Red Wings’ Top 5 Defensemen of All Time Ranked

The Detroit Red Wings are about as decorated as an NHL franchise can be. While legendary forwards like Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman dominate the team’s record books, the Red Wings have also been home to a vast collection of talented defensemen across the decades.

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Throughout this list of players, there are numerous Norris Trophy winners, All-Star selections, Hall-of-Fame inductees, and Stanley Cup champions. Likewise, a few decorated blueliners are missing from the list, but that is the reality of rankings. Without further ado, let us take a look at the player who slots into the fifth spot.

5. Vladimir Konstantinov

Reflecting on Vladimir Konstantinov’s career always ignites bittersweet feelings. The Red Wings selected the Russian rearguard with the 221st pick in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, unsure if the CSKA Moscow standout would be able to defect the Soviet Union.

In a scenario that seems like it was out of a spy movie, Red Wings’ management managed to get Konstantinov into the United States by faking medical reports to get him discharged from the Russian army (from ‘How Vladimir Konstantinov faked cancer to join Detroit Red Wings,’ Detroit Free Press – 3/26/18.)

Vladimir Konstantinov Detroit Red Wings
Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov of the Detroit Red Wings moves down the ice during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers (Rick Stewart /Allsport)

The harrowing endeavor instantly paid dividends, as the 24-year-old was a member of the NHL’s All-Rookie Team during his first season in North America. He tallied 34 points in 79 games, but his bone-crushing body checks and pugnacious play were the main traits that made him beloved by fans.

Konstantinov continued his ascension over the next three seasons, combining dominant defensive play with his patented aggressiveness, but his 1995-96 season was where he truly broke out. Across 81 games, Konstantinov tallied 14 goals, 20 assists, 139 penalty minutes, and an eye-popping plus-60 rating.

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The 1995-96 season was also where Konstantinov became immortalized as a member of the legendary Russian Five, and the Red Wings compiled a 62-13-7 record. Konstantinov’s efforts did not go unnoticed by the league. The rugged blueliner earned selection to the NHL’s Second All-Star team, finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting, and even earned himself a Hart Trophy vote.

In the 1996-97 season, he tallied 38 points in 77 games to go along with 151 penalty minutes, finishing second in Norris Trophy voting. He played a starring role throughout the playoffs en route to the team’s first Stanley Cup championship in 42 years.

Alas, the championship celebration ended in just six days, due to a heartbreaking limousine accident that ended Konstantinov’s playing career at the age of 29. A moment that should have been pure joy turned into a tragic reminder of the fragility of the real world.

Thankfully, Konstantinov’s entire playing style revolved around being a warrior, and his recovery from the accident was no different. He never played hockey again, but his love for the Red Wings remained. He attends several games every season and has joined the team in alumni celebrations.

Despite having his career cut upsettingly short, Konstantinov is deserving of his ranking at number five. The team never missed the playoffs during his six-year career, he was instrumental in a championship, and he was an elite defenseman at his peak. One can only wonder how much higher he would be on this list had fortune been on his side.

4. Niklas Kronwall

Anytime a fan base creates a verb to define someone’s style of play, chances are that player left a pretty sizable legacy. For years, opposing players kept their heads up to ensure they did not get “Kronwalled” while crossing the blueline. While Niklas Kronwall never won an individual award, he won the hearts of fans and teammates with his on-ice leadership.

Detroit Red Wings Niklas Kronwall
Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall exuded toughness throughout his lengthy career. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Kronwall was taken with the 29th-overall pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft after impressing scouts with his play in the Swedish Elite League. There were initial concerns about his lack of size, but his offensive skillset was undeniable.

The Swedish rearguard came to North America in the 2003-04 season. During the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout, Kronwall excelled in the American Hockey League with the Grand Rapids Griffins. He posted 10 goals, 43 assists, and 53 penalty minutes in 76 games, solidifying himself a defensive building block for the franchise.

By the 2006-07 season, Kronwall was an NHL regular. During the 2007-08 campaign, he tallied 35 points in 65 games. While the production was impressive, Kronwall became even better once the Red Wings acquired defenseman Brad Stuart at the 2008 Trade Deadline.

