After taking a look at the forwards and goaltenders, we conclude our examination of European-born NHLers by discussing the best blue liners. Although there were a few slam dunks, this was a hotly contested list, especially when selecting the last few players.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Sweden
Let’s start with an easy choice. Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the best ever to lace’em up. He’s got a laundry list of accomplishments, including: four Stanley Cups, 12 NHL All-Star game selections (10 times being first team), seven Norris Trophies, the 2002 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and a 1992 NHL All-Rookie selection.
He also holds a number of accolades specific to European-born players, including: first European to captain a team to a Stanley Cup, Most regular season games played by a player born in Europe, any position, First European-born and trained defenseman to reach 1,000 points, First European-born and trained Conn Smythe Trophy winner, First European-born and trained Norris Trophy winner.
We could go on and on, but the fact of the matter is Lidstrom isn’t just a great European-born player, he’s one of the best ever to play the game.
Slava Fetisov, Russia (USSR)
While the majority of Slava Fetisov’s career was played outside the NHL, he’s on this list because of the impact he made on the game of hockey. He was instrumental in finally getting approval for Soviet players to play in the NHL. After a long battle with Soviet bureaucracy he made his NHL debut with the New Jersey Devils who selected him in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft.
In the midst of his fourth season with the Devils, he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, scoring 14 points in 14 games down the stretch. While with Detroit, he’d win three Stanley Cups and was named to his first NHL All-Star game in 1997.
Sergei Gonchar, Russia (USSR)
Sergei Gonchar had both a long and successful career, where he’d often be found quarterbacking the power play. He played in 1,301 NHL games, amassing 220 goals and 591 assists. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the following season would be a landmark year.
He record his ninth 50-point season in the past 10 seasons and had his 11th season with ten goals or more to tie Sergei Zubov for the most 10+ goal seasons among Russian defensemen. He also set an NHL record on March 2, 2010 when he became the first Russian defenseman to score 200 career NHL goals.
Borje Salming, Sweden
Borje Salming is arguably one of the most underrated players in NHL history. The Hockey Hall of Famer recorded 787 career points, despite being undrafted, which is an NHL record for defensemen. He played all but 49 career games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, setting numerous franchise records in the process.
— theScore (@theScore) September 12, 2015
He holds six career and single season Toronto Maple Leaf records, including: most career points by a defenseman, most career goals by a defenseman, most career assists, most assists in a season by a defenseman, and best career plus-minus. He not only was the first Swedish hockey player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but becamce a trailblazer for other European players to follow him. Before his successes, it was generally believed Europeans weren’t tough enough to compete in North America.
Sergei Zubov, Russia (USSR)
The previously mentioned Zubov lands on the list with a few of his countrymen. Zubov is considered one of the best offensive-minded blue liners to play. Upon his retirement, he was the all-time leading scorer among Russian defensemen, before being eclipsed by Gonchar. He’s still the all-time leading scoring defenseman for the Dallas Stars and two-time Stanley Cup winner. During the 1993-94 NHL season, he scored a career high 89 points and had a stretch of 11 consecutive 40+ point seasons.
Zdeno Chara, Slovakia (Czechoslovakia)
The daunting 6’9″ Zdeno Chara has been difficult to miss, but not only because of his size. Chara is known as being one of the toughest, nastiest guys in the NHL. He’s a rare hybrid of size, skill and physicality. He’s got a Norris Trophy to his credit, being named a finalist six times, and in 2011 became the first player born in the Iron Curtain to captain a team to a Stanley Cup. Although far from finished, Chara has amassed impressive career totals of 1,195 games, 169 goals and 369 assists. He also has the unique record of holding the NHL’s hardest shot at 108.8 mph. For those of you that think Chara is just a big goon, he’s actually fluent in seven languages: Slovak, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Russian, German and English.
Reijo Ruotsalainen, Finland
Although he doesn’t have the lengthy NHL career as most of the others on this list, Reijo Ruotsalainen’s skill cannot be overlooked, not to mention he’s got one of the better names in NHL history. Ruotsalainen bounced around between Europe and NHL for the better part of a decade.
The antithesis of Chara, Ruotsalainen was a meager 5’8″. However, what he lacked in size, he made up for tenfold in talent. He was one of the purest skaters the game has ever seen and was an exceptional puck moving defenseman. His best season came in 1984-85 when he scored 28 goals and 73 points, but it most be noted he played a good portion of the year as a forward, showing his versatility. Rexi, as he was endearingly called, won two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, and actually played in more postseason games (43) than regular season games (26) with the club.
Sandis Ozolins, Latvia (USSR)
Sandis Ozolins is the greatest player to hail from the small country of Latvia. Ozoliņs was selected to seven NHL All-Star games, is a Stanley Cup champion, and was a Norris Trophy finalist in 1997. He played in 875 NHL games, scoring 167 goals and amassing 397 assists.
Photo: Sandis Ozoliņš, wearing his “crafty veteran defenseman” face. A wonderful player – I’m going to… http://t.co/o3juWbY5Qx
— Patrick C (@ChunkletsHockey) August 16, 2014
He also holds several Colorado Avalanche franchise records including: Most single regular season goals by a defenseman, most single regular season points by adefenseman, most all-time regular season goals by a defenseman, Most single playoff assists by a defenseman, most single playoff points by a defenseman (tied with Rob Blake) and most all-time playoff points by a defenseman.
Roman Hamrlik, Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia)
Roman Hamrlik makes this list in large part because of his longevity. His 1,395 career NHL games over the course of 20 seasons ranks him 34th all time. Hamrlik was drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, making him the first and only European defenseman to hold that distinction. Hamrlik would score 155 goals and tally 483 assists in his career. Hamrlik is a three-time NHL all-star and tallied five 40+ point seasons. Hamrlik was a versatile player who could matchup against top lines, play the penalty kill and quarterback the power play.
Teppo Numminen, Finland
Rounding out the list is Teppo Numminen. Like Hamrlik, Numminen was the poster child for perseverance. Numminen played in 1,372 career NHL games (a record among European-born players upon his retirement), which included returning after having open heart surgery.
— shocking offers (@miguelezcesar) August 11, 2015
Numminen was a very intelligent hockey player, with great hockey sense. Over the course of his career he amassed 117 goals and 520 assists and was a plus-56. He has the unfortunate distinction of being the active leader among NHL players who played the most games without winning the Stanley Cup at the end of the 2008-09 season.
Other players garnering consideration, but just missing the cut include: Fredrik Olausson, Tomas Kaberle, Andrei Markov and Kimmo Timonen.
Agree or disagree? Leave your comments below.