The NHL got it’s next surefire 1st ballot Hall of Famer. In Detroit Thursday morning, Nicklas Lidstrom announced that he will retire after 20 NHL seasons, all played with the Detroit Red Wings. With Lidstrom’s retirement, the NHL loses arguably one of the best defenseman of all time. Drafted 53rd overall by the Red Wings in 1987 out of Sweden, Lidstrom played 1,564 games in Detroit, good for 10th on the all time list and 5th among defenseman. In terms of personal performance, Lidstrom is the 6th highest scoring defenseman in NHL history with 1,142 career regular season points, and had an additional 183 career playoff points, trailing only Paul Coffey. Lidstrom has also won the Norris Trophy, given to the NHLs top defenseman, seven times, six of which were won between 2001 and 2008. His 7th Norris was won last year, at the ripe age of 41. He also is an 11 time NHL All Star. Lidstrom also had a great deal of success on the team level. As a member of the Red Wings, Lidstrom was a key component to four Stanley Cup Championships, 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. Lidstrom was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner on the 2002 team and became the 1st European player to Captain a team to the Stanley Cup in 2008. On the international stage, he won the Gold Medal at the World Championships in 1991 and scored the gold medal winning goal in the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
There is no doubt with the hardware and the statistics that Nicklas Lidstrom will be a first ballot Hall of Famer. But, is he the best defenseman to ever play the game? Lidstrom faces some stiff competition when it comes to that discussion, mainly from the likes of Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Larry Robinson, and Bobby Orr. In terms of points, Lidstrom is around 400 points off the pace of the top two scoring defenseman all time, Raymond Bourque and Paul Coffey. In fact, he trails Bourque and Coffey in just about every offensive stat category, although both played more games. The ultimate wild card in the point discussion is Bobby Orr, who scored an incredible 915 in only 657 games. In terms of Norris Trophy’s, Orr leads the way with eight trophies followed by Lidstrom with seven, Bourque with five, Coffey with three, and Larry Robinson with two. When it comes to team accomplishments, Larry Robinson blows everyone away with six Cups playing in Montreal. Lidstrom (all with the Wings) and Coffey (three with Edmonton, 1 with Pittsburgh) each won the Cup four times while Bobby Orr won it twice as a member of the Boston Bruins. And Ray Bourque famously won 1 Stanley Cup in his last of his 21 NHL seasons as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.
So, who is the best? Really any of the above players could be number 1. In fact, the list leaves off greats like Denis Potvin (four Cups as Captain), Larry Murphy, and Chris Chelios. There are also players of past generation like Doug Harvey who played in an era when defenseman were not offensive players at all. But, here is an attempt using the five discussed above:
1) Nicklas Lidstrom- Call it a sentimental pick with his retirement, but Lidstrom has the most balanced resume of the bunch. He played at a high level his entire career and while his offensive numbers trail Bourque and Coffey, his Norris wins would imply he was a better defender (he is also 4th all time in +/-). He is well known for making those around him better (see Ian White just this season) and was incredibly durable throughout his career as the centerpiece to one of the class organizations in hockey. And if you need a tie breaker, he is second all time in playoff points and is the only one of these four to win the Cup as a Captain (and the 1st European).
2) Bobby Orr- Many would put him first. He revolutionized the game by creating the idea of an offensive defenseman and his point production is incredible. He has a full mantle of awards and championships and could easily be considered the best all time. Injuries and a shortened career keep him off the top of this list.
3) Paul Coffey- Maybe the only player listed here to really challenge Orr for best offensive defenseman. He trails Bourque by a mere 48 points for the all time lead and did so in 197 fewer games. His four Stanley Cups match Lidstrom, but he is off the pace when it comes to +/- and Norris Trophies. He was better offensively, but not a better defenseman. He was also traded multiple times in his career.
4) Ray Bourque- If he won more Cups he could have been first as well, although not all that was in his control. He played the 3rd most games among defenders all time and rightly so leads the way in points as well as many other offensive categories. He is also 2nd all time in +/-, ahead of Lidstrom. The lack of a Cup until his last game keeps him at four.
5) Larry Robinson- Most Stanley Cups among the group makes up for being off the pace slightly in terms of points as he did not break 1000 in his career. He is the career leader in +/- as well to go along with his two Norris Trophies.
Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz. He can be contacted at MRagghianto@TheSportsBlitz.com.