You hear this old cliché all the time: Defense is your best offense.
Sick of it already? So are we, but we certainly believe it.
For proof, just look at the final three in contention for this season's James Norris Trophy, which is awarded annually to the best defenseman in the National Hockey League.
Between Nicklas Lidstrom
of the Detroit Red Wings
, Zdeno Chara
of the Boston Bruins
and Dion Phaneuf
of the Calgary Flames
, the trio of finalists has a combined 44 goals and 137 assists for 181 points, an average of 60.3 points per defensemen.
Guess what? All three of their teams made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Lidstrom's Red Wings winning the Presidents' Trophy -- again. The Red Wings were also third with 3.07 goals per game. Calgary's 2.76 and Boston's 2.51 weren't staggering, but chances are neither the Flames nor the Bruins would have numbers even that high if it weren't for Phaneuf and Chara. And, there's no way anybody can say the Red Wings are the third-best offensive team in the League without Lidstrom, whose 60 assists and 70 points were tops among defensemen this season.
Perhaps the best quality in all three of the Norris finalists is their attention to detail at the most important end of the ice.
Since they all receive first-unit power-play time, in which you don't get awarded a plus for a goal, the fact that they are a combined plus-66 is quite astonishing. It's even more amazing that plus-40 of that belongs to Lidstrom, arguably the greatest offensive defenseman since Bobby Orr
Durability matters, too, and it's hard to find three as reliable as these contenders. Lidstrom averaged 26:43 of ice time in 76 games. Chara played an average of 26:50 in his 77 games. Phaneuf was at 26:25 and played in all 82 games.
Let's break 'em down even further:
Lidstrom is fast becoming the Norris Trophy king. He has won the award five times in the last six seasons, so being in this position as a contender is certainly nothing new to him.
What was kind of different was the path he took to achieve this season's honor of being a finalist yet again. He actually spent some time in the press box this season as an injured player. Lidstrom missed just 22 games in his 15 NHL seasons before this one, but a knee injury suffered early in a game at Colorado on Feb. 18 cost him six straight games this season. He returned on March 9 and promptly assisted on a pair of goals in a 4-3 win against Nashville. Lidstrom played 24:34 in that game.
"It was tough," Lidstrom told NHL.com of sitting out. "They went on a road trip right after I got hurt, so I missed the Western Canada trip. It was difficult sitting at home watching the team play. It feels like you're not even part of it, and you can't do anything about it. It was an awkward feeling.
"I have been fortunate enough to play all these games without a major injury and sooner or later it was going to happen."
But Lidstrom, who turns 38 next Monday, knows it wasn't the worst thing in the world to sit out a few games.
"Sitting up in the press box (at home games), you get a better overview of everything," he said. "You talk about our system, but up there you can see plays develop. That was a bit of a learning experience to get a look of how the team is playing."
It looks a lot better when No. 5 is patrolling the blue line.
The hulking Slovak, who packs the most powerful punch and hardest shot in the League thanks to his 6-foot-9, 255-pound body, isn't a newcomer to this list either.
Chara finished second to Scott Niedermayer
in the Norris race in 2004.
Chara, though, had his most productive offensive season this year on a team that prided itself on defense. He had 51 points, including 17 goals and 34 assists with a plus-14 rating. Nine of Chara's 17 goals came on the power play, where he is one of the most feared point men in the game due to his slap shot that registered a blistering 103.1 mph during the Dodge SuperSkills Competition at NHL All-Star Weekend in Atlanta.
Chara's big work, though, was on the revamped Bruins defense where he is a star among a group of workmanlike players. The Bruins were 11th in the NHL by allowing 2.62 goals per game. They were 29th last season with a bulging 3.48 goals allowed.
The Bruins' captain also helped bring along 25-year-old partner Dennis Wideman
, who also had a career year with 36 points and a plus-11 rating.
I think he's somewhere between Scott Stevens and Larry Robinson in that Larry did play on the power play and was a puck-moving defenseman and Dion has that skill set. Scott played on the power play, but he was very much a defending defenseman who would always play against the top competitors on the opposing team. Dion has that portion of his game, too. - Flames head coach, Mike Keenan
Could it possibly be that the Calgary Flames
are getting more than even they thought from Phaneuf, the ninth-overall pick in the 2003 Entry Draft?
Perhaps, because in just his third season Phaneuf vaulted himself into bonafide star status in hockey circles with his rock 'em, sock 'em game while imploring many of his phenomenal offensive instincts.
Phaneuf, an All-Star for the second straight season, played in all 82 games for the second time in his career – he missed only three games last season – and produced 17 goals and 43 assists for 60 points, which was good for fifth among defensemen. His 17 goals were second among defenseman to only Washington's Mike Green
, who had 18.
Phaneuf's 43 assists and 60 points were career highs that he may very well eclipse down the road. He is, after all, only 23 and is already drawing comparisons to a pair of Hall of Famers.
"I think he's somewhere between Scott Stevens
and Larry Robinson
in that Larry did play on the power play and was a puck-moving defenseman and Dion has that skill set," Flames coach Mike Keenan told NHL.com. "Scott played on the power play, but he was very much a defending defenseman who would always play against the top competitors on the opposing team. Dion has that portion of his game, too."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.