Brian Leetch and the 12 Best Defensemen in New York Rangers History

Joseph Browne@jbrownesportsNYCorrespondent IINovember 16, 2011

Brian Leetch and the 12 Best Defensemen in New York Rangers History

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    The New York Rangers, one of the Original Six franchises of the NHL, have had their fair share of legendary skaters and goaltenders grace their lineup throughout the decades. Rod Gilbert, Phil Esposito, Mark Messier, Ed Giacomin, Vic Hadfield, Mike Richter, Jaromir Jagr, the list is truly long and distinguished.

    Among these greats, of course, have been defensemen that have stood apart for their talents as either stay-at-home specialists or as masters of the two-way game. They have been captains of their teams, Conn Smythe trophy winners and, in some cases, true legends for their exploits on the ice.

    We are taking a moment today to honor these defensemen to remind fans of the team and of hockey in general of their accomplishments and the talents they were and are.

    To provide some context, it should be noted that tenure with the team or in the league as a whole is not a consideration for inclusion on this list. Talent, pedigree and production, both demonstrated and projected, are the primary considerations. We are recognizing special players, the kind that will and should be remembered beyond their active professional careers.

    Here then, is our list.

13. Jeff Beukeboom

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    Known for his explosive skating and groundbreaking skills with the puck... uh, wait a minute, sorry, that's the opening for a different player on this list. Ranger fans, of course, would never confuse Jeff Beukeboom with Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey, not in any way shape or form.

    Rather, Beukeboom was the antithesis of these two legends, and this is perhaps the best explanation of why he is on this list. Beukeboom, the partner of Brian Leetch for so many seasons, without question is one of the most significant reasons why Leetch was able to be Leetch.

    While Leetch was immensely strong in his own end, his role was to run the offense from the back end and lead the power play from the point. He was the fourth man into the zone, and many times the first due to his puck handling skills, but little of this would have been possible had he not had a partner such as Beukeboom.

    In addition to providing a steady support valve when Leetch was on the rush, Beukeboom also ensured that few liberties were taken with Leetch by opposing enforcers. He was the defensive anchor of the team for many years and earned his spot on this list many times over. He was with the team for seven-plus seasons and would have no doubt played longer if not for a career-ending concussion.

12. Dave Maloney

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    In 1978, at the age of 22, Dave Maloney was named the captain of the New York Rangers. Having this honor bestowed is a tremendous achievement for any hockey player; however, when its considered that the 1978-1979 Rangers team included such names as Phil Esposito, Ron Greschner, Walt Tkaczuk, and Carol Vadnais, all older and all worthy of the designation, you begin to understand how Maloney was viewed within the organization and league.

    Drafted 14th overall in 1974, Maloney never quite lived up to the expectations associated with such a lofty draft slot. He was essentially viewed as the second coming of Brad Park, who was sent to Boston in return for Esposito and Vadnais; however, even at his best, he never truly approached that mark.

    Despite these realities, Maloney played a major role during the Rangers' run to the 1978-1979 Stanley Cup Finals, a run that was not foreseen by many. His inclusion on this list is as much for what could have been as it is for what was, though his achievements on the ice were by no means insignificant.

11. Michael Del Zotto

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    Admittedly, this pick might be seen as a head-scratcher. Del Zotto, after all, has one full year under his belt, specifically 2009-2010, where he approached the expectations of a 20th overall selection. We say approached and not met, simply because along with his sometimes stellar play with the puck and on the rush, came an apparent inability to handle his d-zone responsibilities.

    This deficiency led to a lowering of Del Zotto's stock during the 2010-2011 season, and with the development of other young defensemen within the Rangers organization it appeared as if Del Zotto could very well be the odd man out for 2011-2012.

    Due to a solid camp, injuries to other d-men and a consistent, night in and night performance thus far this season, however, Del Zotto is once again projecting as a core member of a very young, very talented Rangers defense corps for many years to come.