Niklas Kronwall - Red Wings
Niklas Kronwall was an assistant captain for the Red Wings in eight of his 15 NHL seasons. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The duo blossomed into a formidable shutdown pairing for the Red Wings heading into the playoffs. Buoyed by Stuart’s stay-at-home style, Kronwall posted 15 points across 22 playoff games and led all players with a plus-16 rating. The Red Wings went on to win their 11th Stanley Cup championship, and Kronwall’s efforts were integral.

During the 2008-09 season, Kronwall posted the best statistical season of his career. He netted 51 points in 80 games, again helping the Red Wings reach the Stanley Cup Final. He had also developed into one of the best open-ice hitters hockey has ever seen, punishing opponents with bone-crunching collisions.

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Despite the occasional injuries, Kronwall was a model of consistency for several more seasons. Between 2007-08 and 2014-15, he ranks 12th among all defensemen in points. Even as the Red Wings started to falter by the 2016-17 season, Kronwall remained steadfast in his role as a leader.

Niklas Kronwall Dec 2018
Niklas Kronwall #55, Detroit Red Wings – December 18, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In terms of his place in the franchise’s defensemen record books, Kronwall is third in points, third in games played, third in power-play goals, third in playoff points, and third in playoff games played.

He was also a dynamic international player for Team Sweden. He is a member of the prestigious Triple Gold Club, meaning he has won gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships, as well as a Stanley Cup championship.

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Kronwall retired in 2019, as injuries continued to mount on his knees and back. He immediately joined the Red Wings’ front office staff, serving as an assistant to the general manager.

Kronwall was a physical warrior, a fearless leader, and proudly wore the winged wheel on his chest for all 15 of his NHL seasons. There is no denying his place among the franchise’s all-time best defensemen.

3. Marcel Pronovost

In terms of underrated Red Wings’ legends, Marcel Pronovost may be at the top of the list. He was the backbone of the team’s defense core throughout the 1950s, which was one of the most successful eras in franchise history.

Marcel Pronovost featured on a 1962 hockey card (Marcel Pronovost/THW Archives).

Pronovost starred for the Red Wings’ farm teams in the International Hockey League (IHL) and United States Hockey League (USHL) before he joined the big club. His NHL debut came during the 1949-50 playoffs after an injury to Gordie Howe forced some lineup shuffling.

The young blueliner fit in instantly, as his level-headed play helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup. He was a full-time NHL player by the 1951-52 season, tallying 18 points and 50 penalty minutes in 69 games played. Come playoff time, the 21-year-old’s steady defensive presence assisted in yet another championship.

Related: Marcel Pronovost – Red Wings’ Underrated Star

In 1953-54, he recorded five points across 12 postseason games en route to his third Stanley Cup championship. Likewise, in 1954-55, he recorded a career-high 34 points in the regular season as the Red Wings cruised to their second-consecutive title.

Between 1957-58 and 1960-61, Pronovost had earned his place among the best defensemen in the NHL. During that stretch, he was voted to the First NHL All-Star Team twice, the Second NHL All-Star Team twice, and finished in the top five for Norris Trophy voting each season.

Marcel Pronovost was one of the early defensive icons for the Detroit Red Wings (Marcel Pronovost/THW Archives).

The smooth-skating Pronovost sits second all-time in games played by Red Wings’ defensemen, sixth in goals, seventh in points, and second in playoff games played. He is one of just 11 players in franchise history to win four Stanley Cups with the team.

While Kronwall may have had better offensive production, Pronovost’s championship pedigree earns him the third spot on the list. The French-Canadian rearguard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978, cementing himself as one of the best defensemen in team history.

2. Red Kelly

When reminiscing on the stars of the Original Six era, Red Kelly’s name will come up quite frequently. He was supremely talented and possessed unbelievable versatility.

He began his NHL career at the tender age of 20 and impressed Red Wings’ management right away. Kelly totaled 20 points in 60 games, earning himself a third-place finish in the Calder Trophy voting. Kelly helped the team reach the Stanley Cup Finals, but they fell in four games to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Red Kelly, Punch Imlach
Red Kelly, pictured here with Punch Ilmach, was one of the early defensive stars of the NHL (Red Kelly/THW Archives).

