In today’s NHL, it is a given that for a team to be competitive in the Stanley Cup playoff race, they must have two-way defensemen in their lineup. As a matter of fact, many teams now have more than one on their roster.
Even the description of these multi-talented players have evolved over the years. They were previously called “rushing defensemen” or “offensive defensemen,” but now many hockey scribes and commentators call them “two-way defenders.” In the last 60 years, the NHL has seen the unique skills of Eddie Shore, Red Kelly, Doug Harvey, Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Niklas Lidstrom, and Duncan Keith.
In earlier eras, such offensively gifted rearguards with outstanding defensive skills were as hard to find as a needle in a proverbial haystack. Many coaches and GM’s during that time period also were reluctant to have such a player in the lineup. They were concerned that such players would be caught up ice too often and would jeopardize the team’s chances to win games.
In the old NHL, when Shore, Harvey and Kelly patrolled the blue line, defensemen were taught not to carry the puck over that line. Not so long ago, almost every team utilized a forward as one of the of the point men on the power play to generate the necessary offense. Nowadays, highly sought-after defensemen have exceptional puck moving skills as well as howitzer shots that leave shorthanded teams panicked for the entire two minutes of the penalty.
Even the coach who most NHL experts regard as the best ever, Scotty Bowman, once said he thought Bobby Orr should be moved to forward to optimize his formidable offensive skills. Yet, slowly and surely, after observing players like Kelly, Harvey, Orr, Coffey, and Potvin make the difference in the Stanley Cup playoffs, team general managers and coaches began to look for defenseman with unique skill sets and create offenses utilizing their talents.
Interestingly enough, Bobby Orr wore Harvey’s number and closely followed Tim Horton as a youth player. Today, almost every defenseman on the globe has in some fashion tried to emulate Orr. Not surprisingly, almost every team in the NHL now has a “two-way” defenseman in the lineup. Orr wore number 2 as a young player as a homage to Harvey, just as almost every kid who played defense during the Bruins’ glory years wanted the number 4 on their jersey as a nod to Orr.
Currently, teams like the New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators have more than one two-way defender. The Canadiens team of the 1980s won multiple cups with Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard in the lineup. If not for the WHA, they conceivably could have had the big four, since they owned the rights to all-star defenseman Jean Claude Trembley, who played for the WHA Quebec Nordiques.
Trembley would have placed the Canadiens in a high percentage position to win even more Stanley Cups. Incidentally, the coach of that Canadiens dynasty featuring the big three defense corps in the 80s was Scotty Bowman. The current New York Rangers squad with Keith Yandle, Ryan Mcdonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Boyle, all have solid two-way credentials.
When the regular season ends, there will definitely be more irrefutable evidence that defensemen with well-honed offensive skills are necessary — that is, if the team wants to lift the Stanley Cup.