NHL's Top 10 Defensemen of the Past 50 Years

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2012

NHL's Top 10 Defensemen of the Past 50 Years

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    Over the past 50 years, hockey has changed dramatically.

    The biggest changes have been in the landscape of the game as what was once a six-team exclusive club is now a 30-team extravaganza.

    The first year of the great NHL expansion that saw the league go from six to 12 teams was 1967-68. That was also the year that saw Bobby Orr put on a Boston Bruins uniform as a rookie.

    Orr not only transformed the Bruins from the cellar-dwelling team they were in the early- and mid-1960s to one of the NHL's most exciting and popular teams, he also changed the way defensemen played the game.

    Orr was the first defenseman who would join the attack whenever he had the opportunity. His offensive abilities were so spectacular that he is widely considered the most gifted player of all time, although we admit that Wayne Gretzky's backers could at least make a plausible argument.

    However, Orr's speed, defensive strength and intelligence put him at the top of the defensive mountain, both of the all-time list and those who played in the past 50 years.

    Note: This list has a has a heavy Bruins' tilt, but how could it not? Just as the list of all-time great baseball players is dominated by New York Yankees—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra—the list of the top defensemen is dominated by Bruins.

No. 10 Zdeno Chara

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    Zdeno Chara was an awkward-looking prospect during his time with the New York Islanders and he became a solid defenseman during his run with the Ottawa Senators.

    However, he has become a dominating star during his tenure with the Boston Bruins. Open up the dictionary to the term "shut-down defenseman" and you are likely to see Chara's picture.

    The 6'9" and 260-pound Chara loves to play the physical style and he is almost certain to win the battle any time he goes into the corner with an opposing forward. He has worked hard to become a better skater and no player has ever had a harder slap shot than Chara.

    The Bruins' captain is also dangerous with his fists, but he doesn't get involved in that aspect of the game very much. He is more interested in breaking down the opponent's offensive foray, taking the puck away, carrying it up ice and making the pass that leads to a goal.

    More than any other factor, the powerful Chara takes responsibility when he is on the ice. He doesn't make excuses or blame others. He just makes sure his team wins the battle and then he moves on to the next shift.

    He has had back-to-back plus-33 seasons the last two years for the Bruins. Chara is a six-time first- or second-team All-Star, he has won one Norris Trophy and was the captain of the 2011 Stanley Cup champions.

No. 9 Chris Chelios

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    Chelios was one of the most intimidating defensemen to play the game, and he also had an incredibly long-lasting career.

    Playing primarily for the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, Chelios played his first NHL game for the Canadiens at the age of 22 and his career didn't end until he took his last shift for the Atlanta Thrashers at the age of 48.

    Chelios had a nasty, physical edge throughout the majority of his career and challenging him was usually a brutal mistake. He had a powerful slap shot and he looked to join the play if it meant he was not leaving his team at risk.

    He played in 11 all-star games, won three Norris Trophies and was a part of three Stanley Cup championship teams.

No. 8 Scott Stevens

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    For the majority of his 22-year career, Scott Stevens was simply the law in the NHL.

    You did not cross him and you skated into his area knowing you were putting yourself at risk.

    Stevens hit opponents as if they had a bull's eye on their back and he offered no apologies.

    In addition to his physical play, Stevens knew how to control the action when he skated with the puck. He excelled at breaking up opposing rushes, taking control of the puck and leading play in the opposite direction.

    Stevens scored 196 goals and 908 points throughout his career and played in 13 All-Star games. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the postseason in 2000 and was a key part of three Stanley Cup winning teams for the New Jersey Devils.

No. 7 Brad Park

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    Brad Park had an incredible transition during his sensational career.

    While he is the only player on this list not to have a Stanley Cup ring, Park was widely considered the No. 2 defenseman to Bobby Orr in the late 1960s and '70's.

    Park may not have had Orr's speed or physical gifts, but he was a dominating defenseman who controlled the play on the ice with his vision and ability to make plays.

    In the first part of his career with the New York Rangers, he was an offensive defenseman who could carry the puck out of the zone, pass accurately and use his shot to score or create rebounds for teammates.

    When he was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1975, he still had the physical talent, but he was even sharper mentally and used positioning to make the proper play 95 percent of the time on the ice.

    In addition to his offensive skills, Park had a brutal hip check that often sent opponents head over tea kettle and brought fans out of their seats.

    Park scored 213 goals and had 896 points during his career. He was a seven-time first- or second-team All-Star throughout his Hall of Fame career.

No. 6 Paul Coffey

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    Paul Coffey was the second-highest scoring defenseman in NHL history behind Ray Bourque.

    While he played for nine NHL teams, he did his best work for the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins, two of the most explosive offensive teams in NHL history.