After a rocky sophomore season, Kelly was dominant in the 1949-50 campaign. He led all defensemen in scoring with 40 points in 70 games while only tallying nine penalty minutes in the process. He finished second in Lady Byng Trophy voting, 10th in Hart Trophy voting, and was voted to the Second NHL All-Star Team.

That spring, Kelly also captured his first Stanley Cup championship, after the Red Wings survived two grueling seven-game series to claim the title. That year started a dominant stretch of play for Kelly, as he recorded at least 45 points in each of the next six seasons.

During that time, Kelly captured three more Stanley Cups, was voted to the First NHL All-Star Team five times, won the first-ever James Norris Trophy, and won three Lady Byng trophies. He was also named captain of the Red Wings ahead of the 1955-56 season.

Kelly eventually left the Red Wings in the 1959-60 season and went on to win four more Stanley Cups as a forward with the Maple Leafs, further solidifying his already spectacular career. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969, and the Red Wings retired his number in 2019.

While players like Howe and Ted Lindsay deservingly receive a fair amount of praise for the success of the Red Wings during the 1950s, Kelly was undeniably essential to the team.

He sits third in points among defensemen in franchise history, third in goals, second in game-winning goals, fourth in games played, and fifth in playoff points. His combination of championships, production, and individual trophies make him the obvious choice for the second spot on this list.

1. Nicklas Lidstrom

As if there was any doubt, the man nicknamed “The Perfect Human” by his teammates is unquestionably the top defenseman in team history. Nicklas Lidstrom earns universal praise from pundits, opponents, and fans alike, and it is easy to understand why once you look at his resume.

Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the most decorated defensemen in NHL history. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Individually, Lidstrom won seven Norris Trophies and was the first European to ever win a Conne Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. He was voted to the NHL’s year-end All-Star team 12 times.

Internationally, Lidstrom captured an Olympic gold medal in 2006, netting six points in eight games en route to the Olympic All-Star Team. He also won a World Championship title in 1991.

Regarding team success, he was an integral part of four Stanley Cup championships. In 2007-08, he became the first European born-and-trained player to captain their team to a title. Throughout his 20-year career, the Red Wings never missed the playoffs.

Nicklas Lidstrom
DETROIT – JUNE 06: Nicklas Lidstrom #5 of the Detroit Red Wings holds up the Stanley Cup during a parade to celebrate winning the 2008 Stanley Cup on June 6, 2008, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

He leads Red Wings’ defensemen in almost every major statistical category. Likewise, his regular-season statistics are some of the best the league has ever seen. He ranks sixth all-time among defenseman in NHL history with 1142 points, sixth all-time with 878 assists, sixth all-time with a plus 450-rating, and fifth all-time with 1564 games played.

Lidstrom’s exploits become even more impressive when you look at his playoff numbers. He is second all-time among defenseman with 263 games played, second all-time with 183 points, first all-time with 30 power-play goals, and first all-time with 111 power-play points.

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He embodied class on and off the ice and captained the next generation of Red Wings for six years before retiring in 2012. Realistically, the team’s blueline has still not recovered from the hole that Lidstrom made when he left.

He is not only the greatest defenseman in Red Wings’ history, but he is also one of the best players in the storied tapestry of the NHL. He was instrumental in modernizing the up-tempo, fast-transition style that teams all over the league currently use.

Nicklas Lidstrom Norris Trophy
Nicklas Lidstrom discussing logistics with Pavel Datsyuk (Icon SMI).

Lidstrom was a gentleman, a winner, and a career Red Wing. His trophy case is overflowing, and his statistical prowess stacks up against any other defenseman in league history. There is no denying his spot at the top of this list.

Final Word

It was difficult to whittle the list down to just five guys, as durable players like Reed Larson, Chris Chelios, and Gary Bergman also deserve credit for their stints with the organization.

With so many potential defensemen to choose from, sound off in the comments below on who your top five Red Wings’ rearguards are.