It may seem cut and dry who the top defenseman in Pittsburgh Penguins history is, but the players leading up to it have made a case for themselves. While the Penguins’ franchise isn’t a gold mine of elite, long-term defenders, they have had some luxuries over their 53-year history.
Before we go any further, a couple of honorable mentions should be given. First, to Doug Bodger for being a top-10 pick by the Penguins the same year they drafted Mario Lemieux. Talk about a shadow to play in. Bodger started his 16-year career in Pittsburgh after being the 9th overall pick in 1984. He played in 299 games and scored 167 points with the Penguins.
The second mention goes to Dick Tarnstrom. He wasn’t in Pittsburgh long and only played five seasons in the NHL, but his 2003-04 year with the Penguins can’t be forgotten. He led the dead last Penguins in points with 52, including 16 goals, 12 of which came on the power play.
10: Brian Dumoulin
We start with the youngest entrant on our list. At 28-years-old, Brian Dumoulin has created a resume that compares with some of the franchise’s best. A staple on the top defensive unit, Dumoulin plays some of the best defense in the NHL today. He may get overlooked by some of the high scoring, point-producing blueliners that are taking over the position, but when you watch his game, you see how special he is.
He’s not known for his scoring touch, but his ability to play defense which is better than most of the league; he’s blocked more than 100 shots in a season twice, and exceeded 100 hits three times. His focus on defense makes him a great pairing for the offensive-minded Kris Letang.
Dumoulin became a regular with the Penguins in the 2015-16 season, on their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups. When his time ends in Pittsburgh, he could move up a few spots on a list like this.
9: Zarley Zalapski
Not only can his name get you 41 points in a game of Scrabble, but he can bring your team 135 points in his first 190 career NHL games. Drafted fourth overall by the Penguins in 1986, Zarley Zalapski made an immediate impact after joining the team. He made the NHL’s All-Rookie Team in 1988-89, the third Penguin to do that after Mario Lemieux and Warren Young in 1985.
While the team was a juggernaut waiting to happen, “ZZ Top,” as they called him, seemed like he would be a quintessential part of it. He scored 135 points in parts of four seasons, and he left a pretty big stamp on the franchise when he got traded a few seasons later in 1991, during a career year; in 66 games he scored 12 goals and 48 points.
Zalapski was part of one of the biggest trades in franchise history. He, along with John Cullen and Jeff Parker, were sent to the Hartford Whalers for Grant Jennings, Ulf Samuelsson, and future Pens captain and Hall of Famer Ron Francis.
8: Dave Burrows
The numbers for Dave Burrows may not be record-breaking, such is life as a defenseman, but what he excelled at was his skating and being able to play a stout defensive game. As a stay-at-home defenseman, he was the Penguins’ top blue-liner for most of his time in the Steel City.
Burrows, known as “Bone Rack,” found joy in playing on defense and focused his game on his own zone; he was hard on puck carriers and a skilled shot blocker. While he may have finished in Pittsburgh as a minus-55, which could be a side effect of playing on pretty lousy teams, he was always a top player on the roster.
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Selected for the Penguins’ Hall of Fame in 1996, his 1975-76 season with the club was career-defining. He played in all 80 games, posting seven goals, 22 assists for a career-high 29 points, and a career-high plus-26, one of only two times in his career he was a plus player. He has played the 12th most games in franchise history with 572.
7: Brooks Orpik
Being named after one of the most famous coaches in hockey history has to put a weight on one’s shoulders, right? Brooks Orpik, named after legend Herb Brooks, is another defenseman who didn’t base his game on scoring. He played a hard-nosed, gritty style and finished a season with over 250 hits four times, and over 100 hits in the postseason twice.
Outside of laying big hits, Orpik was the Penguins’ best defensive defenseman for eight seasons. When he left for the Washington Capitals after the 2013-14 season, he topped all Pittsburgh d-men in games played, with 703.
Orpik was an important piece of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup victory, but his biggest moment in Pittsburgh came during the 2013 postseason when he scored the series-clinching goal against the New York Islanders. The goal came during overtime of Game 6 in the first round. It was his first goal that season, and first career playoff goal.
6: Sergei Gonchar
The Penguins’ current assistant and defensive coach, Sergei Gonchar spent a handful of seasons in Pittsburgh as a player. He wasn’t just skilled; he consistently produced on the top pairing. In 322 games with the Penguins he recorded 259 points.
Gonchar was also more than just an on-ice threat. He became a leader off the ice, as well. Just as Lemieux invited young superstar Sidney Crosby to live with him at the beginning of his career, Gonchar opened his doors to fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin. Gonchar quickly became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh and was an important veteran presence during the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run.
At the age of 41, the Penguins gave Gonchar his last chance to crack an NHL lineup with a professional tryout contract in 2015. In four preseason games, he scored a goal and an assist, but was a minus-8, and failed to make the team. Immediately after that preseason, however, the Penguins signed him to be their defensemen development coach.
5: Randy Carlyle
Sure, the only Penguin to win the Norris Trophy deserves a spot on this list, but it’s not just his 1980-81 season that puts Randy Carlyle here. Carlyle came to Pittsburgh from the Toronto Maple Leafs in return for Burrows (mentioned above) and right away become one of the best players on the team. Every full season he spent in black and gold, he led the team in defensive points.
