The Detroit Red Wings haven’t been the same since Nicklas Lidstrom retired, and the Philadelphia Flyers haven’t been the same without Chris Pronger. This cannot be disputed. To do so would be to willfully ignore the greatness of those players, and their ability to impact games.
The fact is, when it comes to the makeup of championship-caliber teams, you’ll almost always find a cornerstone defenseman.
Still playing in the current NHL postseason: Duncan Keith for Chicago, Drew Doughty for Los Angeles, PK Subban for Montreal, and Ryan McDonagh for New York, even if the latter hasn’t been all that great in these playoffs.
There are exceptions to the rule, sure, like the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, who won the Stanley Cup with a blue line of good-but-far-from-great players. Similarly, there are great defensemen who never won the Cup, like Brad Park. But take a look at the list of Norris Trophy winners; most of them have rings. That is not a coincidence.
Zdeno Chara has a ring. He got it in 2011, when the Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since 1972, which just so happened to be the year Bobby Orr won his fifth Norris. The B’s also won the Cup in 1970, the year Orr won his third Norris. Orr won the Conn Smythe Trophy in both ’70 and ’72.
Even if it was Tim Thomas that ended up winning the Conn Smythe in 2011, Chara was brilliant during that run. The big man logged 27:39 per game and finished the playoffs with nine points and a plus-16 rating. He was kryptonite for the Sedin twins in the Stanley Cup Final. Vancouver scored just eight times in the contentious seven-game series.
But Chara did not have a good series versus the Montreal Canadiens in 2014. Or, at least, he wasn’t the dominant force he’s been in the past.
Chara is also 37 years old. Despite his famous fitness regimen, his NHL career is winding down, and he knows it. No, he’s not done yet, but it’s clear the Bruins need Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton to keep progressing if they want to remain Cup contenders in the years to come.
Of the two, it’s Hamilton that screams cornerstone defenseman the loudest. He’s big. He skates well. He has good offensive instincts. There’s a reason he was drafted ninth overall in 2011. Granted, at just 20 years old, he still has a lot to learn. Consider: when Chara was Hamilton’s age, he was still a raw rookie with the Islanders. In reality, he didn’t become an impact player until he was traded to Ottawa a few years later.
That being said, young defensemen can make big impacts in today’s faster game. Subban just turned 25 and already has a Norris to his name. Erik Karlsson is only 23, and he won the Norris before Subban did. Doughty won the Stanley Cup as a 22-year-old, not to mention an Olympic gold medal at 20. Krug, 23, led the Bruins with 10 points this postseason.
As an organization, the Bruins have been blessed with great defensemen. We already mentioned Orr. They also had Ray Bourque, a five-time Norris winner. Chara won the award in 2009, and he’s a finalist again this year.
Add it up and a Boston player has been named the NHL’s top defenseman an incredible 14 times since the award was first handed out in 1954. No team — not even Montreal (12) — can say that.
Will the tradition continue?