May 31, 2012

Who's Better? Nicklas Lidstrom vs. Doug Harvey vs. Raymond Bourque

Niklas Lidstrom is just a wonderful hockey player. If you ever had a chance to watch him live, or even just watching a Wings game on TV, you were wise to try watching Lidstrom instead of the puck every time #5 was out on the ice. He as so flawless in his positioning and his execution that you learned so much about the game simply by observation. There have been a lot of hockey superstars over the years, but you can not say this about many of them.

Unlike early in his career, Lidstrom got a lot of long over due praise and ink in the second half of his career.  As Lidstrom's career has concluded, I do find it interesting that there is a growing movement to crown Lidstrom as the second greatest defenseman of all time, behind the incomparable Bobby Orr, of course.

Now traditionally the "2nd best" label goes to Montreal great Doug Harvey, with real old timer Eddie Shore also ranked right up there. More modern contenders include Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin, Raymond Bourque, and Paul Coffey. Viacheslav FetisovRed Kelly and Dit Clapper also deserve mention.

Lidstrom vs Harvey

How can we compare Harvey - a throwback from the 1950s, an era of hockey that is so foreign to hockey now - to Lidstrom? Not too many of us can. But Scotty Bowman, who coached both of them, definitely can. He basically refused to pick, calling them equals from very different eras.

"It's hard to compare them in a way because they played in vastly different eras. I coached Harvey in St. Louis before Nick Lidstrom was born," Bowman told ESPN.com. "But the two most common denominators between those two was that it was very seldom either one got caught up ice. Their passing skills were so terrific. Their first pass.

"If you charted a hockey game and you wrote down where the puck went every time those two touched it, it usually went on another teammate's stick unless they were killing a penalty. Their positioning and that sixth sense to be aware of what's going on ... they made a lot of partners looked pretty good."

"The thing about the two of them and how they could play the point, they both could get the puck through," Bowman continued. "Both were terrific quarterbacks on the power play; they controlled the puck."

The one area I think Lidstrom has Harvey beat is consistency. Lidstrom has been extremely good, albeit somewhat quietly early on, right from day one. He's always been a flawless defender and a top offensive producer. He's always been a real key to the Detroit Red Wings success in the 1990s and 2000s.

Harvey was much more enigmatic. Because of his unworldly composure on the ice, many fans and newspapermen of the 1950s accused Doug of being lazy and frustrating. One night he would be the best player on the ice, and in the next two or three games he would blend in. Perhaps that is just Montreal for you, but Nicklas Lidstrom never had any periods of criticism like Harvey did.

There is no doubt in my mind that Lidstrom is the greatest defenseman of his generation, and a very comparable player to Harvey in terms of style and legacy. I am completely comfortable with either player being considered better. Fact is, there is not much to choose from.

What about Ray Bourque?

If there is one player would could trump either Harvey or Lidstrom, it would be Ray Bourque. He is another carbon copy of each, and, unlike Harvey, basically from the same era as Lidstrom. So with that in mind, who was better, Bourque vs Lidstrom?

First, I'm really high on that comparison because they played very similar styles. Perhaps Bourque was a bit more flashy offensively, but he played in an era that demanded it, but otherwise both are near perfect defenders. Bourque might have been a little more emphatic in his physical game, too, but it is a marginal argument.

So let's compare the legacies of Bourque and Lidstrom. I've included Doug Harvey here, too, but keep in mind his stats are dulled by the era he played in more than 50 years ago.



The last two comparables are interesting. Lidstrom tied Harvey for second most Norris trophies (behind Bobby Orr's 8). Bourque "only" won 5 Norris trophies, but was a runner up 6 times (compared to Lidstrom's 3). Bourque, arguably, won his Norris trophies against tougher competition - fellow HHOFers like Paul Coffey and Chris Chelios most notably.

Another pretty telling stat for me is post season All Star awards. In 19 of his 22 seasons Bourque was either on the first or second team, including in each of his first 15 NHL seasons. Lidstrom was honoured 12 time, but it took him 7 years before his first all star nod. It may be the only statistical anomaly between these two great defenders. A case could even be made to suggest Bourque faced stiffer competition for All Star honours.

