One of the toughest debates in hockey is deciding on the best NHL defensemen of all time. Through the years, numerous exceptional talents on the defensive end have made their mark in the league.
With each defenseman’s playing style unique, it isn’t easy to compare those that played in different eras.
Best NHL defensemen of all time
The major role of a defenseman is to keep the puck from reaching their own goaltender. The difference between good defensemen and the best NHL defensemen ever is the ability to dominate on the defensive end as well as on the offensive end.
Although it is not their main job to score goals, there are many on this list known for their offensive approach to the position. When a defenseman stands out on both ends of the ice, it means that the player is special and a once-in-a-generation type of talent.
10. Scott Niedermayer
A four-time Stanley Cup champion, Scott Niedermayer made it impossible for opposing teams to score goals.
For playing in the best hockey league in the world, Niedermayer made everything look easy at times throughout his career. He didn’t need to be the biggest and toughest guy on the ice, but instead used his exceptional skating ability to get to every loose puck first.
In addition to four Stanley Cups, Niedermayer won two Olympic gold medals for Canada, which included the 2010 Olympics where he was named captain of the team. Neidermayer is also a James Norris Memorial Trophy winner and received the Conn Smythe Trophy during his final Stanley Cup run in 2007.
9. Chris Chelios
He spent the majority of his career split between the Canadiens, Blackhawks, and Red Wings. When it came to competing, nobody worked harder than Chelios. He put his entire heart into the game, and both his teammates and opponents had a lot of respect for him.
Chelios is a three-time Norris Trophy winner, winning the first time with the Canadiens, and then twice after with the Blackhawks. He also lifted up the Stanley Cup trophy three times, once with the Canadiens and twice with the Red Wings.
8. Eddie Shore
Although Eddie Shore played in an era before many current fans were even born, that doesn’t hold him back from being one of the greatest NHL defensemen ever.
Shore holds the record for most Hart Trophy victories by a defenseman with four, which is also the third most across all players in league history. He was also an eight-time All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup champion while playing for the Boston Bruins.
Shore was known for his aggressive, physical playing style. He racked up a ton of penalties, leading the league in penalty minutes twice in the regular season and three times in the playoffs.
7. Paul Coffey
Paul Coffey is one of the best offensive defensemen to ever play the game.
Coffey is the only defenseman in NHL history to average more than a point per game while playing more than 1,000 games. He finished with 1,531 career points in 1,409 games, which is the second most points by a defenseman all time. Coffey holds the record for most goals by a defenseman in a single season, scoring 48 goals for the Oilers in 1985-86.
In addition to his records, Coffey was a three-time recipient of the Norris Trophy and was named an All-Star 14 times. He would go on to win three Stanley Cups with Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers, and one with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins.
6. Larry Robinson
At 6’4”, Larry Robinson was a big presence on the ice, and it was difficult for anyone to get past him.
The one statistic that shows why Robinson deserves to be on this list is his plus/minus. He is a career +722, which is the best of any player in league history by more than 100. His +100 in the playoffs is also first among defensemen.
Robinson spent the majority of his career with the Montreal Canadiens, helping them capture six Stanley Cups in his 17 seasons with the team. He was also named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 1978.
5. Denis Potvin
Denis Potvin achieved it all during his 15-year NHL career.
Four Stanley Cups, three Norris Trophy victories, a Calder Memorial Trophy, and a 100-point season make a compelling case for being one of the best NHL defensemen ever. He sits seventh all-time in points among defensemen in the regular season, and fourth all-time in the playoffs.
Spending his entire career with the New York Islanders, Potvin had his jersey retired by the franchise in 1992.
4. Ray Bourque
In a career that spanned four decades, Ray Bourque made the most of his time in the NHL.
Bourque registered 1,579 points in his career, which is the most by any defenseman in league history. He also holds the record for most goals and assists by a defenseman. With 19 All-Star appearances, Bourque sits behind only Gordie Howe for the most by any player in history.
The only thing Bourque couldn’t do was win a Stanley Cup in Boston. He would eventually win one, but it came in his final season as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. Bourque did win the Norris Trophy five times as a member of the Bruins though and is the franchise’s all-time leader in points and games played.
3. Doug Harvey
One of the greatest NHL defensemen ever, Doug Harvey was dominating the league in his era.
With his incredible skating and passing abilities, Harvey was perfectly fit for the role of an offensive defenseman. He stood out among all the other defensemen, which led to four straight Norris Trophies in the 1950s and three straight in the early 1960s. His elite play helped lead the Montreal Canadiens to five straight Stanley Cups from 1956-1960.
Harvey was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, and his jersey was eventually retired by the Canadiens in 1985.
2. Nicklas Lidstrom
One of the smartest hockey players to ever play the game, nobody had a better understanding of how the game should be played than Nicklas Lidstrom.
He was one of the few defensemen who were dominant on the defensive and offensive end. Playing alongside Dominik Hasek, one of the greatest hockey goalies ever, made it almost impossible for the opposition to score goals. Together they won two Stanley Cups, which gave Lidstrom a total of four in his career.
Lidstrom finished his career with seven Norris Trophies, which is tied for the second most in NHL history.
1. Bobby Orr
If there is any debate with this list, it should not be with the number one spot. When it comes to the best NHL defensemen of all time, no one was better than Bobby Orr.
Despite playing just 657 regular season games, Orr collected 915 points. His average of 1.393 points per game is by far the most by a defenseman in history.
Orr holds the record for most Norris Trophies won, tallying up eight consecutively in his career. He also won the Hart Trophy three straight years from 1970-1972 and captured two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins.