Paul Coffey didn't reinvent the way defensemen play, as Bobby Orr did. What Coffey did instead was take the role of offensive defenseman to a whole new level.
Coffey could skate like the wind. One of the great "what ifs" in NHL history would be to have Coffey and Orr, in their prime, square off in the fastest skater competition during All-Star Weekend. But unlike Orr, who popularized the strategy of having a defenseman lead the rush, Coffey would join the play thanks to his great speed. He'd often catch opponents flat-footed and find himself open for an easy goal or a chance to set up a teammate for a wide-open shot.
Of course, it helped that Coffey spent his first seven NHL seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, playing a key role on some of the highest-scoring teams in NHL history. After helping the Oilers win the Stanley Cup for the third time in four seasons in 1987, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins and helped Mario Lemieux become a champion in 1991. Coffey was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 19, 1992, and played for six more teams before he retired in 2001 with 1,531 points (396 goals, 1,135 assists). His 48 goals in 1985-86 are still an NHL record for defensemen, and his 138 points that season are one point short of Orr's single-season record.
Coffey was often criticized for focusing on offense at the expense of defense. But in his NHL100 profile, author John MacKinnon wrote about Coffey's growth as a player during the 1984 Canada Cup:
"Yes, the knock, particularly early in his career, was that Coffey was suspect on defense, a shortcoming masked in the regular season by the sheer volume of Oilers scoring but potentially problematic in postseason play, when defenses typically tighten up.
"But Coffey famously demonstrated he could dazzle at both ends of the ice with one brilliant shift in a Canada Cup semifinal against the Soviet Union in 1984. The lone Canada player back on a Soviet 2-on-1 in overtime, Coffey slid to his knees and deployed what the coaches call a "good stick" to intercept a pass in his own zone.
"Transitioning to offense in an eyeblink, Coffey moved the puck into the Russian zone where, after some intense sustained pressure, Mike Bossy scored the game-winning goal by deflecting a Coffey slap shot into the net.
"With that performance, Coffey had arrived as a world-class defenseman in the eyes of many observers. In 1985, that sentiment was validated when he won the Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman for the first of three times. Coffey also won the Norris in 1986 and then again in 1995, with the Detroit Red Wings.
Video: Paul Coffey is one of three D-men to score 40 goals
Artist Tony Harris said he was amazed by Coffey's speed and skill.
"The 1980s were an exciting time for the NHL, and Paul Coffey was definitely a player to watch," he said. "I was amazed how in the same shift he would join the rush, make a play on net and then be back on his own blue line stealing the puck from an opposing forward. Remarkable."
Like Coffey, Eddie Shore was a superstar defenseman. But to say the two had different styles would be understating the issue.
Shore mixed his offensive skills with a ruggedness that stood out even in the NHL's early days. Shortly after being acquired by the Boston Bruins from the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Hockey League on Aug. 10, 1926, he got into a fistfight with a teammate that nearly cost him an ear -- team doctors wanted to sever it completely, but Shore got his own doctor to reattach it. He piled up 130 penalty minutes as a rookie in 1926-27, then led the NHL with 165 in 1927-28, an era when the NHL played a 44-game season.
But Shore was not a goon. Like Coffey, he had the speed and stickhandling ability to be an offensive force. He had 12 goals as a rookie and 62 in his first five NHL seasons, won the Hart Trophy as MVP four times and helped the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 1929 and 1939.
Shore's mixture of skill and combativeness made him a must-see for fans, exactly what the NHL needed to attract interest and grow the sports in the United States.
Author Wayne Coffey, in his NHL100 profile of Shore, recounted a game that made one of the NHL's earliest stars famous:
Video: Eddie Shore was Bruins' first great defenseman
"Maybe the most legendary Shore story began on a winter's night in Boston, Shore riding to the station with a friend to catch the Bruins' overnight train to Montreal. The friend's car broke down, and rather than abandon him and catch a cab, Shore got under the hood to fix it. They finally got to the station, but the Bruins train had left, so Shore convinced a cabdriver to drive him more to Montreal, some 320 miles away, for $100.
"So began a harrowing trip northward, traversed in blizzard conditions on serpentine, snow-covered roads in the White Mountains, with a driver and vehicle wholly ill-equipped for the journey. Shore wound up doing the driving himself, flagging down a truck driver to get a set of chains, and shoveling the car out of multiple ditches, before he hitched a ride on a horse-drawn sleigh to a train station.
"The 22-hour trip got Shore to Montreal just in time for the game. Coach Art Ross fined him $200 for being late, and then marveled as Shore, his face chapped red with vestiges of frostbite, played one of the best games Ross had ever seen."
Capturing Shore on canvas was a special treat for Harris.
"I loved painting this portrait," he said. "That's partly because of the old woolen sweater and canvas pants, but mainly because of Shore's grin. Talk about old-time hockey!"