Today’s NHL fan does not recognize how masterful of a defender Denis Potvin was when he played. A 1991 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Vanier, Ontario native was the top overall selection in the 1973 NHL Draft. Potvin would go on to play 15 seasons in the league – all for the New York Islanders.
When the subject of “best defenseman” is raised, Potvin is often unfairly the odd man out. The usual suspects get brought up instead: Bobby Orr, Nicklas Lidstrom, Paul Coffey, Doug Harvey, and maybe Ray Bourque. The Islanders great is typically an afterthought, and that may be due to the fact that more than 30 years has passed since his last NHL game. Today’s fans may even select more familiar contemporary names as Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty or Zdeno Chara to be in such talks ahead of Potvin.
A closer look though at his career shows that Potvin was a pioneer of sorts for high-scoring defensemen. As great as the other aforementioned players proved to be, it was the Islanders’ cornerstone who became an achiever of multiple important firsts.
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THW takes a look back at some of the special things that make up Denis Potvin’s distinguished career.
A Calder-Winning Rookie Campaign
His rookie NHL season of 1973-74 was the Islanders’ sophomore one as a franchise. Potvin helped the team make a significant jump their second time around, as they saw a 26-point improvement in the standings. The Islanders failed to make the playoffs (19-41-18) but earned themselves seven more victories and 12 more ties than they had achieved in their inaugural season.
Much of the credit for the Islanders’ improvement during that season can be attributed to Potvin. He not only led the entire team in scoring (17-37-54 in 77 games), but his 37 helpers were most on the team as well. Potvin was not just about scoring either. He accumulated 175 penalty minutes, which were second only to Garry Howatt’s 204 on the team. Potvin’s PIMs were also the seventh-highest that season in the entire NHL.
Such a solid first-time performance would see him named the Calder Trophy recipient as the league’s Rookie of the Year. This marked the first time that a defender won the trophy since Orr brought it home in the 1966-67 season.
Potvin Hits His Stride
It would not take Potvin long to kick it into high gear. With the exception of an injury-shortened 1979-80 season, he would proceed to score 20 or more goals for seven straight seasons. Potvin would set a career-high in 1975-76 with 31 tallies and then repeated the feat in 1978-79.
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The mid to late-1970s were the finest portion of his career, and where he truly worked his magic for the Isles. Potvin would garner his first Norris Trophy as the NHL’s Best Defenseman in 1975-76 off of 31 goals, 67 assists and 98 points. This marked the first time in nine seasons when the award was not captured by Orr.
Potvin’s second Norris was won at the end of 1977-78 after he scored 30 goals yet again (30-64-94). Other than Orr, no defenseman since Pierre Pilote in 1963-64 had repeated with the trophy.
But he was not done yet.
Potvin generated his finest offensive season in 1978-79. In addition to his 31 goals, he would achieve a career-best in assists with 70 in 73 games. Totaling up to 101 points on the regular season, Potvin became only the second defender in NHL history to reach the 100-point mark. He also compiled a whopping plus-71 for plus/minus, which was also the finest total of his career.
The back-to-back Norris wins were also the first since Pilote to be earned by someone other than Orr. This would be the third and final Norris won by Potvin in his career.
The Stanley Cup Winning Years
Though 1979-80 would see him maligned by injuries, it would also be the time in Potvin’s career where hard work and determination finally paid off. After losing in the Stanley Cup semi-finals in four of the previous five seasons, the Islanders would finally win it all.
Amid injury, he assumed the role of team captain. Potvin would play in all 21 playoff games for New York. Having dispelled the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in the earlier rounds, Potvin and the Islanders would defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in the Cup Final across six games, with the first and sixth games being won by New York in overtime.
This first Stanley Cup title was the first of four straight for the Islanders. Potvin played in 78 postseason games to help earn those championships. In that time, he scored 27 goals, 58 assists and 85 points to be better than a point-per-game player.
The Islanders nearly completed a “drive for five”, as they would make a fifth straight Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1983-84, only to be stalled by the upstart Edmonton Oilers in five games. Potvin is the only player in NHL history to captain the same team to five straight Stanley Cup Finals.
Numerous Firsts and Many Achievements
Besides the Cup rings, the Norris trophies, and the Calder, Potvin left the game as one of its most accomplished players. A look at his résumé from his playing career is rather awe-inspiring.
Potvin became the first defenseman in NHL history to score 1,000 points in his career. He reached the mark when he scored the Islanders’ sixth goal of a 6-6 tie against the Buffalo Sabres on Apr. 4, 1987. In Potvin’s final NHL season, he became the first defenseman to reach 300 goals when he did so on Jan. 14, 1988 in an 8-5 shellacking of the Quebec Nordiques.
At the time that he retired following the 1987-88 season, Potvin had recorded 310 goals, 742 assists and 1,052 points in 1,060 games to be just under a point-per-game player. At the time, those totals were the highest ever by a blueliner.
Potvin was named to the First All-Star Team five times, and the Second Team twice. Deservedly so, the Islanders retired his number-5 jersey on Feb. 1, 1992. He was the first player in franchise history to receive such an honor. It would be fair to assume that no Islanders defenseman shall ever equal Denis Potvin, and few were ever better league-wide.