Lastly, let's look at MVP status. Lidstrom became the first European player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs, in 2002. But Bourque twice was runner up for the Hart Trophy, the regular season MVP and hockey's most cherished individual prize. He was runner up to Wayne Gretzky in 1987 and to Mark Messier in 1990. He was just two voting points behind Messier in the closest Hart Trophy ballot ever.

All in all, I give Ray Bourque the slightest edge on both Doug Harvey and Nicklas Lidstrom in the "All Time Greatest Defenseman" debate. He stood out as a top defenseman immediately. He also played with the weakest of the three teams in this debate.

For the record, here is my "Top 10 Greatest Defensemen of All Time."

1. Bobby Orr
2. Raymond Bourque
3. Nicklas Lidstrom
4. Doug Harvey
5. Denis Potvin
6. Eddie Shore
7. Red Kelly
8. Larry Robinson
9. Viacheslav Fetisov
10. Chris Chelios

17 comments:

RyGuy said...

How are and how were all stars chosen to play? Does the all star game really show who is better?

RyGuy said...

Yzerman never once made either the First or Second All Star Team.

erik w/a k said...

i like both players alot,but you have to go with ray.i'm glad you included the times they were runners up,ray got hose'd more than a few times.i'd put niklas ahead of anyone but orr and bourque!(never saw harvey play)

dkentropy said...

I think you leave out an important factor when you compare Ray and Nick. Ray wore the "C" and was usually the best player on the ice for the Bruins for most of his career there so he was always in the limelight and forefront so therefore well known. When you look at Nick and see he played behind one of the top 5 all time (IMO)in Steve Yzerman and the SLEW of top talent Detroit has had during Nick's career, its easy to understand why he was overlooked. After this season you add a 6th Norris, already a Conn Smyth and now the first born and trained European captain to win a Stanley Cup and he is still playing at the top of his game, he's exceeded Ray in all aspects except points and seasons. I think the choice is easier to make now and clearly should be noted as one of the Top 3 of all time, if not Top 2.

lextune said...

RyGuy: Yzerman was a first team all star in 99/00. http://www.hockey-reference.com/leagues/NHL_2000.html

Anonymous said...

he's not north american therefore never got the due respect. nuff' said

Ravenswing said...

Has anyone considered that Bourque played in an era with a lot of other great defensemen? The reason Bourque had only five Norrises is that he wasn't competing against a bare handful of greats like Lidstrom has. When he broke in, he was competing against Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin, Borje Salming and Brad Park ... then it was Paul Coffey, Rod Langway, Al MacInnis, Larry Murphy, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch and Scott Stevens.

No way you rank Lidstrom against Orr, Shore, Bourque or Harvey.

Jesse said...

When there career's are over Lidstrom is the clear winner. Being the first Euro Captain to win the cup gives him the clear nod in my opinion. Furthermore I dare say if he wins a cup this year (09) it'd be silly not to include him top three all time D wise.

mac8neely said...

Bubba will always be ranked higher than lidstrom. Why Because of 21 yrs playing at a high level.
When he won the Stanley Cup with Colorado, They were stacked but Ray played great in the regular season and playoffs. His consistent
play for 21yrs is unmatched. Ray could do more than Nick. Plus I had the privilidge of spending some time with Ray. He's a great guy. Very humble. He's a role model.

Ravenswing said...

There are some pretty silly comments above; for instance, what does Lidstrom being a European-born captain have to do with whether he's better than anyone?

Now Lidstrom is an all-time great, no error, but the proof of the pudding is this: Lidstrom's first Norris came only in Bourque's final season. In the nine previous years they played head-to-head, Bourque won two Norrises to his none. Bourque was a Second Team All-Star at age 19; at 19, Lidstrom was still years away from the NHL. Bourque was a season-ending All-Star his first fifteen seasons. Lidstrom was only once his first six. They're both +24 a season over their careers, with Lidstrom playing for much stronger teams, so the question is this: is Lidstrom so hugely better defensively than Bourque was to offset that Bourque scored nearly twice as many goals over his career?