    Often coupled with Dan Girardi on the number one pairing this season, Del Zotto is seeing mega-minutes (21:54) and also is featured on the power play. He is demonstrating the vision and passing skills that warranted his high draft slot, and has also become dependable in the defensive zone.

    This is one of those projected "best ofs" that will perhaps look better in several years. As a reminder, though, this list is not solely based on what players have done, but also on what it appears they will be capable of doing going forward. With that in mind, Del Zotto earns his spot on our list hands down.

10. Dan Girardi

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    As evidenced by his exclusion from the 2011-2012 season's All-Star ballot, Dan Girardi is not exactly on the radar when it comes to best of the best lists. That being the case, it is by no means a reflection of his contributions to the team this year and in the past, or an indication of what is ahead for this steady and ever-growing blueliner.

    Girardi is not flashy, he is not the first option the team goes to when a physical message needs to be sent, and he will rarely, if ever, be seen meandering in and out of opposing defensive schemes during an end-to-end rush. What he is, though, is the rock of this current Rangers defense and a major reason why the team has steadied itself after a rough start.

    Additionally, Girardi is developing into more of an offensive threat as the season progresses. He's been given more time on the power play and has responded well to the new responsibility. His 27:46 average time on ice (TOI) leads all NHL skaters, and is perhaps the most conclusive evidence pointing to his emergence as a player.

    We predict continued growth for this still young (27) defenseman, and his place on this list will no doubt elevate as the years progress.

9. Kevin Lowe

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    Kevin Lowe, make no mistake, was one of the best stay at home defensive specialists of his or any generation. He made his name originally in Edmonton prior to and during that team's amazing string of success, beginning with the Stanley Cup win in 1984-1985. 

    In Edmonton. Lowe was the anchor of a defense corps that was routinely called upon to compensate for the all-hands-on-deck offensive approach taken by the team in its heyday. This was no small feat, of course, given that the Oilers were scoring goals in bunches and seemingly at will.

    When he arrived in New York for the 1992-1993 season at the age of 33, Lowe was already an established defensive star, and he was brought to New York to provide the Rangers with a steady and reliable option to turn to as the team continued to build towards a legitimate push for the Cup.

    Though in the Top 10 on our list, Lowe does not rank higher than others to come due in large part to the fact that he was with the team for just 217 total games over four years. His inclusion on our list, then, is owed primarily to his stature in the league prior to arriving in New York. With that said, however, his contributions to the Rangers, combined with his previous accomplishments, warrant his place on our list.

8. Reijo Ruotsalainen

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    Easy to overlook in Rangers history and, by NHL standards, easy to overlook on the ice due to his 5'8", 165 pound frame. In terms of what he was able to achieve, however, Reijo (Rexi) Ruotsalainen should never be overlooked.

    It needs to be said that when Ruotsalainen entered the NHL in 1981-1982, we had not yet adopted the relatively enlightened mindset that pervades the game today. In other words, headshots were not only not condemned, but encouraged. Teams employed any and all means to undermine the opposition's strengths, and physical punishment was the primary means employed.

    Despite these obstacles, Ruotsalainen put up 56 points in 78 games in his rookie season, including 18 goals. He was a direct beneficiary of newly minted coach Herb Brooks' European-influenced attack, an attack that called for movement with and without the puck and the constant weaving of players in search of open ice.

    Over the course of his five full seasons on Braodway, Ruotsalainen averaged just under 20 goals per year and roughly 63 points per season. His highs were 28 and 73, respectively, with both of those totals coming in his stellar 1984-1985 season.

    Referred to by Coach Brooks as the best skater in the NHL at the time, Ruotsalainen is unquestionably one of the best all-time Rangers defenseman and deserving of inclusion on our list.

7. Ron Greschner

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    Over 16 seasons and 982 NHL games, all with the New York Rangers, Ron Greschner amassed 610 total points. There were 179 goals, 431 assists and one truly significant back injury at the age of 27 that cost Greschner a number of prime years of his career.

