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Chemistry a key to defense tandems

by John McGourty
What makes a successful defense tandem?

Success in the NHL is measured by wins, so a successful blue-line pairing is one that contributes to a winning team.

That's the definition. What's the formula?

Turns out, it varies and trial-and-error is often the best route for finding a great combination.

Brian Leetch and Jeff Beukeboom were established NHL veterans when they were paired in the early 1990s. They played their best hockey while together for the better part of eight seasons, winning the Stanley Cup for the New York Rangers in 1993-94.

Leetch and Beukeboom were an example of pairing an offensive defenseman, Leetch, with a defensive defenseman.

"With Brian, there seemed to be chemistry as soon as we started playing together," said Beukeboom, now the assistant coach for the OHL Sudbury Wolves. "There was no rhyme or reason but it was there. It was a fortunate situation for me to step into. We knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, especially what he could do offensively.

"You're talking about one of the 10-15 best defensemen to ever play the game and he was the most skilled and important player on our team in those years, although he always tried to deflect attention away from himself.

"Any time he got the puck and headed up ice, you knew he had the ability to change the outcome of the game. You could see the other team get back on their heels and get non-aggressive because of his ability. As his partner, I could sense it."

Beukeboom said there was little off-ice communication but the on-ice communication of glances, nods, observations and reactions was excellent and made him a better player.

"Did I get better playing with him? Absolutely," Beukeboom said. "He was so driven. I'd think he'd had a perfect game and he'd say, 'What about this play? What about that play?'"

Teams often pair veterans with promising younger players. This season, the Flyers have employed pairings of Chris Pronger and Matt Carle, and Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn. They have rotated five defensemen on the third pairing, now alternating Ryan Parent, Oskars Bartulis and Lukas Krajicek on that unit. But they use veterans Timonen and Pronger on the top power-play unit.

Carle, a second-round draft pick by San Jose in 2003, was in his third NHL season when he was traded to the Flyers, his third NHL team, last season. During the offseason, the Flyers traded for Pronger, whom they have paired with Carle this season. Carle has never looked so composed and his plus-18 rating is second on the Flyers to Pronger's plus-21.

"The way Chris thinks the game, how he sees things, that comes from experience and as a younger player, I try to pick up on those things," Carle said. "He definitely changed the way I play and has added confidence to me and everyone on the defense. He's been a great addition.

"We don't sit down and discuss things but when things come up in games, he gives me his two cents worth. That has helped me progress and get better defensively and on rushes. I'm more aggressive now because of him. The way he likes to play has definitely helped my game."

The Los Angeles Kings were looking for that kind of veteran leadership last summer when they signed free-agent defenseman Rob Scuderi from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and played him beside first-round draft pick Jack Johnson, now in his third NHL season.

Johnson was minus-19 with 11 points in his rookie season and minus-18 in only 41 games last season. He is minus-15 this year but has a career-high seven goals and 34 points. Though he was also serviceable for the U.S. team at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Johnson is a work in progress. Scuderi, on the other hand, has four straight seasons in the plus-column.

"These are guys that are going to be part of your team," Scuderi said. "It's important that you bring them up the right way and that they learn the right way. Jack is definitely an offensive guy. He's got a ton of skill and a ton of talent."

Scuderi believes Johnson will get it all together soon and be one of the NHL's top defenders as well as an offensive threat. He has learned to support Johnson's offensive forays.

"I have a feeling of what he's going to do in a certain situation so I move to a certain spot," Scuderi said. "It doesn't take that long to build a certain chemistry."

"Rob's good defensively, moves the puck well, smart," said Johnson. "He makes a good first pass and he's always reliable out there."

Chemistry was instantaneous for New York Islanders great Denis Potvin, now a Florida Panthers broadcaster. His brother, Jean, was already an Islanders defenseman when Denis came up in 1973. Potvin started out playing with Jean and Gerry Hart and then soon morphed into the veteran that coach Al Arbour paired with the younger defensemen.

"We don't sit down and discuss things but when things come up in games, he gives me his two cents worth. That has helped me progress and get better defensively and on rushes. I'm more aggressive now because of him. The way he likes to play has definitely helped my game." -- Flyers defenseman Matt Carle

"I played with so many people, somebody new each year," Potvin recalled. "Styles didn't matter. It was more a matter of needing to teach our system to new players. I played with defensive-minded Gord Lane and then Ken Morrow, who was a defensive defenseman. Then, I played with offensive defenseman Stefan Persson.

"I could take more chances with Stefan because he was an unbelievable passer. We played all those Stanley Cup years together on the power-play points.

"When I played with Gord Lane or another defensive defenseman, it was very simple. He was responsible for his side of the ice and me mine. If he moved the puck up ice when he should, I'd circle in behind him. No one told Gord not to carry the puck, so I had to adjust."

Potvin said pairings are more common now than when he played from 1973-88.

"We rotated five defensemen in a game and today most teams have three set pairs," Potvin said. "You often see a team's best defensemen on the ice together, like Francois Beauchemin and Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim. By midseason, I usually know all the pairings, barring injuries."

Potvin said Carle would probably be hearing a lot more from Pronger if he weren't playing so well. Potvin agreed Carle is having his best season, with 34 points, since he had 11 goals and 42 points as a rookie with San Jose.

"I understand that situation," Potvin said. "There would be talking if one player was uncomfortable with the other. If I wanted to change things, I'd tell my partner. I think would Matt would have the same scenario if he was doing things wrong. He's having a good year so I don't think Pronger has had anything to talk about.

"Mostly, these things get worked out in practice."

Contact John McGourty at

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