There’s some under-the-radar history that could be made this NHL season. A feat managed just a handful of times in the league’s modern history and, with very few exceptions, only by some of the greatest players the game has known.
In 1990-91, four players did it; two were first-ballot Hall of Famers, one a future Hall inductee and the other a guy who played Canada Cups, a World Cup and in the Olympics. If things continue as they have so far this season, an unofficial record will be matched. Entering weekend play, Phoenix, Atlanta (where two D-men were tied), Nashville and Ottawa were all being led in scoring by blueliners.
Now, for all their talents, the illustrious group — Keith Yandle, Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, Shea Weber, and Erik Karlsson — does not resemble Ray Bourque (five team scoring titles), Bobby Orr (two Art Ross Trophies), Phil Housley (twice consecutively Winnipeg’s leader in the early ’90s), Brian Leetch, Denis Potvin (a two-time Islanders leader in the mid-’70s), Brad Park or Chris Chelios. But they could be Sergei Zubov (89 points for Rangers in ’93-94) Kevin Hatcher (74 for Caps in ’90-91), Scott Stevens (78 points for Devils in ’93-94) and definitely Norm MacIver (63 for expansion Senators in ’92-93).
Those are the 11 defensemen who’ve led their team in scoring the past 40 or so years. (As an aside: No offense, Norm. Good on ya, man. A career high in points on a team that scored 202 goals and won 10 games, that’s quite a feat.)
But despite the big names above, if you’re thinking that having a D-man lead your favorite team’s scoring parade doesn’t bode well when it comes to success; for the most part you’re right.
The Bruins won a Cup in 1970 with Orr leading them in points. But he’s Bobby friggin’ Orr and there was a lot more to that team than just him. The ’94 Rangers ended a 54-year championship drought with Zubov atop their scoring chart, but he wasn’t the straw that stirred the Blueshirts’ drink.
With Bourque leading the B’s, Boston got as far as the final. And the Islanders made it into the third round twice in the ’70s with Potvin leading the charge. But that’s about it.
As for the current group, Yandle’s Coyotes and Weber’s Predators hold the Nos. 3 and 4 four spots in the West. Byfuglien and Enstrom’s Thrashers are in a battle for eighth in the East and Karlsson’s Senators are battling for ping-pong balls with Edmonton and divesting themselves of talent at a rapid pace. None of the four are near the top of the league in team scoring. Atlanta and Phoenix were respectable at Nos. 12 and 13, while Nashville and Ottawa were not at 26th and 29th.
So what does it all mean? All four have real needs up front and two of them (I’m going to say Atlanta misses the post-season) are in trouble come spring. Yandle had more assists than any other Yote had points — except Ray Whitney — while Weber sat with more goals than all but three Preds. Those aren’t winning recipes.
For all the wisdom about defense and goaltending winning games in the playoffs, that doesn’t mean you can go into them with a pop-gun offense. Sure, sometimes a hot goalie can win a team a round or two, but you’ve got to be able to put the puck in the net at the end of the day. That’s why the Predators have never won a playoff round; they’ve never had top-notch scoring. And that’s why they and the Coyotes will be first-round fodder, home ice advantage or not.
So a history-making season (OK, history tying) may be upon us, but despite a few past playoff successes with defensemen leading their teams in scoring, don’t expect to see the same this season.
John Grigg is the assignment editor with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing on the weekend.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.