    In the seven seasons prior to the 1981-1982 season, Ron Greschner averaged roughly .72 points per game (PPG). In the five seasons prior to 1981-1982, Greschner's PPG average actually rose to roughly .81. In other words, Greschner was scoring in roughly 81 percent of all games he played for a five year stretch prior to the 1981-1982 season.

    These would be respectable numbers for a forward, even in the trap-free days of the 1980's NHL. That these are the numbers for a defenseman that was, shall we say, not so fleet of foot, is a testament to the skill that Greschner possessed.

    Greschner would play just 29 games in 1981-1982 and only 10 the following year due to the back injury referenced earlier. Although he was just 29 upon his return to the team for the 1983-1984 season, he never consistently regained the form that made him such a force for much of the 1970's.

    Despite the many games lost to injury and the impact these injuries had on his play over the years, Greschner was still able to retire while holding all offensive records (since broken) for a Ranger defenseman. For that reason alone, although there are many others, Greschner is firmly in the Top 10 on our list.

6. Marc Staal

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    Marc Staal, the 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft, is a big man. At 6'4" and 215 pounds, he is a true presence in the defensive zone, and it says something about his capabilities that by the age of 22, he was considered such a sure thing that the entire defense was built around him.

    Staal is first and foremost a defensive defenseman, and always the first option when a shut-down performance is required against an opposing team's big line or player. Paired with Dan Girardi, Staal was a major factor in limiting Alex Ovechkin's production vs. the Rangers throughout the 2010-2011 regular season and playoffs.

    He has developed into one of the best penalty-killing defenseman in the league as well, and his progress as a component on the power play is an indication of his overall talent. Staal will likely not develop into a 20-goal, 70-80 point presence; however, he will certainly contribute more offensively as the years pass.

    There is one obstacle that could derail the young Staal's progress and/or career, and we're of course referring to the concussion issues he now faces that have kept him from the lineup for the entire 2011-2012 season to date. Presuming he can overcome this unpredictable malady, though, expect Staal to be considered one of the best defenseman of his generation when all is said and done.

5. Harry Howell

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    The inclusion of Harry Howell on this list was, to say the least, troublesome. He began his career as a Ranger in 1952-1953 and by all accounts is considered one of the best all-time defenseman in league history. With that said, Howell's career predates this writer's scope of knowledge, and so it is troubling to include a player on a "best of" list when there is literally no personal experience to guide the process.

    There is a rating system in place, however, that is impartial and based on a statistical analysis of a player's career and accomplishments. The player is assigned point totals and then compared to other players to determine their relative place in NHL history in terms of impact and ability.

    The system, referred to as the NHL Elo Player Ratings, is explained in detail in a link provided below. According to this system, Howell is ranked as the 245th All-Time NHL Skater, a designation that appears worthy of being considered valid and meaningful.

    Remove the rating system from the equation, however, and there is no questioning that Howell was considered a force in his time. He played for the Rangers for 17 years, was known as a defensive defenseman and was an All-Star selection seven times. Howell was also honored with the Norris Trophy in 1967 and is a member of the NHL Hall of Fame, cementing his status as an elite player of his era and as an exceedingly worthy member of our list.

    NHL Elo Player Ratings

4. Ryan McDonagh

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    In terms of leaps of faith, the placement of Ryan McDonagh in the No. 4 slot on our list is roughly equivalent to an attempt to jump the Grand Canyon, on foot, with a 10-yard lead. We get it.

    This reality, however, does not negate the fact that, in McDonagh, the Rangers have a true two-way defensive star in the making.

    Drafted 12th overall in 2007 by the Montreal Canadiens and traded to the Rangers in the deal that saw Scott Gomez go the other way, McDonagh burst on the Rangers scene at just about the half-way point of the 2010-2011 season.

    He played 40 games in all, admittedly not much of a sample set; however, in those 40 games, he gained the confidence of the extremely demanding John Tortorella, so much so that McDonagh was used as a top four defenseman for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.

