By James Benesh
In our 2020 Collector’s Edition, The Top 100 Defensemen Of All-Time, we only included NHLers, and that’s because comparing the skills, resumes and accomplishments of players from across the Atlantic to NHL players is an inexact science – so we gave them their own list.
It only contains players from the 1960s through the ’80s – prior to that, international hockey was still developing and it’s debatable whether even the best could have played in the NHL, let alone starred. And of course, from the ’90s onward, the best international defensemen have made their marks in the NHL.
But for the period in between, here are five who would have made the top 100…and five more who may have.
CAREER: USSR 1975-89, NHL 1989-98
In the early 1980s, prior to the arrival of Mario Lemieux, Fetisov was in the conversation for second-best player on the planet behind Wayne Gretzky. He possessed every important attribute: great size, leadership, toughness, smooth skating and flawless decision-making. At 19, he was a Soviet league all-star and placed third in voting for best player, beginning an impressive 11-year span in which he’d both be named an all-star and finish in the top five in voting for best player nine times.
He won the best player award twice. Soviet teams led by Fetisov earned a medal in 22 straight major tournaments, 15 of them gold. Even though Fetisov was 31 before he set foot on NHL ice, he overcame culture shock and a lot of xenophobia to put together a solid nine-year career. He played in the top four of strong playoff teams, culminating in two Cups, the second of which he raised as the NHL’s oldest player (40).
CAREER: USSR 1967-84
Before Fetisov, Vasiliev was the Soviet Union’s top defenseman, and it wasn’t even that close. Between 1973 and 1981, he was on eight Soviet all-star teams and five international all-star teams. Although he posted perfectly respectable statistics for a blueliner, it was defensively and physically that he shone. First-hand accounts of his play detail a punishing physical style and smart technical defensive acumen.
In Kings Of The Ice, author Andrew Podnieks writes: “Strongman Vasiliev eventually transformed into a refined technician. He was able to determine quite well when to get physical with his adversary and when to concentrate more on the puck, when to forecheck aggressively and perhaps even con his rival into skating alongside him for a while until the right time came to smash him into the boards and when to recognize an opportunity to steal the puck using nothing but his stick.”
CAREER: USSR 1977-89 NHL 1989-96
To say that Kasatonov was the least celebrated of the five players who made up the Soviets’ famed ‘Green Unit’ greatly understates his value. For nearly the entire time they spent together on CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national team, Kasatonov and Fetisov were defense partners. Fetisov’s greatness didn’t result in Kasatonov’s value being overlooked, however: he was named a Soviet league all-star nine times, plus he was a six-time all-star in major international tournaments.
While Kasatonov had many of the same skills as Fetisov – great size, agility, aggressiveness and astute decision-making, he lacked Fetisov’s individual flair. Kasatonov joined the NHL in 1989-90 at 30 and instantly became a fixture in the New Jersey Devils’ top four and on both the power play and penalty kill for the first four seasons of his seven-year career. He’s been on the Hall of Fame radar for years.
CAREER: CSSR 1961-83
It’s almost impossible to find any biographical source that doesn’t make a point of mentioning that Suchy was “the European Bobby Orr.” That should give you a good idea of what kind of player he was. Suchy was a dazzling skater, a risk-taker and a skilled passer and shooter.
Although offense was his forte, he was also noted as being the first European defenseman to consistently use his body to block shots. He made four straight all-star teams at international tournaments from 1968 to ’71, and he was named the Czech player of the year twice in that timespan. His peak was probably more impressive than anyone else on this list, save Fetisov, but it was unfortunately so short.
CAREER: CSSR 1965-79
Pospisil is to Suchy what Kasatonov was to Fetisov: born in the same year, played in most of the same tournaments together, and overshadowed by the other’s sheer brilliance. Pospisil ultimately enjoyed a more fruitful career than Suchy, but he couldn’t match Suchy’s exceptional peak.
What Pospisil accomplished, he did so with a much more modest, meat-and-potatoes skill set: he wasn’t a great skater, so he had to be a fast thinker, positionally sound and physically strong to succeed. Pospisil was named to three all-star teams at international tournaments and, like Suchy, was twice selected the Czech player of the year.
CAREER: USSR 1956-73
As a Soviet in the ’60s, Ragulin was a bear among men. In his international debut at the 1961 worlds, he was 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, while the rest of the Soviet roster averaged 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. It wasn’t just his size but also his individual skills that made him the USSR’s top defenseman.
Not blessed with speed, Ragulin was instead smart and had a great defensive stick. He was difficult to get around and won puck battles. He was a Soviet league all-star eight times and made five international all-star teams. At the 1972 Summit Series, he was the natural choice to cover Phil Esposito. The results were decidedly in Espo’s favor, but that hardly separates Ragulin from any NHL defenseman of the era.
CAREER: USSR 1966-81
Lutchenko is one of those guys who’s famous locally and unknown everywhere else. And his award case tells the same story: seven USSR all-star teams, none internationally – typical for a primarily defensive player. The heir to Ragulin, Lutchenko was big, strong and defensively solid.
But unlike Ragulin, he was a very good skater. He used his speed mostly in the interest of preventing goals, with Soviet hockey historian Arthur Chidlovski calling him “one of the best defensive players in the history of Soviet hockey.” In the 1972 Summit Series, Lutchenko was the USSR’s most successful defenseman, cleanly checking Canadian forwards regularly.
CAREER: SWEDEN 1959-72
A converted forward, Svedberg was Sweden’s answer to Suchy. The only true “riverboat gambler” on this list, he was known for speed, stickhandling, rushing the puck and pinpoint passing. He did make defensive mistakes but was aggressive defending in the neutral zone, jumping up to confront puck-carriers, a high-risk, high-reward behavior.
If Suchy was the European Bobby Orr, then call Svedberg the European Paul Coffey. He was named to three international all-star teams – all of them along with Suchy – and seven all-star teams back home in Sweden.
CAREER: CSSR 1967-81 NHL 1981-86
Domestically, Bubla was known as one of the toughest players of all-time, and he had great all-around skills: speed, strength, checking and passing. Consistently one of the top Czech players both in the Elite League and internationally, he made two world all-star teams. In the NHL, it was another story.
Accustomed to being a star and winning games, he had to accept that his early ’80s Vancouver Canucks were not very good and that, on the wrong side of 30, he’d never be an NHL star, although he was a solid top-four contributor. Bubla missed what would’ve been his one brush with NHL success in five seasons, when an injury kept him out of the second half of the 1981-82 campaign and the Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup final. He was the NHL’s oldest skater in his final season, yet he still put up an impressive 30 points in just 43 games.
CAREER: SWEDEN 1962-74, WHA 1974-79 NHL 1979-80
A jack-of-all-trades star, you couldn’t pigeonhole Sjoberg as mainly an offensive, defensive or physical player. He won the Swedish league’s “Guldpucken” as best player in 1969 and later made the 1974 World Championship all-star team before joining the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets.
In five seasons, he won three Avco Cups, was named the league’s top defenseman and served as team captain. When the Jets joined the NHL, he went with them, becoming the league’s first European captain. At 35, he was the NHL Jets’ No. 1 defenseman in all situations, playing an estimated 26 minutes per game and scoring 34 points.