Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger have been just as good as advertised
By Adam Brady
More often than not, the hype far outweighs the results. Remember New Coke? Tons of buildup, very little taste. Most blockbuster movies don't thrill us as much as the trailers do. And when was the last time we saw a decent Super Bowl?
So when the hockey world was abuzz about the uniting of two of the best defensemen in the NHL, there was reason to hold judgment until they hit the ice. Yet Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger have been everything they were publicized to be, and they are a major reason the Ducks have been one of the league's best all season.
Most hockey people consider Niedermayer and Pronger among the top three defensemen in the league, along with Niklas Lidstrom of Detroit. (Lidstrom is the current holder of the Norris Trophy for the NHL's top defenseman, an honor Niedermayer and Pronger have each won in their careers.) And a look at the league's top defenseman scorers this season will find both Niedermayer and Pronger at the top of the list - just where they were expected to be.
But numbers aside, what is it that makes the two such great defensive players? In other words, what does it take to be a great defenseman?
"You have to be a smart player to play defense, especially with the way the rules are now," Niedermayer says. "It's a lot about positioning, a lot about understanding what the offensive players are trying to do. You have to have a knack for knowing where to go, how to limit their options and get the puck to your teammates."
Head coach Randy Carlyle admits he is "spoiled" being able to have either Niedermayer or Pronger (who each average just more than 27 minutes of time on ice per game) on the ice at all times. During the power play, they typically are out there at the same time, with Pronger often launching booming slap shots from the point, while Niedermayer typically looks for a seam in which to slide the puck to a teammate or the net. But it's in the Ducks own zone that Carlyle is most impressed by the two.
"They both have a tremendous amount of hockey intelligence, which means they're never very far out of position," says their head coach, Randy Carlyle. "They both use their sticks very well. In the new rules, the stick has to be much more effective in defending the puck, much more than the body. They are two players who have made that transition very easily."
Francois Beauchemin has had a close look at Niedermayer over the last two seasons, having played alongside him on the Ducks' starting defensive pairing. As much as Beauchemin says he has learned from playing with Niedermayer, he's just as impressed with Pronger.
"They're both good skaters, they both carry the puck really well and make good passes," Beauchemin says. "The way they read the play is incredible. They almost never get caught on the bad side of the play and they're very tough to go against one-on-one. You get that from a lot of experience, playing a lot of games and knowing who you're playing against and what they usually do on the ice."
Indeed, both Niedermayer and Pronger have plenty of experience. The 33-yar-old Niedermayer is in his 15th season, having won three Stanley Cups in his 13 seasons in New Jersey. He played his 1,000th NHL game on Nov. 28 at Edmonton. But that was overshadowed by the raucous reception that greeted Pronger's return to that city, where he helped the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals before requesting a trade last offseason. The Ducks are the 32-year-old Pronger's fourth NHL team in 13 seasons, as he spent his first two in Hartford and nine in St. Louis, where he won the Norris and the Hart Trophy (league MVP) in 1999-2000.
It was almost fitting that Niedermayer's major milestone got little attention in comparison to Pronger's return to Edmonton. The discrepancy in attention matched their personalities - Niedermayer the more soft-spoken one and Pronger the more boisterous one.
"He's certainly not the most gregarious guy," Pronger says of Niedermayer, "but when he speaks in the locker room, guys obviously listen and know he's got something to say."
There is also a notable physical difference between the two. At 6-6 Pronger is taller than just about everybody, while Niedermayer is listed at 6-1. Pass Pronger on the street and you automatically assume he's an athlete - although probably a basketball player. Niedermayer can walk right by in a t-shirt and shorts without anyone knowing he's one of the best professional athletes in the world.
The body-type differential also contributes to the diversity in their styles of play. Pronger has a longer reach and a bigger body, both of which he uses expertly to pry away pucks or recover them in the corners. Niedermayer uses his agility more to beat opponents to the puck. Then when they have the puck, Pronger is the master of the pinpoint pass that he fires from his own zone to a Ducks forward at the far blue line. Niedermayer prefers to carry the puck himself, much like a basketball point guard.
"Our strengths are definitely different," says Niedermayer. "He's a big guy with a big reach who uses his body, and I'm a smaller guy who uses skating a little more to my advantage."
Pronger is a bit blunter about it. "He's a lot better skater than I am," he says.
Before joining sides, each had seen the other play plenty of times. Most recently, it was during last year's hard-fought Western Conference Finals series in which the Pronger-led Edmonton ultimately prevailed in five games. Despite having been face-to-face for so many years, each player says they learned more about the other now that they're facing the same direction.
"The one thing I'm impressed by is how good he is with his stick," Niedermayer says, "whether it's poking or checking the puck off players' sticks or knocking it out of the air or whatever it may be. When the puck is around him, he always seems to get a piece of it. That's pretty frustrating as an offensive player when you're trying to get something going and he's always getting his stick on the puck."
Pronger says that while Niedermayer was a world-class player during his stint in New Jersey, he's even better now. "When he was playing in Jersey, he was hamstrung a little bit by the system. Last year I got a little more taste of how he can play when he's got the reigns taken off. Now having the opportunity to play with him, I'm even more impressed with the way he controls the puck."
But Niedermayer's biggest strengths come from his ability to glide up and down the ice, seemingly with little effort. The Anaheim Duck captain is like an actual Duck, seemingly moving along the surface with no effort, while beneath the surface he's paddling like crazy.
"His skating ability can make up for a lot," Pronger says. "He can be the first guy on the forecheck and then be the first guy back taking the rush. I don't think he gets enough credit for the way he plays defensively. Obviously, everybody sees him skating the puck up the ice and making plays, but he's real solid in his own end."
Says Carlyle, "With other guys, it might take a long time to accomplish some of the things Scotty does on a day to day basis. It might happen for other guys once a month. That's the biggest difference, is his consistency."
And Carlyle says Pronger is at that same level, especially after getting comfortable with the Ducks system and his teammates. "He's found a comfort zone in playing the way he's had to play with us," Carlyle says. "With both players, the biggest surprise has been the leadership skills they display. With Scotty, that took effect last year, and this year Pronger has stepped in here and been a big part of that." Both are also going to be Ducks for the long haul, as Niedermayer signed a four-year contract with the team in the 2005 offseason, while Pronger signed for three years last summer.
Few have benefited from the presence of the two in the defensive end as much as Ducks goalie J.S. Giguere, who last year called Niedermayer "definitely the best player I've ever played with." Now that he's looking at one (if not both) of their backs for almost the entire game, he admits it has made his job that much easier.
"It's awesome having those guys on my team," Giguere says. "They make you a better player. They're great leaders. They show us the way it's supposed to be every night. All we have to do is follow their lead."
This story appears in the current issue of Ducks Digest. Pick up a complimentary copy at your next Ducks game.