November 04, 2015

2015 HHOF Inductee: Nicklas Lidstrom

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 RobinsonDenis PotvinRaymond Bourque, andPaul CoffeyViacheslav 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.

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