Leading Defensive Centers

Discussion in 'The History of Hockey' started by Canadiens1958, Aug 17, 2011.

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  1. Canadiens1958

    Canadiens1958 Registered User

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    An common theme from a few threads during the last few years keeps resurfacing - that of the leading defensive centers from the first 50 seasons of the NHL, 1917-18 thru 1966-67.

    Names and reasons appteciated.
     
  2. TheDevilMadeMe

    TheDevilMadeMe Registered User

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    Frank Nighbor is the obvious choice and I don't think it's particularly close:

    http://hfboards.com/showpost.php?p=23959895&postcount=22

    IMO, Nighbor, Bobby Clarke, and Guy Carbonneau are in a class by themselves among the "best defensive centers of all time."

    As Nighbor aged, Reginald "Hooley" Smith and Albert "Pit" Lepine seem to have taken over the title of the best "hook checkers" in hockey :

    http://hfboards.com/showthread.php?p=31530559 (See posts 74-79 of the thread for details)

    Other notably good defensive of the 20s and 30s include Frank Boucher and Joe Primeau, who are said to have pioneered the role of the modern center as the playmaker and defensive conscience of the line.

    In later years, you have Milt Schmidt and Henri Richard as top notch two-way centers, who seem to have been equally proficient at both ends.

    Dave Keon is practically a consensus Top 100 All-Time player and was rated by one publication the best Maple Leaf of all time, and he's definitely rated that highly more for his defense than offense, though his offense was good as well.

    Bob Pulford (may have been primarily a LW) and Edgar Laprade were inducted into the HOH more for their defense than offense.
     
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2011
  3. Canadiens1958

    Canadiens1958 Registered User

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    Thank YOU

    TDMM, thank you for the comments, links and contributions.

    The mentoring relationship between Frank Nighbor and Hooley Smith is interesting. It would also be interesting to find data about the roles of Nels Stewart and Hooley Smith on the S line with the Maroons.

    Finally contributions of players from the two main western leagues could prove interesting.
     
  4. Killion

    Killion Registered User

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    I'll name names which should suffice, open to discuss, and most who I remember seeing play (objective/subjective). Pre-67 the lot, Sanderson excluded who started his career in 66. These are defensive specialists', not to be confused with excellent 2 way Centers, though several were quite capable at both ends & in short-handed situations to be dangerous....


    1) Henri Richard
    2) Dave Keon
    3) Ralph Backstrom

    Then you had a bunch of 2nd tier but none the less excellent Defensive-Centers with Orland Kurtenbach, Billy Harris, Fred Stanfield, Red Berenson, Phil Goyette, Larry Popein, Bob Pulford, Stan Mikita when he was assigned the role quite specifically etc..... Guys I never saw play but who are valued highly as defensive Centers would include Teeder Kennedy, Edgar Laprade, Kenny Mosdell & Neil Colville to name several...
     
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2011
  5. canucks4ever

    canucks4ever Registered User

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    If Frank Boucher was elite defensively, then shouldn't he rank above both clarke and trottier. He was clearly better offensively, and a better playoff performer than both of them.
     
  6. Killion

    Killion Registered User

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    Cant speak for TheDevilMadeMe but Primeau was the one referred to as the "defensive conscience" of Toronto's "Kid Line" with Busher Jackson & Charlie Conacher on the Wings; a high flying pair for the era with the Leafs Centered by Gentleman Joe. He certainly wasnt a "defensively oriented Center" to the extremes of an Henri Richard or Kurtenbach by any stretch. Frank Boucher as well centered the Rangers famed "Bread Line", and like Primeau, was defensively responsible but again, would not fit into Canadien58's criteria for "Centers who were Defensive Specialists" by any stretch of the imagination. They dont make the cut IMO. Both Boucher & Primeau were Lady Byng types', set-up men for creative wingers who banged in more than a few themselves.
     
  7. canucks4ever

    canucks4ever Registered User

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    The offensive gap is still large and at the end of the day, that matters more when comparing centreman. Trottier himself was defensively responsible, not a specialist like henri richard.
     
  8. Killion

    Killion Registered User

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    Very true. For the purposes' of this particular thread, the topic & criteria, its easier to deal with if you pretend there was nothing after 1967, no NHL, all died in a warehouse fire. That way, we wont be crossing over into post expansion, comparing guys like a Trottier or a Clarke to a player like Orland Kurtenbach or Ralph Backstrom. Instead, we can compare them to their own contemporaries post WW2. Pre-war, and not being around back then myself, Im really only aware of about 5-6 defensively brilliant centers, and Frankly, I have a hard time ascertaining their skills & intangibles based on stats & brief anecdotal notes, then wrapping my head around that kind of thin gruel & comparing/ranking them against the likes of an Henri Richard or Dave Keon, and Im not one short on imagination I can assure you. I make a living with it. :laugh:
     
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2011
  9. TheDevilMadeMe

    TheDevilMadeMe Registered User

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    He should definitely rank closer to them than he did on the last top 100 list, but I still think he should rank behind them. IMO, Henri Richard and Frank Boucher should both move up about 10 spots.

