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Melrose Minute: 5 greatest defensemen

Sunday, 10.23.2011 / 8:19 PM
Melrose Minute
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Melrose Minute
Melrose Minute: 5 greatest defensemen
Former NHL head coach and player Barry Melrose starts a new gig this season: He will be blogging for NHL.com throughout the 2011-2012 season.

Scorers get the glory, but defensemen are often the backbone of a team -- and some of the greatest players in the League's history have been on the blue line. Here are my five greatest defensemen of all time:

5. Paul Coffey

Maybe, if you look at the list, maybe he's not a great defensive defenseman, but his numbers are staggering. He's got 396 goals, 1,531 points and he was a plus-294 in his career. He won four Stanley Cups and played in the Final seven times. He was great on the power play. He was arguably one of the greatest skaters that ever played our game. I've looked at other guys like Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Brad Park, or Brian Leetch, but I just couldn't overlook Paul Coffey's offensive numbers and the fact that he won all those Stanley Cups.

Paul Coffey racked up four Stanley Cups to go with his 396 goals and 1,531 points over a 21-year NHL career. (Photo: Getty Images)
In Edmonton, Gretzky and all those forwards needed a defenseman like Coffey. He opened up so much room for them. For that free-wheeling offense Edmonton had, they needed that defenseman that joined the rush and was dangerous, and Coffey was the perfect defenseman for that style of play. In Pittsburgh he went to an offensive team, and the same when he went to Detroit. It's no use putting a thoroughbred with fallow horses, so he was always with wide open offensive teams. That's one of the reasons his numbers are great, but those types of teams fit his style. The coaches on those teams were smart enough to realize what they had and they didn't try to change him. They let him go and he was dangerous. On 5-on-5 he was dangerous, shorthanded, on the power play -- he was scary. With him Edmonton's power play was even scarier. Yeah, Gretzky was on it, Messier was on it, Kurri was on it, but Coffey was usually the guy bringing the puck up the ice on the power play.

4. Nicklas Lidstrom

He might move up on this list the more he plays. He just reached 1,500 games, he's got 255 goals, 1,112 points, four Stanley Cups, he was great on the international stage at the Worlds and the Olympics, and he was a high plus-player. He always plays against the opponent's top forward and he always shuts the guy down. He's got great playoff numbers. Just a phenomenal player. He's never hurt, he's very durable, he's just so good at everything. He doesn't have a weakness.

The funny part is, apart from Bobby Orr, all the guys on this list played a long time. But Nicky, playing in this era with as many games as Detroit played -- don't forget, Detroit usually played at least 20 playoff games every year, too -- his offseason was very short. Still, the guy could do anything. He killed penalties, he could play the power play, he could play a speed game, he could play a grind and checking game. He just didn't have a weakness. You could say Coffey had a weakness -- he wasn't a great defensive defenseman. Lidstrom isn't as good as Coffey offensively, but he's still a great offensive defenseman and he's one of the greatest defensive defensemen we've ever seen.

3. Ray Bourque

The guy is phenomenal. He's got 410 goals, 1,579 points, 1,612 games, and he finally got a Stanley Cup. He's a lot like Lidstrom. He always goes on the ice against the other team's best player, he's a great defensive defenseman, and he played in that small rink in Boston, too. That didn't help a guy like Bourque. If Bourque could have gotten on a bigger ice surface he would have been a lot harder to check. I think that little rink in Boston effected him. Just like Lidstrom the guy did not have a weakness. Bourque was great offensively, great defensively, he was a great passer with the puck, he had a great shot from the point, he ran a great power play. So, so perfectly balanced offensively and defensively. Just a great, great hockey player.

As for the way he went out, the last game of his career he got to carry the Cup around. That's how stories and movies are finished. Ray Bourque was able to do that, and since it was his only Cup it meant even more to him. He knew how hard it was to win a Cup. All those years with the Bruins he couldn't do it, so knowing it was his last game, can you imagine what a moment that was for Ray Bourque? The only negative thing was that he couldn't do it in Boston.

2. Doug Harvey

Doug Harvey made 11 consecutive All-Star teams and won six Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo: Getty Images)
I'm a big believer in guys that changed the game and Doug Harvey changed the game. Before Doug defensemen never joined the rush, they never scored goals. Their job was strictly to get the puck to the forwards and not even cross the blue line at the far end. Doug created a little offense. He had 88 goals for the Montreal Canadiens, a number of Stanley Cups. He was Bobby Orr before there was Bobby Orr. He changed the game. The really great players changed the game, and Doug changed the game in the 50's and 60's.

Guys that know Harvey, if you talk to those guys and you ask them who was the glue of those great Canadiens teams, they all say, "Doug Harvey". Jean Beliveau was unbelievable and Maurice Richard too, but they say the real glue of that team was Doug Harvey. He was an unbelievable passer of the puck, too. One second it was on his tape and the next second it was on Beliveau's tape. It's a shame young guys don't know Doug Harvey. He played before TV was big, but this guy was just a pleasure to watch.

1. Bobby Orr

He created the offensive defenseman. There wouldn't be a Ray Bourque, there wouldn't be a Paul Coffey if there wasn't a Bobby Orr. He took what Harvey did and magnified it a million times. Not only joining the rush but leading the rush, not only joining the scoring race but leading the scoring race. He had shocking plus/minus numbers. One season he was plus-124. The Boston power play was scary with him on it. He did stuff that no one ever did. He revolutionized the way hockey was played. Anyone who changed the game like Orr is the best. There's no doubt in my mind that he was the greatest defenseman that ever played.

The only argument you could get into is "is he the greatest player that ever played? Is it Gretzky or Orr?" They both changed the game. The only knock on Bobby Orr is he only played 657 games due to injuries. Can you imagine the numbers he would have if he played as many games as Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey? In 657 games he had 915 points. He had over a point per game as a defenseman. The numbers would be shockingly similar to Gretzky's if he played the same king of time as Coffey or Bourque. Gretzky had more assists than anyone else had points. Orr's numbers would have been like that. If he played a normal career of 15 years his numbers would have been out of this world.
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