Down Goes Brown: Best NHL defence pairs of the past 30 years

Brian Lawton explains why the Ottawa Senators have to find a trade for Erik Karlsson sooner rather than later.

The Erik Karlsson watch continues. After rumours swirled all weekend that a deal to send Karlsson to Tampa was imminent, we’ve made it into the week without a trade. The Lightning still seem like the frontrunner, but for now, nothing is official.

That’s good news for everyone who isn’t a Lightning fan, because it means there’s still a chance that the two-time Norris winner won’t end up playing on the same team as this year’s recipient – Victor Hedman — and maybe even on the same pairing. That’s vaguely terrifying for the rest of the league, since we’re told that defence wins championships and the Lightning would have two of the very best in the league.

That kind of star power sharing the same blue line is rare, but not unheard of. So today, let’s run through some of the times over the past 30 years or so that one team could run out a pair of Hall of Fame defencemen. Note that we’re talking about a pair here, not necessarily a pairing – in most cases, these players weren’t used on the same unit, and we don’t know whether Karlsson and Hedman would be. But even if they’re deployed separately, having two Norris-caliber defencemen gives a coach all sorts of opportunity to dominate matchups.

It also virtually guarantees a Stanley Cup… most of the time. As we’ll see, there are no sure things in the NHL, although having an all-star blue line comes awfully close.

Joe Smith gives his take on the Kucherov extension and a potential Karlsson deal
July 10 2018

Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim Ducks

There’s a good chance that when you saw the subject for this post, this is the first pair that came to mind. They land right in that sweet spot where they’re recent enough that everyone remembers them, but long enough ago that we can start to build a mythology around them.

In the case of the Ducks, the mythology goes something like this: Anaheim was a good team coming out of the lockout, and they became a very good one when they signed Niedermayer as a free agent in 2005. But it was the acquisition of Pronger in 2006, thanks to some aggressive maneuvering by GM Brian Burke, that gave Anaheim one of the greatest pair of blueliners in modern NHL history, and they rolled to the Stanley Cup the very next year.

Most of that mythology is pretty much true, although it leaves out a few details, like Pronger forcing his way out of Edmonton and Niedermayer choosing the Ducks at least partly because he could play with his brother.

Those minor details aside, it’s hard to deny how overpowering the pair were. Randy Carlyle often used them on the same unit; other times he’d split them up and basically play the entire game with a Norris winner on the ice. During Anaheim’s Cup run, both players averaged roughly 30 minutes a game, miles ahead of any other Ducks.

When you think of a potential Karlsson/Hedman combo, this is the scenario you’re dreaming of if you’re a Lightning fan and dreading if you’re anyone else. But the story ending with a Cup parade isn’t quite inevitable, as Pronger himself can remind us…

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Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis, St. Louis Blues

As great a pair as they were, Pronger and Niedermayer were a few years removed from their Norris Trophy wins when they arrived in Anaheim, both having earned the honour years apart for different teams. So imagine how unbeatable a team would be if it had two defencemen on the same roster who also happened to be the two most recent Norris winners.

It’s only happened once in modern NHL history; even the Canadiens’ fabled Big Three of their ’70s dynasty never combined to capture back-to-back Norris Trophies. The only team to pull it off in the last 50 years was the St. Louis Blues back at the turn of the century, when Al MacInnis won the 1999 trophy and Pronger took it home (along with the Hart) the very next year.

So how did a team with not one but two recent Norris winners patrolling the blue line end up doing? Enh, they were OK.

That’s pretty much it. Somehow, the Blues turned the Pronger/MacInnis era into a bunch of pretty good teams that never really went anywhere. The 1999–2000 team won the Presidents’ Trophy with 114 points, then lost in the first round in a crushing upset. The rest of their teams hovered around 90 or 100 points, made the playoffs, and then went out quickly.

Some of that was injury, with Pronger missing almost the entire 2002–03 season. Some of it was age, as MacInnis was pushing 40 by that point, although his play didn’t show it – he finished as the Norris runner-up in his last full season in 2002–03. But mostly, the Blues just didn’t put a good enough team around their two studs, relying on guys like Roman Turek in net and an inconsistent cast of forwards up front.

It’s fair to say that when it comes to depth at other positions, the current Lightning aren’t the early-2000s Blues. But if you’re looking for hope that Tampa wouldn’t steamroll to easy titles with Karlsson on board, the Pronger/MacInnis combo offers at least a little.

Rob Blake and Ray Bourque, Colorado Avalanche

This one’s a bit of a different case. Neither Blake or Bourque was a homegrown star, and they played together for only a single playoff run. But they make for a good case study in what happens when a GM goes all in on a championship-caliber roster. Spoiler alert: It turned out well.

By 2000, the Avalanche were a few years removed from their only Stanley Cup and facing down the end of the Patrick Roy era. With Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg up front, GM Pierre Lacroix identified the blue line as an area of need and addressed it with aggressive moves for a pair of Hall of Famers. Bourque came over in a 2000 trade, and when the Avs fell short in that year’s conference finals, Lacroix doubled down by acquiring Blake at the 2001 deadline.

