Today, hockey fans have the pleasure of watching world-class pairs like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in Chicago or Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester in St. Louis.
A top-flight pairing on the back end can be the difference between being a good team and a team with championship potential.
With that in mind, here’s a look at a handful of the best defensive units we’ve seen in the NHL over the years.
Shea Weber and Ryan Suter: If there were a Hall of Fame for GMs, David Poile would be a first ballot inductee. It’s mind-boggling to think, in hindsight at least, that Poile was able to select both Ryan Suter (seventh overall) and Shea Weber (49th overall) in the 2003 NHL Draft. When the two players debuted in the NHL in 2005, Predators fans knew right away they had something special. Their chemistry was undeniable and they ate up minutes like no one else. From their rookie campaign right up until Suter signed a monster deal with the Minnesota Wild in 2012, this pair was as good as it gets in the modern era.
Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer: Both men have been one half of a few of the best dynamic duos in NHL history. During his time in St. Louis, Pronger formed a formidable force with Al MacInnis – they won back-to-back Norris trophies in 1999 and 2000 – and Niedermayer played 13 seasons with Scott Stevens in New Jersey, winning Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003.
When Pronger joined Niedermayer in Anaheim in 2006, a super-pair was formed and for three seasons they were the best duo in hockey. At times, head coach Randy Carlyle would split the minute-gobbling blueliners up in an effort to guarantee one of them would be on the ice virtually all the time. It led to a Stanley Cup victory in 2007. They also helped Canada to a gold medal at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski: Try stopping a power play with these two passing the puck back and forth. When Rafalski joined the Red Wings in 2007, he and Lidstrom were point-producing machines. The two combined for 444 points from the back end in only four seasons together. They hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2008 and Lidstrom won two of his seven Norris Trophies while playing with Rafalski.
Paul Coffey and Charlie Huddy: Huddy was an excellent complement to the more offense-minded Coffey during the Oilers’ heyday in the ’80s. Huddy had no problem staying back while Coffey, who won his first two Norris Trophies in 1985 and 1986, jumped up into the rush on these seminal Oilers squads. Both were also key members of the 1984 Canada Cup team.
Doug Wilson and Bob Murray: Boy these two were fun to watch. Wilson, one of the best defencemen not currently in the Hockey Hall of Fame, could shoot the puck like nobody’s business and Murray was as steady as it got. Murray and Wilson played 13 seasons together in Chicago – they rank 1-2, respectively, in all-time games played among Blackhawks defencemen — and although they never made it to the Stanley Cup final, Wilson won the Norris Trophy in 1982.
Bobby Orr and Dallas Smith: You could’ve put a pylon beside Bobby Orr and that pylon would probably garner Hall of Fame consideration. Orr is the best defenceman in NHL history by a mile and it didn’t really matter who his partner was. Still, Dallas Smith had a great deal of success beside No. 4 in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The 1970-71 season was arguably the best in Orr’s career (37 goals, 102 assists in 78 games ain’t too shabby). That year he and Smith combined for an insane plus-218 rating. The ’70-71 campaign was bookended by Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and 1972.
Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson: Between 1955 and 1962, Doug Harvey won the Norris Trophy seven times. The only other player to win the award in that eight-year span was his teammate Tom Johnson. Harvey changed the game, but wouldn’t have had the success he did without Johnson manning the blueline beside him. There have been so many great pairs in Canadiens history – hat tip to the duo of Larry Robinson and Serge Savard – but Harvey and Johnson anchored the Habs defence during arguably the franchise’s most dominant era, even though like many pairs listed above they didn’t always play side by side.