Now that Niklas Lidstrom has hung up the blades and retired the axe, the debate will rage as to where he ranks among all-time defencemen in NHL history. Bobby Orr is the undisputed greatest d-man ever. The general consensus has Eddie Shore and Doug Harvey among the top five. My belief is that the rest of the top five is occupied by Lidstrom and Ray Bourque. I'll look at only these two for now, as their careers overlapped for a full ten seasons. Who should rank higher? Bourque or Lidstrom?
Hockey-reference.com is an invaluable resource, and on top of all the standard numbers they have a category called Point Shares. Based on the baseball rating Win Shares originated by Bill James, it basically estimates how many team points in the standings each player contributes in any given year. Point Shares is a combination of Offensive and Defensive contributions as well, so mathematics aside it is a terrific tool to use when comparing players. First, let's look at the first 12 seasons of Bourque's career and see just how much better overall he was than everyone else. (OPS= Offensive Point Shares, DPS=Defensive Point, PS= Total Point Shares)
1979/80 - 1990/91GP OPS DPS PS
Bourque 870 68.6 70.3 138.9 1st All-Star (8), 2nd All-Star (4) Norris (4)
Coffey 809 79.8 37.1 116.9 1st All-Star (3), 2nd All-Star (4), Norris (2)
Robinson 830 35.8 62.4 98.2 2nd All-Star (2)
Wilson 805 50.1 44.4 94.5 1st All-Star (1), 2nd All-Star (2), Norris (1)
Howe 702 39.7 52.3 92.0 1st All-Star (3)
Murphy 780 42.2 48.9 91.1 2nd All-Star (1)
Housley 686 46.8 37.1 83.9
As we know, Bourque was head and shoulders above all others during the 1980's. Using Point Share totals, Bourque was 20% better than his nearest rival Paul Coffey and almost 50% better than anyone else. Ridiculous.
Then, along came Lidstrom. He entered the league as a 21 year old while Bourque was 31. The two were contemporaries for the next 10 seasons. Here's how they stack up with the other leading defenders.
1991/92 - 2000/01GP OPS DPS PS
Bourque 742 55.2 48.6 103.8 1st All-Star (5), 2nd All-Star (2), Norris (1)
Lidstrom 775 47.2 52.6 99.8 1st All-Star (5), Norris (1)
MacInnis 656 49.7 45.3 95.0 1st All-Star (1), 2nd All-Star (1), Norris (1)
Leetch 702 54.7 36.1 90.8 1st All-Star (2), 2nd All-Star (2), Norris (2)
Murphy 755 43.3 42.6 85.9 2nd All-Star (2)
Amazingly, Bourque is still at the top of the heap right through to his retirement. Lidstrom was a close second in total Point Shares even with the relatively slower start to his career. He didn't make a year-end All-Star team until his 7th season. The top five was a lot tighter grouped than had been in the 80's but Bourque and Lidstrom were a clear 1 & 2 over the time period.
After Bourque retired, Lidstrom really stepped forward as the undisputed premier defender in the game. His lead over second place Zdeno Chara is substantial but not quite as dominating as Bourque was over his first dozen seasons.
2001/02 - 2011/12GP OPS DPS PS
Lidstrom 711 46.0 55.5 101.4 1st All-Star (6), 2nd All-Star (2), Norris (6)
Chara 701 36.1 50.3 86.4 1st All-Star (2), 2nd All-Star (3), Norris (1)
Boyle 663 39.6 37.6 77.3 2nd All-Star (2)
Rafalski 604 30.0 43.1 73.1
Gonchar 616 40.0 28.8 68.8 2nd All-Star (2)
When push comes to shove and a choice has to be made between Bourque and Lidstrom, I believe Bourque's relative dominance over his peers and his quicker ascent to the top tier makes him the one I would select.