That gave the Avalanche an unbeatable pair – or trio, if you mix in the reliably steady Adam Foote. The Avs dominated the regular season, and while they needed seven games to knock off Blake’s old team, they ended up capturing the Stanley Cup. Every hockey fan remembers how that run ended:

Far be it from Steve Yzerman to take much inspiration from his old pals in Colorado, but he’d be happy to see a Karlsson/Hedman combo finish up with the same result. Even if it didn’t pack quite the same emotional punch.

Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, Detroit Red Wings

Here’s a combo Yzerman probably has a little bit fonder memories of.

During his time in Detroit, Lidstrom was one of those stars that you could send out with just about anyone and know you had a dominant pairing; towards the end of his career, he clicked especially well with Brian Rafalski. But back in 1999, before Lidstrom had won a Norris, the Wings decided to bring in another big name to share the blue line minutes when they pried a 37-year-old Chelios out of a messy situation in Chicago.

At the time, it felt like a move that could be a short-term rental. Instead, Chelios played another decade in Detroit, giving the Red Wings two all-time greats. Their most impressive accomplishment came in 2002, when Lidstrom and Chelios finished 1-2 in a close Norris vote, an almost unprecedented case of players from the same team dominating the ballots.

Not surprisingly, the Red Wings won the Cup that year.

They’d win it again in 2008, although by that point Chelios was well past his prime, and they had their share of dominant regular seasons, too. And they weren’t shy about doing it with veteran blueliners – when the Red Wings finished with 124 points in 2005–06, Lidstrom and Chelios were two of a ridiculous five defencemen on the roster who were 35 or older. (By comparison, here’s the total list of blueliners that old who saw the ice in 2017–18 for any team.)


Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy, Pittsburgh Penguins

Let’s move from Lidstrom and the Red Wings to two more Hall of Famers who’d eventually join him in Detroit. Coffey and Murphy each played parts of five seasons with the Mario Lemieux-era Penguins, although they never overlapped for a full season. They were together for one playoff run, though. That came in 1991, with Murphy having just arrived in a mid-season trade from Minnesota and Coffey still a year away from being dealt to the Kings.

It was pretty much the perfect time for the two to cross paths. Including the 1990–91 season, Coffey had finished in the top five in Norris voting in nine of the past 10 years, while Murphy would do the same in three of the next four. They joined a loaded Penguins team that featured five other Hall of Famers plus Jaromir Jagr, but still somehow finished the season with only 88 points.

That was enough to get them into the playoffs, and after an early scare against the Devils they went on to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The clinching win came in Minnesota, with the Pens rolling to an 8–0 laugher. Murphy scored the game’s final goal against the team that had just traded him less than six months earlier.

Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, New Jersey Devils

We’ll end back where we started, with slick-skating Scott Niedermayer suiting up alongside a bruiser.

This combo lasted a little longer than the Anaheim version, with Niedermayer and Stevens arriving in New Jersey together in 1991 and lasting until 2004. That was enough time to win three Stanley Cups and come close on a few more. Based on talent, longevity and results, you could make a strong case for Stevens and Niedermayer being the gold standard for one-two punches on the blue line.

If anything, having two all-world defencemen on the same team for so long may have resulted in both guys being somewhat underrated, at least as far as post-season awards go. Stevens is right up there with Brad Park in the conversation for the best defenceman to never win a Norris, and Niedermayer only won his in his final year in New Jersey, when Stevens missed half the season. Each also managed just a single first-team all-star selection, as voters generally looked elsewhere when it was time to hand out honours.

Still, those three Cup wins will probably dull any lingering pain. If you’re not a Lightning fan, this is basically your worst-case scenario, especially with the obvious parallels – like Hedman, Niedermayer was a homegrown talent drafted with a top-three pick, while Stevens arrived in New Jersey when he was just a few months younger than Karlsson is right now.

If a Karlsson-to-Tampa deal goes down, the league had better hope that Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t the next Martin Brodeur, or else we can probably go ahead and hand the Lightning at least a few of the next decade’s Stanley Cups.

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Honourable mentions

We did say we were looking for pairs where both guys were Hall of Famers, which for now at least rules out some decent combos. At the risk of hearing from Dallas Stars fans who make this kind of thing their life’s work, we’ll point out that Sergei Zubov isn’t in the Hall yet, even though his stint in New York with Brian Leetch is worth a mention — Zubov was actually the leading scorer on the Rangers’ 1994 Cup-winning team.

Another blueliner with a strong HHOF case who hasn’t made it yet is Doug Wilson, who played alongside Chelios in Chicago for a few years towards the end of his career. Kevin Lowe could still make it someday, which would make him worth a mention for his days in Edmonton with Coffey — he was also on that championship Rangers team with Leetch and Zubov. If you’re looking at guys who are still active but may have a shot at the Hall someday, you’d have to consider the Shea Weber/Ryan Suter combo in Nashville a few years ago.

Then there are a few cases of Hall of Fame combos that weren’t together long. Not surprisingly, we could come up with a few involving Coffey, who bounced around a ton during his career. In addition to playing with Murphy in Pittsburgh and Lidstrom in Detroit, he also shared a roster with Larry Robinson in Los Angeles, and even with Chelios in Chicago (for six whole games). Speaking of cameos, Phil Housley briefly joined the Stevens/Niedermayer combo in New Jersey.

There are probably some others that I missed, including that pair from your favourite team that was clearly better than anyone on this list. That’s a terrible oversight, because those guys were the best ever. At least until Karlsson and Hedman team up to destroy us all.

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