    Boucher was definitely not as good defensively as Clarke, and he definitely wasn't as intimidating as Trottier.

    Calling him a better playoff performer than Trottier is also a stretch.

    And I'm not sure he was better than them offensively - remember he played with the Cook brothers for pretty much his entire NHL career and Bill Cook was considered better than Boucher, as evidenced by Hart voting.
     
  10. TheDevilMadeMe

    TheDevilMadeMe Registered User

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    What on Earth do you mean when you call Henri Richard a "specialist?" The guy was one of the most versatile players ever!
     
  11. canucks4ever

    canucks4ever Registered User

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    in the upper echelon of defensive forwards
     
  12. RabbinsDuck

    RabbinsDuck Registered User

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    But do you view the overall talent level and top-end competition of the 20s/30s as similar to the 70s/80s?
     
  13. canucks4ever

    canucks4ever Registered User

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    Well, what decade should be the cut off point? I mean lalonde, taylor, shore and morenz are being ranked where they are based on peer domination.

    Me personally, i dont think shore's peak was any better than potvin's run from 75-79 or kelly's run from 1950-57, but he's being ranked in the top 10 based on his myth and the 4 harts, which were obviously a product of his era.
     
  14. Dreakmur

    Dreakmur Registered User

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    Nice to see Edgar Laprade named. ;)


    From out west, Mickey MacKay and Jack Walker were among the elite defensive centers. They both played multiple positions, which included center and rover.

    Jack Walker was Nighbor's rival as the best defensive center of the PCHA era. He was mostly resonsible for shutting down Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat in the 1925 Cup final.

    Mickey MacKay was well known for his poke-check, which helped make him an elite 2-way center.



    Also, Stan Mikita's defensive play gets lots behind his offensive dominance. He was often used as a checking center.
     
  15. TheDevilMadeMe

    TheDevilMadeMe Registered User

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    I always thought of MacKay as primarily a rover and Jack Walker as primarily a wing. Is that wrong? I guess I mentioned Bob Pulford though.

    I've also read mixed reviews on Mikita's defensive play. Don't get me wrong - everyone agrees he was good - it's just that he probably wasn't in same class as contemporaries Henri Richard or Dave Keon.
     
  16. Canadiens1958

    Canadiens1958 Registered User

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    Factors

    Thank you for the contributions made by the various posters to date.

    A few comments. PCHA or leagues with the rover pre liberalized forward pass with six skaters on the ice, center's responsibilities and the defensive geometry of the game was not the same as five skater hockey.Also teams were allowed to stack the defensive zone and the forwards did not have to clear the defensive zone(blue line).

    Liberalized forward pass era, 1929-30 to 1942-43 with evolving offside and icing rules, center's role was redefined which is what made Frank Boucher and Joe Primeau key players. Previously when defending the rush the center played the attack coming forward, not concerned about those behind him.

    Post Red Line era, 1943-44 onwards to 1967, center became the key player in defending against the transition game as it evolved towards the rushing dman which started with Bobby Orr.

    Comparing Boucher, Primeau to Clarke, Trottier defensively? Two to three eras apart, completely different responsibilities, different rules, different roster sizes.
     
  17. overpass

    overpass Registered User

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    Boucher's generation of players from the 20s and first half of the 30s was very strong. The top end talent appears to have dropped off in the late 30s as great players retired, and it may not have reached that level agan until the 1950s.

    Hard to say for sure of course, but in this case I don't think newer was always better in the NHL.

    The impact of the Great Depression and WWII on player development may have been factors in this change.
     
  18. Killion

    Killion Registered User

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    1967 would be your cut-off point ushvinder. You can pretty well exclude any player who started their careers from about 1961-63 on, because they wouldve played the bulk of it post 67.

    Ya, Edgar Laprade, a guy often forgotten, member of the HHOF, 10yr career with a "not very good" Rangers team from 45-55. Played for the Port Arthur Bearcats in 38-39 & won the Allan Cup. The Canadiens were after him but he joined up instead & played on some military teams through WW2. Won the Calder with the Rangers in 45-46, Lady Byng in 50; went 3 full seasons at one point without receiving a penalty. Nicknamed "The Beaver" for his tenacious forechecking on the offence & most importantly to a rather challenged Rangers squad defensively; used to shut down the oppositions top lines; pushed the Red Wings around pretty good & frustrated Howe who at that time was a big rookie kid of course but none the less.... And for sure Stan Mikita was a Hell of a defensive center, easily in the same class as Keon or Richard only meaner'. Thing was though, he wasnt often used in that role as he tended to be penalty prone early in his career & his offensive skills were such that he was better used as a natural on the attack. A little too undisciplined at times; anger management issues.... later in his career however, he settled down, took numbers & got even later, maybe even a game or 3 removed from the original outrage & infraction on his person or that of a team mates.