    Coffey had blazing speed on the ice and his instincts allowed him to find the dead spots in the offensive zone so he could take the pass and fire a shot past opposing goalies.

    He was also a magnificent puck carrier. Coffey was the kind of goal scorer who could assert himself late in an important game and open up a lead for either the Oilers or Penguins.

    He played with both Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and his talent may be underrated as a result.

    Coffey was an eight-time first- or second-team all-star, a three-time Norris Trophy winner and he was a part of four Stanley Cup winning teams (three with Edmonton, one with Pittsburgh).

No. 5 Denis Potvin

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    Denis Potvin took the mantle from Bobby Orr as the league's premier offensive defenseman once Orr's knees no longer allowed him to play the game at the highest level.

    Potvin had size, strength and game-changing ability. When he joined the New York Islanders in 1973-74, he immediately gave them credibility. He became the NHL's rookie of the year and by the following season the Islanders were in the playoffs.

    Potvin was a vicious body-checker known for his immense strength. He had explosive offensive talent. He had a booming shot from the blue line and could make things happen down low with his hands and ability to see plays develop.

    Hated by the cross-town New York Rangers fans, he was a part of four Stanley Cup winning teams for the Islanders. He also was a seven-time first- or second-team All-Star.

No. 4 Ray Bourque

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    Ray Bourque finished his career as the highest scoring defenseman in NHL history.

    As great as he was from an offensive perspective, he was not the offensive talent that Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey was. However, he may have been the most complete defenseman in league history.

    Bourque will forever have an exalted place in Boston Bruins' history, yet the crowning moment of his career came at the very end when he won his lone Stanley Cup as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

    Bourque had been in the playoffs every year with the Bruins, but they always fell short. Bourque had led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1988 and 1990 and both times they were beaten by the Edmonton Oilers.

    Bourque was so great that former Bruins president Harry Sinden once said that he would have preferred to have him on the ice over Orr if the Bruins were defending a lead in the late going. (source: "Boston Bruins: Celebrating 75 Years; Clark Booth; 1998)

    Bourque won five Norris Trophies and was a first- or second-team defenseman 19 times in his career.

No. 3 Nicklas Lidstrom

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    Nicklas Lidstrom's stellar career came to an end at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season when he retired after 20 brilliant years with the Detroit Red Wings.

    He was a magnificent defenseman who could make all the plays in his own end. However, when he had the puck on his stick, he gave the Red Wings an advantage.

    Lidstrom saw plays develop before they opened up and his patience allowed him to execute plays that few others could even imagine. He controlled play and he was excellent in the clutch.

    Lidstrom won seven Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Award, was a first- or second-team All-Star 13 times and was a vital member of four Stanley Cup championship teams for the Red Wings.

No. 2 Larry Robinson

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    When the Montreal Canadiens won four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1976 through 1979, they were a team that was loaded with stars.

    Guy Lafleur may have been the team's brightest offensive star and Ken Dryden always gave them a lift in goal, but no player meant more to them than their stellar defenseman Larry Robinson.

    He was a tremendous physical presence who used his strength and positioning to break up opposing offensive rushes and then carry the puck with speed, grace and purpose up the ice.

    Robinson concentrated on the defensive aspects of the position, but when he decided to turn up his offensive talents, he was unstoppable. In the video above, he turned on the jets to blow past Boston defenseman Mike Milbury as if he were standing still and score the opening goal in the fifth game of the Stanley Cup Finals.

    Robinson would pick his offensive moments and take the heart out of his opponents. He won two Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe Award, he was a first- or second-team All-Star six times and he was a member of six Stanley Cup winning teams in Montreal.

No. 1 Bobby Orr

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    Bobby Orr was the most spectacular defenseman in NHL history and perhaps the most breathtaking player to ever lace up a pair of skates.

    When Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks played against Orr for the first time, he suggested the game's rules should change and that the referees should drop two pucks, with one being for Orr and the other other being for the rest of the players on the ice.

    That's how Orr played the game. He controlled the puck and he dominated the action with his jaw-dropping offensive talent.

    Orr's signature highlight is the flying goal he scored against the St. Louis Blues to give the Bruins the 1970 Stanley Cup. However, he also scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal against the New York Rangers in 1972 with a spin move that allowed him to elude Rangers forward Bruce MacGregor before firing a deadly wrist shot past goalie Gilles Villemure (34-second mark).

    Orr's meteor-like career was cut short because of knee injuries and subsequent surgeries. However, he won eight Norris Trophies, three Hart Trophies as the regular-season MVP, two Conn Smythe Awards as well as the Calder Trophy. Orr was a second-team All-Star in his rookie season of 1967-68 and an eight-time first-team All-Star. He was a part of two Stanley Cup winning teams with the Bruins.

    Put him on the all-time sports Mount Rushmore with Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Jim Brown.