No. Not remotely. Bourque competed for awards and honors against some of the greatest defensemen in the game's history and outdid them all. Lidstrom has won most of his silverware against a weak field; who among Lidstrom's contemporaries the last ten years would you say is the equal of Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Paul Coffey, Brian Leetch, Larry Murphy or Chris Chelios in their primes?

The four greatest defensemen in hockey history are named Orr, Shore, Harvey and Bourque. Lidstrom sure is great, but he's not their equal.

Eric Blair said...

Old thread, I know . . . but a few years on, it's worth revisiting this . . .

I used to think Bourque was better, by virtue of the fact that he played with weaker teams throughout most of the last half of his career and yet could still dominate a game defensively so completely that his team had a chance to win in spite of itself.

But what's with this argument that Lidstrom won his Norris' against weaker competition? What about Pronger, Blake, Niedermayer, Stevens, Chara, or his own teammate Rafalski?

But things like All Star games, Norris Trophies and other awards don't mean jack; and the end of the day, those are popularity contests. And like most sports popularity contests, guys who do flashy shit like score, skate fast, hit hard or have a 100mph slap shot have a big advantage, because you can see those things.

I'd even argue that considering goals and assists should be secondary when comparing defenseman, because very often a defenseman's value can't be measured by what numbers he puts up, what you see him do on TV or how much he gets talked about.

Similar to a ref, sometimes the the way you know a guy is top notch is when you don't notice him. And if he played for the Blue Jackets, you probably wouldn't notice him; because what he does better than anyone else, maybe anyone else ever, is that he doesn't make mistakes.

Now, lots of defensemen are good at that. But most of those guys are conservative, defense-first, rim-it-off-the-glass-and-out-type guys. But Lidstrom does things, both offensively and defensively that most other guys just can't do: Taking away gaps before an opposing forward even knows there could be one; making perfect, clean, on-tape breakout passes to forwards skating at full speed--while two forecheckers are draped all over him; foiling chip-and-chases by knocking the chip out of mid-air as it's going past him. And have you ever seen him get beat one-on-one? Ever? Even Bourque got beat one-on-one once in awhile.

Another thing he does better than anyone else is that he gets shots through to the net. Bourque always did too; but he played in a different era. Because of the change a few years back in the way rules are enforced, almost every team's defensive system places a high premium on filling shooting lanes, kind of like some of the old Russian teams used to do. How many playoff games in the last five years turned on one team's inability to get shots through to the net? This is a huge deal in the NHL now, because besides not having a chance to go in the goal, when that shot doesn't get through, it ruins the offensive possesion at least 50% of the time. But Lidstrom almost always gets his shot through.

You could write a textbook based on all those little things that he does as well or better than anyone, that are rarely noticed, and are never recorded in the stat sheet. But the really incredible thing about Lidstrom is that he's done all this little-noticed, but critically important stuff, night in and night out, for 15+ years.

Yeah, he's played for the Red Wings, arguably the best franchise in all of sports right now. But so what? Are you going to argue that Derek Jeter is any less great because he played for the Yankees, or that Joe Montana wasn't really that great because after all, he had Rice and Taylor to throw to all those years? I mean, I suppose there's some merit in arguments like that occasionally, but I think they're more applicable to guys who truly are overrated because they played with great teams. I think because he plays for a great team (and also because of the position he plays) Lidstrom is actually significantly underrated. I mean, an argument can be made--much as it is for guys like Montana, Jeter, Gretzky, etc.--that the (or at least a) primary reason the Red Wings have been so good for so long is Lidstrom himself, and that if he wasn't as consistently dominant as he is, this whole argument would be moot.

Bruno said...

I've haven't seen Bourque and Orr playing, probably they're the best defenseman. But, Lidstrom is by far the most intelligent player.

He made the carrer of Holmstron and many others, just by putting the puck right in their sticks.

Good retirement Lids, you deserve that.

Stefan said...

...you can't compare World Cup to Olympics :I That's like comparing AHL to NHL.

World Cup is a North American focused phenomena, Europeans consider it more equal to World Championships.

