In 2001, the Colorado Avalanche had Rob Blake, Ray Bourque, Adam Foote, Greg Devries, Martin Skoula and Jon Klemm on their championship blue line
That is exactly why the San Jose Sharks gave up forward talent for blue line strength this offseason. However, what constitutes an elite blue line?
Like any unit in any of the four major North American sports, units are defined by players at the top. Teams who rely on those players mostly succeed, as detailed in my predictions of who will be the top-20 defencemen in 2011-12.
Teams need two players on the blue line who can contribute on both ends because there will be at least two players needed on both the power play and the penalty kill. This is why the blue line of the Nashville Predators, consisting of two elite players and four merely competent ones, outplayed the blue line of the Vancouver Canucks, with four good players and three competent ones.
However, an elite blue line must also have depth, both with additional players able to step into top roles but also to fill out the bottom of the unit. Not only will the other four players have to get substantial time, including on special teams, but injuries will take their toll on teams.
Only 10 teams had a player among the top 30 on the blue line, featured multiple players among the top 60 and had at least six players who could start for most teams in the league. The best elite players got a factor of four, the most good players a factor of three and the most depth a factor of two.
So, where does the Sharks unit rank throughout the league?
Originally I had the Sharks fourth, behind Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit, respectively, but ahead of Boston, Philadelphia, Anaheim, Washington, Buffalo and Toronto (all in order). After extensive research and analysis, the units were so close that six of the 10 teams were placed four or more spots from those projections.
As long as Drew Doughty is in the Kings lineup, this unit is definitely elite. He and Jack Johnson each are predicted to finish the 2011-12 season among the 15 best on the blue line in the NHL, so they are among the league's four strongest teams at the top.
Behind them are four proven defencemen that are average or better for the roles they will play. The one weakness this unit has is beyond the sixth spot, which is why if the team and Doughty cannot work out their issues, it is no better than a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars or Toronto Maple Leafs, who were the best of the rest and almost made this list.
The Anaheim Ducks did not have anyone that made my predicted top-20 defencemen of 2011-12. However, they had two other player projected to be legitimate No. 1 defencemen in Lubomir Visnovsky (ranked 21) and Cam Fowler (projected to be No. 30).
Moreover, they were second best at the number of top-60 players with third and fourth defencemen Francois Beauchemin and Toni Lydman. They also have great depth, with seven players who could start on over half the teams in the league.
The Vancouver Canucks needed every player on their blue line for last year's playoff run, but had to let their second-leading player in minutes (third in the postseason) go over the summer because of limited cap space. However, it is rare a team needs to go nine-deep on the blue line, and they still have eight strong players.
They also have someone ready to step up into the middle of No. 1 defencemen in the league (Alexander Edler) and two other true No. 2 players (Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis). However, considering the injury history of Bieksa and third-pair defenceman Sami Salo, it is a good thing this team has depth.
The Detroit Red Wings have been able to win four Stanley Cups since Nicklas Lidstrom was drafted because of how strong he has made them on the blue line. While a fall from his Norris Trophy-winning season of 2010-11 to seventh in the league has been projected, he still is among the best elite defencemen in the NHL.
Behind him is incredible potency, with Niklas Kronwall being among the most underrated defencemen in the league. Sure, everyone knows he is great, but few see the elite player and potential All-Star he really is: Kronwall not only scores more than a point per two games, but delivers hits like the one on Ryane Clowe in the second round last year that turned him from 13 points in 11 games to just two in the rest of the playoffs.
Ian White is better defensively than people give him credit for, and Brad Stuart gives that unit another player who can contribute on both ends of the ice. And not only do they have great depth at the top, but they can go eight deep without putting a player on the ice who is a liability.
Mike Green has been among the best point-producing defencemen in the league over the past three seasons, but has had a habit of disappearing in the playoffs. Is this a cause or effect of the team's disappointing Mays?
In any event, the offensive-minded rear guard has become a solid defender and is poised to take the next step. He is also better supported than he has ever been before, as the team upgraded from Scott Hannan (a good defender who offers no offence) to Roman Hamrlik (the best shot-blocker in the league who is an asset with the puck).
This gives the Caps the most top-tier talent in this unit across the league, with a legitimate No. 1 and three No. 2 defencemen. They are also seven-deep and can field three solid pairs in the event of an injury.
The Buffalo Sabres have the 2010 Calder Trophy winner developing on their blue line. Tyler Myers should already be among the top 20 players at the position in 2011-12.
Yet they decided it was time for a major upgrade. Christian Ehrhoff is in tremendous shape and can contribute on both ends of the ice, making him ideal for heavy minutes.
Because Ehrhoff lacks some poise and Myers is still young, they added some experience, too. Robyn Regehr joins former teammate Jordan Leopold to give the Sabres a strong top four. With three more players who are starting quality, the Sabres are strong at the top, middle and bottom of the unit.
The city of Winnipeg may have had to wait over a decade to get a team back, but it will start out with one of the very best blue lines in the world.
Dustin Byfuglien gives them the single most versatile defencemen in the game, and one with leadership and a Stanley Cup ring. However, Tobias Enstrom is nearly his equal on both ends of the ice, so the Jets have two genuine No. 1 defencemen.
Backing them up is one of the better defenders in the league in Zach Bogosian, and there are five more solid blueliners ready to step in. This makes the Jets among the best teams at the top, solid in the middle and extremely deep, especially when the opposition has the puck.
The Boston Bruins let Tomas Kaberle go in the offseason and replaced him with Joe Corvo. In all likelihood, Corvo will be the better player in 2011-12.
This means that arguably the best blue line in hockey should be even better. However, considering how bad this team's power play is, do not count me among those who put this blue line on that kind of pedestal. The unit also has the least depth on the list outside of Los Angeles.
Still, they have the best single player at the position, the best defensive unit in the league and should be the best on the penalty kill. They have three players good enough on both ends of the ice to be top 30 in minutes last season, giving them the best top half unit in the world. That is more than enough to make up for a lack of offence and bottom depth.
Likely the most controversial placement on the list, the San Jose Sharks also made the most upgrades among any teams on this list. Essentially upgrading Ian White for Brent Burns, Niclas Wallin for Colin White, Kent Huskins for Jim Vandermeer and getting growth out of Jason Demers and Justin Braun makes for much improvement.
Last season, Dan Boyle (underrated defensively) was second in the league in ice time and seventh in points per game. At 35, it may seem likely his best days are behind him but, much like Nicklas Lidstrom, it is not yet showing. Nonetheless, I expect Burns to finish with the most minutes because of his superior defence while increasing his scoring (behind just 11 other defencemen last season) now that he is on a better offensive team.
Add that punch to the great defence of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and punishing hitter Douglas Murray, and the team will have two elite pairs and two more capable of contributing. They may have the list's best balance of offence, defence, elite talent and depth.
The top players remain the most important on a blue line. Brent Seabrook has added enough scoring to join Duncan Keith as an elite player on both ends of the ice, and they form the best one-two punch at the position in the league.
However, if that was all this team had, they would be the Nashville Predators. Niklas Hjalmarsson is a tremendous player in his own end who can contribute on offence. So while they lost Brian Campbell, they still have a true No. 2 defencemen to back up those two dominating players.
They also have unbelievable depth: Nick Leddy, Sami Lepisto, Steve Montador, Sean O'Donnell and John Scott could all be starting for most teams in the league, allowing them to release Chris Campoli outright. They even have young talent to fall back on in a pinch or if they need a little more scoring, as most of their depth players will not provide much of that.