Best Of The Books: Points by a defenseman

Ken Campbell
Bobby Orr  (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Bobby Orr (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

When you talk to Bobby Orr about his career, there isn’t a whole lot of new ground to cover. After all, his days as the best defenseman, if not the best player, of all-time are well documented and he hasn’t played a meaningful game in more than three decades.

And he’s not comfortable talking about his career, maybe because it was so abruptly aborted by aching, surgically repaired (sort of) knees.

“How do you feel when somebody tells you that you wrote a good story?” Orr responds when asked how he reacts to those who constantly tell him he was the greatest player the game has ever seen.

There is little doubt Orr was the most dynamic skater to ever patrol a blueline. He had the ability to change the complexion of a game and in doing so, changed the complexion of the game. Never before had the sport seen a defenseman who could have the impact in all three zones that Orr had because of his skating ability.

And during the 1970-71 campaign, Orr had the single greatest offensive season ever for a defenseman. In 78 games, he scored 37 goals and added a mind-boggling 102 assists. Wayne Gretzky managed 102 or more assists 11 times and Mario Lemieux once, but that’s it, ever. Two players, both centers. Those 139 points are a total Sidney Crosby or any other forward would kill for these days, but there was Orr, a defenseman, posting them in his fifth year in the league.

Paul Coffey came within one point of Orr’s 139 points exactly 15 years later, but nobody else has even come close in the quarter of a century that has passed since. Coffey did surpass Orr to set the record for goals by a defenseman with 48 that 1985-86 season, but Orr doesn’t expect anyone to approach his or Coffey’s numbers any time soon.

“I see offense-minded guys who jump up into the play, but I don’t see any young defensemen who skate like Paul Coffey,” Orr said. “I remember my father would call me and say, ‘Did you see Paul Coffey play last night? He can skate even better than you did.’ ”

Orr and Coffey have the nine highest totals for points by a defenseman in a season and tied for 10th (with Orr) on the list is Al MacInnis, whose 103 points is 10 back of the ninth-place total posted by Coffey.

For all the accolades now heaped upon Orr, his history-making 1970-71 campaign might have been the most inconspicuous great season ever.

First of all, the Bruins didn’t win the Stanley Cup that year. After piling up a then-record 121 points, Boston was stunned in seven games in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. Also, the Bruins were an offensive juggernaut with 10 men scoring 20 or more times and Phil Esposito smashing Bobby Hull’s two-year-old goals record by an astounding 18 when he finished with 76 markers.

The Hockey News published 35 issues that season and Orr was on the cover 21 times, but 19 of them were because he was in an advertisement on the cover. Not a single THN Boston Bruins story in 1970-71 was exclusively devoted to Orr. But his season didn’t go entirely unnoticed. Orr won the second of three straight Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player (no defenseman had won it for 27 years and Chris Pronger is the only one to win it since) and, of course, the Norris Trophy, his fourth of eight consecutive. (Three consecutive Harts by a blueliner and eight straight Norris Trophies are two more records.)

That 139-point season cemented the legend that was already Orr and helped spawn a generation of offensively gifted defensemen from Denis Potvin to Coffey to Larry Murphy to Ray Bourque. But since Orr left the game, only one defenseman has come along with the array of natural skills he possessed. That player would be Scott Niedermayer, whose numbers paled in comparison to Orr’s at the NHL level because once he reached the New Jersey Devils, he was reined in so dramatically he almost never took offensive risks.

“Now, right from the kids up, coaches don’t let or want players to play like I played, which is a shame,” Orr said. “Since Raymond (Bourque) and Denis (Potvin) and Larry (Robinson) are gone you don’t see any defensemen coming like that now, because they’re not allowed to play like that. I couldn’t imagine sitting back all the time.”

This is an excerpt from THN’s 2011 book, Hockey’s Most Amazing Records.