Defense wins championships. but do defensemen? That’s one of the sizzling questions we’re examining in this issue as we start 2018-19. Specifically, do the San Jose Sharks suddenly become the team to beat now that they’ve got the dynamic duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns? Senior writer Matt Larkin ponders this wondrous double rainbow and what it all means in a feature beginning on pg. 28.
Because there are so many variables, it’s unreasonable to review other great 1-2 ‘D’ punches in NHL history and expect a meaningful trend to emerge. Still, it’s fun. And it’s what we do – give you nuggets of minutiae that you can impress your friends or maybe woo the partner of your dreams with.
As you work on that coupling, here are some crazy-good NHL Top Twos to consider. Included are Norris Trophy winners who were impact players during their time together and subsequently were elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Note, these greats weren’t necessarily pairs for all or part of their stints on the same roster, just at the top of their team’s depth chart.
Scott Niedermayer & Chris Pronger, Anaheim, 2006-07 to 2008-09: When Pronger was granted his trade out of Edmonton in the summer of 2006 and landed in Anaheim, The Hockey News predicted a Stanley Cup for the Ducks. And they made us look good. Anaheim was a juggernaut, thanks enormously to its stud blueline. They lost just two of their first 25 games in regulation that first season, setting a then-NHL record with at least one point in each of their first 16 contests. The Ducks bulled their way to a Cup, with Niedermayer earning the Conn Smythe Trophy and first-team all-star honors, while Pronger was rewarded with a second-team all-star accolade. It’s the last time defensemen teammates were named all-stars in the same season. Pronger and Niedermayer sometimes played together, but were often split so one was on the ice at all times. The club was unable to match that magic in the ensuing two seasons, before Pronger was traded to Philadelphia.
Nicklas Lidstrom & Chris Chelios, Detroit, 1998-99 to 2008-09: The 37-year-old Chelios was supposed to be in the sunset of his career when the Wings acquired him in 1999. He wound up playing nearly 10 seasons in Motown, many at an elite level. The pinnacle was 2001-02, when Chelios, 40, played more than 25 minutes a night, led the NHL at plus-40 and finished second in Norris voting. Lidstrom finished first, and the duo claimed both first-team all-star spots on defense, the only time that’s happened in the post-expansion era. Detroit cruised to the Presidents’ Trophy that season and seized the Cup after a memorable playoff run. Detroit won one other championship during the Lidstrom-Chelios era (2008), though the latter, finally, had become a role player at age 46.
Chris Pronger & Al MacInnis, St. Louis, 1995-96 to 2003-04: For nine seasons together in Missouri, MacInnis and his legendary slapshot struck fear into the hearts of goalies, while Pronger took care of everyone else. Both had the ability to control games and combined imposing physicality with elite skill. Each won a Norris during this stretch, while Pronger became just the seventh, and most recent, defenseman to win the Hart Trophy in 2000. That’s the same year St. Louis captured the Presidents’ Trophy. Both served as captains, with Pronger voluntarily handing the ‘C’ to the older MacInnis. The Blues qualified for the playoffs every year of the pair’s reign but curiously never made it further than the conference final.
Doug Harvey & Tom Johnson, Montreal 1950-51 to 1960-61: Harvey was the undisputed best defenseman of his era. Johnson, for stretches, was No. 2. In their 11 years on the same Canadiens defense corps, Harvey and Johnson combined for 12 end-of-season all-star berths, seven Norris Trophies and they played on six Cup winners. The first crown came in their third season together, 1952-53, while the other five came consecutively, and unprecedentedly, from 1956 through 1960. While Harvey got the bulk of the acclaim and hardware, Johnson was the defensive conscience of the Habs and was the only NHLer not named Harvey to win a Norris from 1955 to 1962.
Honorable mentions go to Shea Weber/Ryan Suter, MacInnis/Gary Suter, Ray Bourque/Rob Blake (who played a handful of games together for the 2001 Avalanche) and the 1970s Canadiens’ Big Three of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. We omitted them from our grouping because they fell just outside our criteria.
And Karlsson/Burns? They’re tantalizingly close. Karlsson already has Hall of Fame credentials, while Burns is a good bet. A Stanley Cup in California could golden-seal it. If Karlsson and Burns play to their reputations, history suggests the Sharks have good reason to sense the ultimate kill. If not this season, then – assuming Karlsson signs long-term – in the near future, somewhere over the double rainbow.
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.