Olympics are much bigger, and in 2006 when Lidström won it all the NHL players were there.

I think the stats that really show Lidström's strength are his penalty minutes, and plus/minus. But plus/minus stats aren't showing here.

That said I disagree with the notion that anyone had "worse" competition. We haven't seen the full careers of the players who still are active, it's possible we'll know better what Chara, Weber, Karlsson and others have to offer when their careers are getting closer to the end.

Aditya said...

Lidstrom is better than Bourque. People are getting too caught up in flash and stats. The position is called defenseman. It's about defense. Lidstrom simply didn't get beat. Maybe like 3 times a season. And that was at the end of his career.

Nobody did that. Ever.

That's why some people put him up there with Orr. When it comes to strictly defense. No one was better.

Oskar said...

Problem comparing them and bringing up NHL stats is that you have to base it on the North American style of hockey. Look at Bourque, he didn't play against Fetisov or Kasatonov when they were in their prime as they were forced to stay in Sovjet. Same goes for Orr who basically played only against north Americans and a handful of swedes/fins. So when Orr won it was best player in North America, half of Bourques carrier was against north americans and some europeans when Lindström always has won it when the NHL has had the greatest players from the whole world not just north america.

Anonymous said...

I'll make a case for Bourque as not only better than Lidstrom, but also Bobby Orr.

For starters, Bourque could match Lidstrom's intelligence and vision, but he also combined it with a greater physical package (bigger, stronger, faster, better shooter).

Versus Orr, not only was he better defensively, as Siden indicated - he was probably better offensively as well. Specifically, just take a look at their first three seasons, where Bourque went 65, 56, 66 points vs. Orr's 41, 31, 64 - it wasn't until Boston acquired Phil Esposito when Orr really exploded. Bourque never really had an offensive stud like Espo, save for perhaps Oates or Neely.

In the playoffs, Bourque had more 20+ point performances (25 in 1991, 23 in 1983, and 20 in 1988) than Orr (24 in 1972 and 20 in 1970), although Orr's short career parlays into these shortages.

Bourque's main drawback though was of course the number of championships - one ring, versus Orr's two and Lidstrom's four (plus gold in Olympics and World Championships). Main reason why was because Boston were the underdogs in his best days - Gretzky's and Lemieux's teams ruled supreme. Lidstrom's Wings later rose to the top of the league, while Orr's Bruins caught a break in the clouds known as the Canadiens.

Nonetheless, we are still talking about the three best blueliners ever to play.

A two-continent hockey fan said...

It's all apples and oranges, isn't it? The stupidest comment above is the one about who they played against. It is a fact very few knowledgable people would deny, that hockey is getting better and better, and bigger and bigger internationally. What that means is that it is harder to win a Norris today than in 1980, just as it was harder to win in 1980 than in 1950.

The last comment above is funny, because it puts such an incredible emphasis on a defenseman's OFFENSE. Look at Ray Borque's plus/minus in Playoff games instead - it's 8. Yes, a single digit. 8, in 214 games. Add to that 171 PIM in which he put his team in danger of allowing a goal. Lidström had a career playoff plus/minus of 61 in 263 games and only 76 PIM. Now who rules in the playoffs? Well, actually Robinson I'd have thought - always the standout in plus/minus, but he has somehow had his stats corrupted? He is listed as +13, but there are no numbers before 1987/88..... but 211 PIM in 227 games. Orr? He had 107 PIM in 74 games but no listed plus/minus. The playoff plus/minus leaders (the only 2 to beat Lidström officially, but I still wonder about Orr's and Robinson's missing stats) are, drum roll.....: Charlie Huddy and Randy Gregg of that great Edmonton team of the 80s. Anyone ever heard them mentioned in a discussion about greatest D-man? Didn't think so.

My vote. None of the above. Anybody who has seen Slava Fetisov play hockey in his prime (well before he moved to the NHL) knows. He was the best defenseman AND the best forward on the ice, at the same time. Regarding Orr and earlier NHL-only players - I have little knowledge. Lived in Europe and the NHL was not on TV there, back then.

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