    This season, with injuires to Marc Staal and McDonagh's usual partner from a year ago, Michael Sauer, McDonagh was asked to take on responsibilities usually reserved for established NHL defenseman, the kind not typically handed out to 21-year-old defenseman with 40 games of NHL experience.

    McDonagh has not simply responded to the challenge put before him, he has excelled with the additional workload. His 25:11 time on ice is second on the team to Dan Girardi's 27:46, and we remind you that Girardi leads the league in this category.

    Moreover, McDonagh has consistently demonstrated the ability to change a game with his two-way skills. He can rush the puck end to end, not an easy feat in the trap-centric NHL of today, dish the puck down low or with a long breakout pass and he handles his defensive responsibilities flawlessly.

    If/when Marc Staal returns, look for McDonagh to be granted more latitude with his offensive decisions, and also look for his offensive numbers to consistently be in that 20-goals, 70-80 point range that is the hallmark of an elite defenseman in today's game.

    Great things are to come for this young man, and as a result, he earns his spot in the top five of our list based on those expectations.

3. Sergei Zubov

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    Oh what could have been. Sergei Zubov, with the Rangers for just three seasons, one of which was the strike-shortened 1994-1995 campaign, was part of one of those trades that cause Ranger's fans to cringe even to this day.

    It could be said that the trade that saw Zubov leave New York was orchestrated by none other that Mark Messier. It was Messier who had issues with Petr Nedved, the other player that went to Pittsburgh with Zubov in return for Luc Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson. At the time of the trade, it was suggested that the Rangers needed to get tougher, hence the inclusion of Samuelsson. However, the Rangers took a beating in this trade and never fully recovered from the loss of Zubov specifically.

    While Brian Leetch was scoring 34 points on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy during the 1993-1994 Stanley Cup run, Zubov was contributing 19 of his own over the 22 games he played. It should also be mentioned that it was Zubov who led the entire team in scoring for the regular season that year, totaling 89 points with 12 goals and 77 assists. He outscored Leetch by a full 10 points for the season, and it became apparent to the entire league that he was special.

    Zubov would go on to score 771 points over his career, good for a .72 PPG average. It is revealing to note as well that Zubov is ranked as the 136th best skater of all time by the NHL Elo Player ratings system we referenced earlier. Good old Ulfie, by the way, is somewhere below 598, though we cannot be certain where due to the fact that the rankings end at 598.

    Oh, what could have been.

2. Brad Park

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    The inclusion of Brad Park on our list, in the second slot, was not exactly a taxing decision to make. Park was the second best defenseman of his era, and when your era includes Bobby Orr, finishing in second is not anything like kissing your sister.

    Park averaged roughly .81 PPG over his 17-year career, and that total would be higher had he not been asked to play a more defensive game by Don Cherry when he went to Boston. As an indication of his two-way mastery, he also finished his career with a plus/minus rating of 358, and that includes his final two years with Detroit that saw him go minus-44 over that span.

    Park was a nine-time All-Star, finished second in the Norris Trophy race six times (Bobby Orr, anyone?) and he never missed the playoffs as a player during his entire 17-year career. A first ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 1988, Brad Park is, perhaps appropriately, immensely deserving of yet another second place designation.

1. Brian Leetch

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    No drum roll required, no drama or tension associated with the designation of Brian Leetch as the best Rangers defenseman of all time. In addition to being quietly effective in his own zone, Brian Leetch averaged roughly .87 points points per game during his days as a Ranger.

    Blessed with speed, skating ability, tremendous vision and some of the softest hands to ever wear hockey gloves, Leetch lived up to every expectation thrust upon him as the anticipated savior of the organization upon his arrival in New York late in the 1988 season.

    Leetch would win two Norris Trophies as the league's best defenseman, the Conn Smythe Trophy for his performance during the 1994 Stanley Cup run and was captain of the 1996 World Cup-winning United States hockey team.

    Additionally, Leetch is one of only five defenseman in the history of the NHL to score 100 or more points in a season (102 in 1991-1992), and he is universally recognized by his peers as one of the very few defensemen in the discussion as the best of his generation.