless of an opponent's tactics they could never out muscle or out skill Bourque. For two decades the Bruins' roster went through many changes and the team took on different identities, but the one constant was Bourque. The captain and heart and soul of Boston hockey through the 1980's and 1990's.
4 Scott Niedermayer
Niedermayer was a winner. In junior hockey he won the Memorial Cup with the Kamloops Blazers, junior hockey's version of the Stanley Cup. He won a World Junior Championship and World Championship for Team Canada. He then graduated to Olympic glory winning two Gold Medals. He won multiple Stanley Cups in New Jersey and one in Anaheim. He captured the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP and Norris Trophy as the regular season's best defenceman.
Niedermayer was an offensive-minded defenceman who used his exceptional skating ability to maneuver around the ice with ease and break up plays and quickly start a counter attack. Even with all his accomplishments and skills, people wonder what he could have accomplished if he was not stuck in New Jersey playing in such a defensive minded system. If he played under coaches who encouraged offensive creativity Niedermayer had the kind of talent that could have broken records.
3 Doug Harvey
It was Doug Harvey that set the mold for many of the defencemen on the list. When an analyst talks about how a player slowed the game down through his patience and composure, seeming to fend players to create a few extra seconds to make that perfect pass instead of that good pass to an open teammate, it was Doug Harvey who did all that first. Winner of seven Norris Trophies in the late 1950's and into the 1960's. He was the league's best defenceman on the league's best team in Montreal. He changed the game off the ice as well through his work to build the Players Association and help players gain the right to earn contracts reflecting the true value of their talents.
2 Nicklas Lidstrom
His teammates called him, "The Perfect Human". He never seemed to say or do the wrong thing, treated everyone with respect and in turn earned the respect of everyone who saw him play or had the pleasure of meeting him. He was so subtle in his greatness that it took a little while for the hockey world to truly appreciate his play but after a glorious 20-year career he earned seven Norris Trophies, multiple Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal for the Swedish National Team.
He glided around the ice, never seeming to use any excess energy, just the required amount to stop an attack or make a pass or score a goal and because of his efficient style he was able to stay out on the ice for what seemed like an eternity. Many great players are asked to play one more season for old time sake, but with declining skills it's usually prudent if they decide not to. No one doubts that Lidstrom could have played several more years and still been at the top of his game well into his 40's.
1 Bobby Orr
Number Four.....Bobby Orr. In a short period of time and through more than a couple injury plagued seasons, Bobby Orr became a hockey player that no one had seen before or since. In the late 1960's and early 1970's when the Bruin's played, the game plan was get the puck to Bobby and let him win the game all on his own. He could kill penalties by just ragging the puck around the ice and playing keep away with the opposing team. He could skate, shoot and was as tough as they come. He played the game at a different pace and on a different plane than everyone else. He won eight straight Norris Trophies from 1967 to 1975. He won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer in the regular season twice, a feat that no other defenseman has been able to duplicate. He was also the Hart Memorial Trophy winner as league MVP three consecutive years in a row from 1970-1972.
It is incredible to think how the greatest defenceman who ever played, accomplished so much in just 657 regular season games, many of which he was playing with a badly damaged knee. We can only imagine how much more awaited Orr if not for some devastating knee injuries that cut his career short.