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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Paul Coffey: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Set single-season NHL record for goals by defenseman, helped Oilers to first three Stanley Cup titles

by John Mackinnon / Special to NHL.com

To watch Paul Coffey skate in his prime was to witness artistry of the highest order.

It seemed effortless, a man zooming up the ice, attaining top speed in two or three strides, swerving to elude opponents like a kid speeding downhill on a skateboard. All this while shoehorning his size 8 feet into size 6 skates, the smaller boots providing better feel and improved control on the ice.

 

Video: Paul Coffey is one of three D-men to score 40 goals

 

"He's an extraordinary talent," then-Edmonton Oilers coach and general manager Glen Sather said early in Coffey's 21-year career. "He's probably the greatest skater I've ever seen."

When you consider that Sather played with and against legendary Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr and flying Montreal Canadiens right wing Guy Lafleur, that is high praise.

The defenseman didn't reinvent his position like Orr famously did, but the 6-foot, 205-pound Coffey took the role of "offenseman" into another orbit. His skating, vision, hockey sense and big slap shot propelled him there.

 

PAUL COFFEY CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats 
Games: 1,409 | Goals: 396 | Assists: 1,135 | Points: 1,531

 

The native of Weston, Ontario, didn't so much join the rush as overtake it with his blazing speed, frequently finishing an attack with a goalmouth tap-in as if he were a forward -- Jari Kurri to Wayne Gretzky to Coffey.

Fittingly his career hit top gear quickly. Selected by the Oilers with the No. 6 pick in the 1980 NHL Draft, Coffey had modest numbers -- nine goals and 32 points in 74 games -- as an NHL rookie in 1980-81. But in his second season, Coffey got comfortable, scoring 29 goals and getting 89 points, a taste of record-breaking performances to come.

To opposing teams and their fans, it seemed almost unfair. Even if an opponent managed to contain elite forwards Gretzky, Kurri, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, there was always the threat of Coffey, roaring up the right side of the ice with the puck, being unstoppable some nights.

Video: 1985 Cup Final, Gm5: Paul Coffey scores on drop pass

In March 1986, Coffey lit up the Red Wings in Detroit for eight points -- two goals and six assists -- tying the record for an NHL defenseman set by Tom Bladon of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1977.

At one point during that game, Coffey told Sportsnet years later, "Wayne turned to me and asked, 'Do you know the record for points in a game by a defenseman?' I didn't know, but Wayne knew all the stats, all the records.

"'No,' I told him. 'It's eight,' Wayne said. 'Let's go.'

"And I went out and got four more. Didn't beat the record, but I tied it."

That was the season Coffey scored 48 goals, breaking Orr's single-season record for a defenseman (46). Coffey also piled up 90 assists for a stunning 138 points, one fewer than Orr's single-season mark for a defenseman.

For one incredible stretch that season, Coffey produced at least a point in 28 straight games, an NHL record for defensemen.

It helped Coffey that his longtime defense partner in Edmonton, Charlie Huddy, was a solid, stay-at-home player, enabling Coffey to take off when the situation was right, which was frequently with the high-scoring Oilers.

At the 30-year reunion of the Oilers' 1984 Stanley Cup championship team in October 2014, Coffey recalled that Huddy would give his partner the green light to jump up into the rush by singing a snippet of the Men Without Hats song "The Safety Dance," which was popular at the time.

"He'd sing, 'You can dance if you want to,'" Coffey said. And away Coffey would go, knowing Huddy had him covered on the back end.

"I knew my role," Huddy told the Edmonton Journal in October 2014. "I knew Coff's game. I knew my spot [was] to make Coffey's game better. [Coffey] got a lot of knocks, but you know what? He got back pretty quickly."

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 tournament winner, 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.

Through seven seasons with Edmonton, Coffey helped the Oilers win three of their five Stanley Cup championships, in 1984, '85 and '87. He then held out for more money from the small-market Oilers, demanded a trade and got his wish on Nov. 24, 1987, when he was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was the first star from that Oilers core to leave.

Coffey proved an excellent fit for an improving Penguins team that was constructed around Mario Lemieux. It took a few years for that group to mature into a championship team. While it did, Coffey had 100-point seasons in 1988-89 (113) and '89-90 (103). He won the Cup for the fourth time in 1991, the Penguins' first championship.

"I didn't know if I'd ever get to the Stanley Cup Final again when I left Edmonton, but basically I just felt I wanted to start over," Coffey told the Edmonton Journal the night of the '91 Cup victory. "I didn't think we'd be here this soon."

That championship feeling didn't last long for Coffey. He played most of the 1991-92 season for the Penguins before they traded him to the Los Angeles Kings, the third of the nine teams Coffey played for during his NHL career. That reunited Coffey with Gretzky, though they didn't have the opportunity to play together much; Gretzky had back problems for much of Coffey's 60 games with Los Angeles.

From there, midway through 1992-93 he was traded to Detroit, where Coffey won the Norris Trophy at age 33. Coffey would also play for the Hartford Whalers, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins before he retired in 2001, just shy of his 40th birthday.

His was an all-world talent, and Coffey squeezed every ounce out of it.

"I have nothing to be bitter or disappointed about," Coffey told the Edmonton Journal in 1999, as his career wound down. "The game owes me nothing.

"I don't play for anybody else. I play for myself and the team. I know that the things I'm most proud of in my career aren't individual records, they're the Stanley Cups and the Canada Cups we won. 

"I played against the best in the world and came out on top."

Coffey earn plenty of individual accolades, though, including breaking Denis Potvin's records for career assists (742) and points (1,052) by a defenseman -- surpassing both marks in the same game on Oct. 17, 1991, against the New York Islanders. Coffey ended his career in 2001 with 396 goals, 1,135 assists and 1,531 points, second to Ray Bourque (who also retired that year) in all three categories. His 48 goals in 1985-86 remain the most by an NHL defenseman.

Coffey and Orr remain the only NHL defensemen to score 40 or more goals in a season. Only Coffey, who scored 40 goals in 1983-84, did it more than once.

Coffey entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004 with fellow defensemen Bourque and Larry Murphy, a power trio if ever there was one.

On Oct. 18, 2005, when the Oilers retired Coffey's No. 7 (he wore No. 77 after he left the Oilers), he skated out in full uniform to the roar of a Rexall Place sellout crowd, and re-enacted one of his signature moves. Coffey circled the Oilers net, took a backhand saucer pass from Huddy, zoomed up the right wing and buried a shot into the empty net.

"Edmonton was the perfect fit, the perfect time, the perfect coach," Coffey said that night. "Sometimes, you do look back and wonder what if ... How many Cups would we have won if we all stayed together?"

On other occasions, Coffey has said he considers himself fortunate that his career unfolded the way it did.

"I had a chance to win with what I consider to be the greatest team ever in Edmonton, and then when I got traded I was lucky to come to a team that had Mario Lemieux," he said.

Likewise, Gretzky, Messier, Lemieux and others probably feel fortunate to have played with one of the best defensemen ever to lace up skates, regardless of what size they were.

 

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