Carlyle’s 1980-81 season was important not only for him but also for the franchise. He won his only Norris Trophy and the franchise’s only Norris to date. In 76 games, he put up 16 goals and 83 points, and he beat out New York Islanders great Denis Potvin for the award that year.
The season after winning the Norris, Carlyle became the sixth Penguins captain in franchise history. He wore the C for three seasons until he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets in 1984, for their first-round draft pick that year. The Penguins selected honorable mention Bodger. In 397 games in a Penguins uniform, Carlyle scored 323 of his 647 career points.
4: Larry Murphy
The first Hall of Famer to be mentioned on this list, Larry Murphy had a career with 1,200-plus points and four Stanley Cups, two of them with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992. He played 336 games with the Penguins and recorded 301 points, ranked fourth all-time among Penguins defensemen when he left in 1995.
Murphy was not just a talented puck mover and scoring defender, but also one of the best defensive defensemen in Pittsburgh during the early to mid-’90s. He may not have been the fleetest of foot, but he played both sides of the puck better than most defenders in the NHL at the time. His 85 points during the 1992-93 season led the Penguins’ blue line, and ranked third in the NHL for defensemen. That was the season the Pens won their only Presidents’ Trophy.
It’s worth noting that he is the namesake of the “Murphy Dump.” Hall of Fame announcer Mike Lange noticed Murphy clear a puck differently than others by lofting it high above the ice and having it stop before reaching the goal line, so it wasn’t called for icing.
3: Ron Stackhouse
The original great Penguins defenseman, Ron Stackhouse was a puck mover who put up four 30+-assist seasons in Pittsburgh. At 6-foot-3 inches, fans wanted Stackhouse to be a bruiser, but he knew that he had the skill to be an offensive threat. That is exactly what he did, putting up 60 points in 1974-75 and 71 points the following year.
During the mid to late 1970s, the Penguins were improving with a higher win percentage and multiple playoff appearances, and Stackhouse was a huge part of that. It took the arrival of Carlyle to dethrone Stackhouse as the Penguins’ top-scoring defender every year.
During a March 8, 1975 game, Stackhouse tied an NHL record with six assists in a single game by a defenseman. He retired after the 1981-82 season as the Penguins’ all-time leader in goals, assists, and points among defensemen. His 66 goals, 277 assists, and 343 points still rank third in franchise history among d-men.
2: Paul Coffey
Arguably one of the greatest defensemen of all time, Paul Coffey set the standard for all future Penguins’ blue-liners. When the Pittsburgh traded for the three-time Cup winner in 1987, the team was beginning to look like a serious contender. Despite being injured for most of the 1991 championship run, Coffey was an integral part of bringing Pittsburgh its first Stanley Cup.
During his final full season with the Penguins, Coffey put up 93 points in 73 games during the regular season to place third in defensive scoring. He trailed only Al MacInnis and Ray Bourque who had 103 and 94 points, respectively.
In 1989, Coffey almost joined Carlyle on the list of Penguins Norris Trophy winners. He finished second in voting behind the Montreal Canadiens’ Chris Chelios, despite putting up 40 more points. During the 1988-89 season, Coffey was the only defenseman to score more than 80 points with 113. Second among defensemen in scoring was the Los Angeles Kings’ Steve Duchesne with 75. Maybe it was Coffey’s minus-10 that hurt his chances, but he wouldn’t have been the first minus player to win the award. When Carlyle won it with the Penguins, he was a minus-16.
In his four-plus seasons in Pittsburgh, Coffey set every major statistical record for a defenseman; 108 goals, 332 assists, 440 points. These numbers stood as Penguins records for well over 20 years until…
1: Kris Letang
Drafted in 2005, third-round pick Kris Letang set the standard for future generations of d-men. Maybe his longevity plays a role in this choice but it’s worth noting that Letang is the longest-tenured Penguins defenseman, with parts of 14 seasons under his belt, and two years remaining on his contract. His 808 games rank fourth in Penguins history, regardless of position.
What makes this all the more impressive is the injury troubles Letang has gone through. Through neck issues to concussions to a stroke in 2014, he has managed to remain an elite performer, (from ‘Why did 26-year-old Pittsburgh Penguin Kris Letang have a stroke?’ The Star, 02/07/2014).
Letang may be one of the most criticized players on the Penguins, but that comes with the territory. Head coach Mike Sullivan knows Letang is a top-tier player, so he earns top tier minutes. Averaging 23:58 minutes of ice-time per game, he is a fixture on the team’s full strength, power play, and penalty kill units.
Appropriately, Letang’s 537 career points rank 58th in NHL history for points by a defenseman. He will turn 33 on April 24, so he should still have a couple of productive seasons left in the tank. His numbers will continue to grow, and his mark left on the Penguins’ organization will grow with them. Could his No. 58 be retired in Pittsburgh?
While the top-2 on this list are just about set in stone, the remaining eight are always up for discussion and considerations The Penguins have had a thin list of all-star defensemen, but enough to boast some spectacular numbers and players.
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Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.