The Torch series launched in December with hockey’s #1 forwards. Check out Part 1, explaining the High Noon player ranking system and covering 1918 to 1981. Part 2 featured the top forwards from 1982 to the present.
Most of us are captivated by the feats of forwards. Checking the scoring leaders. Watching highlight reel goals. Posters hung on the walls of children dreaming of a hockey future. With a full apology to those of you with Rod Langway posters in your youth, hockey’s rhythm leans toward offence.
The HHOF leans forward heavy — 62% of post-expansion NHL inductees are forwards. The Athletic’s wonderfully crafted NHL99 series featured just a dozen defencemen in its top 50. Since its creation in 1965, only 11 different defenders have been awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. Well, it’s time for defenceman to join the rush and get their due.
As we did with forwards, we won’t begin at the NHL’s inaugural season. We’ll simply note the first three decades of torchbearers at the end of today’s article. Instead, we’ll take our hockey time machine back to 1950. Remarkably, only eight players hold the title of the NHL’s #1 defenceman from 1950 to 1997 — a span of 48 seasons. Our journey of dominant superstars patrolling the blueline begins now. Welcome to The Torch: Defencemen!
🔥 1950-57: Red Kelly
Take your pick as how best to remember Kelly’s unique career. There’s most Stanley Cups (eight) for a player never suiting up for Montreal. There’s his mid-career conversion to centre(!) in Toronto, where’d he win four Cups in his 30s. There’s his run as a Member of Parliament in the 1960s… while still a fixture in the NHL. But how about Red Kelly, groundbreaking dynamo and #1 defenceman in hockey for nearly a decade?
- From 1949-50 through 1955-56, he led defencemen in goals every year.
- For 10 consecutive years, he led the Red Wings’ defence to the fewest or second-fewest goals allowed each season.
- In 1952-53, Kelly scored 19 goals. The runner-up among defencemen (teammate Marcel Pronovost) scored eight measly goals.
Red Kelly rocked. What a career. What a life.
🔥 1958-60: Doug Harvey
It’s difficult to measure greatness the further back in time we go, as both statistics and the eye test are limited. Harvey famously won seven Norris Trophies, topped only by Bobby Orr. So, it may be a surprise to see him hold the title for “only” three years.
Harvey was irrefutably one of the best defencemen of the NHL’s first half-century. He methodically anchored the Habs’ defence to five consecutive Cups, each version #1 in the league in goals against. His High Noon card is something to behold… a top three defenceman for 12 straight years!
🔥 1961-68: Pierre Pilote
One of the biggest thrills of this project is highlighting underappreciated players and performances. Pilote fits firmly in this category. Only eight men have earned three or more Norris Trophies. “Pete” is part of an even more distinct group — his three wins were consecutive, joining only Harvey, Orr, and Nicklas Lidstrom.
Yet, his legacy seems lost to time.
A late bloomer whose first full NHL season came at age 25, Pilote owned the 1960s. He quietly carries the torch for a shocking eight straight years. It was Pilote – not Stan Mikita or Bobby Hull – that led the Hawks in playoff points (15) en route to the trio’s only Stanley Cup (1961).
🔥 1969-76: Bobby Orr
Orr falls in the Gretzky category where it’s a challenge to extract something fresh from such a celebrated career. But the PPS system offers a new look at his revolutionary run:
- Orr’s Peak score (204) leads the next-best defenceman by 64!
- Orr’s Pace score (175) leads the next-best defenceman by 52!
- Orr’s Career score (100) is 11th, despite playing only 30 games after his age-26 season.
Let’s stare at his High Noon card and slowly pick our jaws off the floor. On-ice perfection.
🔥 1977: Guy Lapointe
When your prime is head-to-head with Orr and then Denis Potvin, it’s a rocky road to #1. While the Habs’ famous class clown never landed a Norris (despite six finishes in the top five), he squeezes in a cameo atop High Noon. Lapointe’s hardware collection, however, is far from empty. He snagged six Cup rings and a spot on both the winning ’72 Summit Series and ’77 Canada Cup teams. As a comparison for those of us never getting to see him play, Victor Hedman should approach Lapointe under PPS in a few years.
🔥 1978-82: Denis Potvin
Rangers fans have loudly and proudly chirped “Potvin sucks!” for decades. The Islanders legend most certainly did not suck. For a full decade, Potvin ranked in the top three among NHL defencemen under High Noon, including a five-year run as hockey’s best.
Even after accounting for the high-scoring environment Potvin thrived in, his output is iconic. Among blueliners, his adjusted pace of 19.4 goals per 82 games is topped only by Orr, and his 66 adjusted points per 82 games ranks seventh all-time. A game-breaking star with few equals.
🔥 1983-85, 1989-96: Ray Bourque
I’ve covered Bourque’s awe-inspiring career extensively since this project was launched, so we’ll keep it brief. PPS identifies him as the 2nd-most HHOF-worthy defenceman ever, anchored by his unfathomably long stretch among the game’s elite. He holds the torch for a record-setting 11 years(!!) over two separate stints.
[Cue the meme of the blond-haired guy raising his eyebrows and blinking a few times.]
🔥 1986-88, 1997: Paul Coffey
The string of dominant offensive defencemen in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s just keeps rolling. Coffey’s single-season scoring exploits are mind-blowing today — his 48 goals shattered Orr’s best (46) and he came within a point of Orr’s record 139 points.
Adjusted for era, Coffey is not quite Orr. No one is.
Orr owns the five best single-season adjusted point totals (129, 124, 117, 117, 117). Coffey’s work does survive contact though, his three best years (108, 100, 100) are all top 10 marks in NHL history. His absurd 48-goal year translates to 37 goals in a neutral era. Imagine a defenceman scoring 37 today? For context, Cale Makar potted 28 last year to rave reviews.
Well, we’ve reached 1997, and it’s time to wrap today’s instalment! Defencemen soon learn to navigate a new NHL (hint: Jacques Lemaire‘s icy coaching grip officially ushers in the Dead Puck Era, the days of the coast-to-coast defenceman are dialed back, and Chumbawamba is somehow a thing).
As promised, here are the blueliners that carried The Torch from Year 1 through the 1940s.
- 1918-21: Harry Cameron
- 1922-26: Georges Boucher
- 1927-28: King Clancy
- 1929-38: Eddie Shore (record 10 straight years! P.S. how terrifying is Shore’s
mughead shot below.)
- 1939-40: Dit Clapper
- 1941-43: Flash Hollett
- 1944-46: Babe Pratt
- 1947: Butch Bouchard
- 1948: Bill Quackenbush
- 1949: Roger Leger (yes, the minor league scoring sensation, who couldn’t stick on the Habs despite leading NHL defencemen in points per game from 1946-47 to 1948-49.)
See you next week for Part 2!
All statistics and PPS scores are through the 2021-22 season.
Eras, Adjusted Pace data, High Noon, PPS System, High Noon & PPS Player Cards from Adjusted Hockey;
All other data from Hockey-Reference.com