Here’s to the defenders that play defense

By Jim den Hollander  


Jimmy D’s Notes

This article is about something that kept me awake last night as I pondered the unsung heroes of hockey. 

Like many sports, hockey is driven by statistics. Along with W’s, the ultimate team stat, goals, assists, shots on goal and for a goaltender, saves stick out on a game sheet. They also make it much easier for someone like to put a story together off a game sheet. 

Generally, the forwards look after the offense and the goaltenders gain notice for the stops.  

But what about the defenders? 

Since a young player named Bobby joined the Boston Bruins in the late 60’s defenders get almost as involved with the scoring as the forwards do, but their primary job is still looking after the ‘other’ half of the ice.  

Before Bobby Orr played a big part in delivering the Bruins from what most of the team’s fans refer to as the ‘Dark Ages,’ defensemen led the league with 20-40 points, but they reached legendary status based on their defensive abilities. Names like Doug Harvey, Bobby Bahn, Tim Horton and Pierre Pilote likely wouldn’t be among the top 50 defensemen in today’s NHL, scoring-wise but they were well known then.

Last year, Cale Makar drew comparisons to Orr by some writers and maybe he made a case for it with 86 points for the Colorado Avalanche. Looking at his stats for last season I found his points, the +/-, Penalty Minutes, Special Teams scoring and points. He won the Norris Trophy as the League’s best defenseman based mostly on those statistics. 

For most, this story so far contains a lot of names of players you never heard of and facts you already knew about Makar who is no doubt a great defender. 

But how can someone who doesn’t watch a player everyday know just how good their defensemen are in their own end. 

Average Time on Ice is one statistic I have become familiar with from my fantasy team as well as blocked shots but they don’t tell the whole story. Sure, the best defensemen are on the ice more, that makes perfect sense. However, it’s the best offensive defensemen that get the powerplay minutes and generally set up the offense in all situations. Blocked Shots are interesting as it is obviously defenders who generally lead this statistic, but it has little bearing on Norris Trophy voting as a rule. 

I’ll tell you who knows which defensemen play the best in their own end – goaltenders. If you talk to most goaltenders, they will shift much of the credit for any of their own success to the guys who patrol the ice in their own end.  

Defensemen can’t stop shots from being taken, but they can limit it with the blocks and also force puck carriers into shooting from low percentage areas, farther away and generally from the sides. Goalies (and coaches usually) know who does that best and in the case of the goalies, they likely thank them profusely in the locker room afterwards.  

But there is no stat for that. In fact, the only time defenders usually stick out in that area is when they fail. Again goaltenders and their fans are usually aware of the time so and so looked like a pylon on a play or made a bad pass through the middle of their own zone. 

I wondered last night if there is a similar position and I don’t know a lot about other sports, but I was thinking maybe offensive linemen in football. Their only job is to prevent the defense from busting through and turning their quarterback into minced meat. The defensive line has practiced all week how to get through and they were likely dreaming of crushing the quarterback the night before the game.  

So defense and offensive linemen share the fact their best stat is no stat. Not beaten, not pushed aside and no turnovers. 

When I was a youngster, I got a goalie net for Christmas. It allowed me to play the game whenever I wanted, even if there was nobody else around. I could invent games or make up scenarios where I am the hero firing my tennis ball into the twine. I imagined (usually in slow motion for the dramatic effect) scoring the overtime game winner that won the Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not once did I imagine myself tipping the puck off a forward’s stick or blocking the shot that would have tied the contest in the final seconds.  

Ironically, while the NHL has an Award for the Best Defensive Forward, Norris is the lone honor for defenders, and it generally goes to the one who showed up the score sheet the most.  

As a coach, I can only recall one player, a then-mite named Jason Seufzer that actually took pride in limiting opposition opportunities. Man, that kid loved playing defense. He used to stand back on the red line when we were in the attacking zone – just in case. That is not to say I didn’t have tons of good defenders that played on my teams. But all things considered, they would rather be the ones scoring goals. 

But obviously many grow to love the position and learn to be experts at limiting opportunities, paying attention to angles and getting the puck to the forwards on the other side of their own blue line. Ask any coach – they are vital to any team’s success. They just do most of it routinely and without much notice.  

Here’s to those players. 


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