    Partially, however one has to be cognizant as well of the rule changes that really seriously altered the way the game was played from the odds through the teens; the formation of the NHL in 1917 & the time it took thereafter to develop & identify talent at the amateur levels, systematic scouting, the creation of the sponsorship system & form contracts, a rather hazardous time for several franchises' (Tigers, Quakers, Eagles, Maroons, Americans all going extinct).
     
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2011
  19. Hardyvan123

    Hardyvan123 [email protected]

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    I wasn't going to comment on this thread as I was born in 67 and obviously never saw any of these players play but C1958's points here are very telling and I agree fully.

    IMO it's very difficult to compare players from different eras in this regard with the major rule changes, forward pass and red line, as well as most of us relying on press reports in different journalistic times. At least with offense we have a statistical record and for defensive considerations they are often objective and best observed live or at least on game film.

    Even the film for the earlier time periods is sporadic and incomplete but your objective in this thread is still worthwhile and I will sit back and enjoy reading the comments.
     
  20. gifted88

    gifted88 Dante the poet

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    Where does Lemaire rank? He was also good offensively.
     
  21. seventieslord

    seventieslord Student Of The Game

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    So what's wrong with just speculating which one was further above average, or further above "great", within the context of their times? There's no need to be so complex about it.
     
  22. seventieslord

    seventieslord Student Of The Game

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    scouting reports on Lemaire seem to indicate he only developed into a good defensive player about halfway through his career... so if looking at a career-long rating, I wouldn't put his as high as some others.
     
  23. Killion

    Killion Registered User

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    Jacques' Lemaire didnt enter the scene until the 1967-68 season. Disqualified.
     
  24. seventieslord

    seventieslord Student Of The Game

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    that too. heh.
     
  25. Killion

    Killion Registered User

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    I agree, and comparisons to Trottier or Clarke shouldnt even be made as A) they fall outside of the 67 cut-off date and B) the game as played during Primeau's and Boucher's era to even the 50's witnessed changes that significantly altered the prism of objective measurement through which we look back upon it today. The past is a strange country. They do things differently there.

    Lets just take a look at these guys, neither one of which I believe belong on any list of top defensive forwards let alone centers, starting with Gentleman Joe Primeau, and heres my theory about that one; didnt even play organized hockey or skate seriously until he was 16. Excellent all-round athlete & sportsman of the ilk we find peppered throughout the history books of the late 19th, early 20th Century. Precisely the kind of guy Conn Smythe so admired & looked up to, he picked him for the Rangers' but was told "no thanks, and btw, your fired" by the powers that be in NYC. Ego bruised over being let go & New Yorks' rejection of Primeau (and there were others NY rejected), Smythe upon forming the Leafs included the reclamation of Primeau as it just wouldnt do to have his hockey smarts questioned on top of everything else.

    Primeau was acquired by Smythe 1st thing, assigned to the Toronto Ravinas', a semi-pro squad that played at the Senior level. After 2yrs of "grooming", he was put on the Leafs top-line in between the tea-totaling Holier than Thou Charlie Conacher, another one of Smythes Hero's, and the womanizing, alcoholic reprobate Harvey "Busher" Jackson, Conny no doubt hoping Conachers' & Primeaus' Piety would somehow rub off on his wayward charge. The Kid Line. Meanwhile, that'd show the idiots in Manhattan just how "dumb" Smythe really wasnt in demanding a contract for Primeau.

    And its right here where fact meets fiction & a Legend is Born, because Primeau was at best a workmanlike, intelligent but mediocre player who was "gifted" talented playmates. Over the intervening decades the revisionist history books have been written, Conn Smythe looking the Genius, when in fact, his motivations were entirely ulterior and had little to do with any real belief that Joe Primeau was the greatest Center in Leaf history. But By God Sir, old Conny would argue that he was, and pop you one across the jaw if you had the temerity to disagree with him about it. There were numerous Centers in the Leafs organization, elsewhere in the league at that time that couldve replaced Primeau & made the Leafs a better team for it. To fans of a certain age, I know my suggestion is sacri-religious & utterly contemptible. To you I have but 2 words; Eat Me.

    I'll leave the Boucher chapter up to another..... :naughty:
     
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2011

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