The best European-born NHL defensemen include Stanley Cup winners, Norris Trophy winners and some of the best players to ever play the game. This Top 10 list of unbelievably talented blueliners spans several decades and includes retired as well as active players. Although there were several easy selections, this was a hotly contested list.
10. 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 European defenseman to hold that distinction. Hamrlik, a three-time All-Star, scored 155 goals and added 483 assists in his 20-year career. He had five 40+ point seasons and was a versatile player who could matchup against top lines, play the penalty kill and quarterback the power play.
9. 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. Ruotsalainen bounced around between Europe and NHL for the better part of a decade.
The antithesis of Chara, Ruotsalainen was a meager 5-foot-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 must 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.
8. Erik Karlsson, Sweden
Karlsson was selected 15th overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 2008 NHL Draft. It’s worth noting that then-Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray traded Ottawa’s first-round pick, 18th overall, and their third-round pick in 2009 to the Nashville Predators in exchange for the Predators’ first-round pick, 15th overall, to ensure no other team would select Karlsson before them.
The five-time All-Star and two-time Norris Trophy winner is in his tenth NHL season, his first with the San Jose Sharks. He’s scored 128 goals and tallied 411 assists for 539 points in 660 games (as of Dec. 2018).
Karlsson is well known for his speed, his ability to lead a rush and for making plays. As an offensive defenseman, he has earned more than 70 points in four different seasons and is the second defenseman in league history to lead his team in scoring in four consecutive campaigns.
7. Sandis Ozolinsh, Latvia (USSR)
Sandis Ozolinsh is the greatest player to hail from the small country of Latvia. Ozoliņsh 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.
Ozolinsh was an underrated player for the Colorado Avalanche when they won the Cup in 1996. He holds several Avalanche franchise records including: most single regular season goals by a defenseman, most single regular season points by a defenseman, 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.
6. 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, the Moscow born blueliner made his NHL debut with the New Jersey Devils, who selected him in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft.
In the midst of his fifth 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 won three Stanley Cups and was named to his first NHL All-Star game in 1997. He finished his nine-year NHL career, scoring 36 goals and assisting on 193 others in 546 games. He added another 28 points while appearing in 116 playoff games.
5. Sergei Zubov, Russia (USSR)
Zubov was selected by the New York Rangers in the fifth round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft and is considered one of the best offensive-minded blueliners to ever play the game. He played 165 games for the Rangers, before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for one season and then at the 1996 NHL Draft was traded to the Stars where he played the rest of his 16-year career.
In 1994, the year he won the Stanley Cup with the Rangers, Zubov actually led the team in scoring with a jaw-dropping 89 points — a rarity for any defenseman as well as a testament to what he brought to the ice every shift. He and fellow blueliner Brian Leetch were a dominating force.
Zubov was one of the most dominant point-producing defensemen in the NHL, evidenced by a stretch of 11 consecutive 40-plus point seasons. He was also in the top 10 in Norris voting six times and went to the All-Star game three times.
Upon his retirement, Zubov was the all-time leading scorer among Russian defensemen, before being eclipsed by Gonchar. In addition to adding a second Stanley Cup to his resume with Stars, he’s still the all-time leading scoring defenseman for the team.
4. Zdeno Chara, Slovakia (Czechoslovakia)
Zdeno Chara, at a daunting 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, is difficult to miss. “Big Z” is known as being one of the toughest, nastiest competitors in the NHL – a rare hybrid of size, skill and physicality. He is the tallest player ever to play in the National Hockey League.
Originally drafted in the third round of the 1996 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, Chara was traded to the Ottawa Senators during the 2001 NHL Draft as part of a deal for forward Alexei Yashin. Chara played four seasons in Ottawa before being signed by the Boston Bruins as a prized unrestricted free agent.
Chara is a six-time Norris Trophy finalist, winning once in 2009. In 2011, he 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 1,441 games, 198 goals and 434 assists. He also has the unique record of holding the NHL’s hardest shot at 108.8 mph. Chara is fluent in seven languages: Slovak, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Russian, German and English.
3. Borje Salming, Sweden
Borje Salming is arguably one of the most underrated players in NHL history. Despite being undrafted, the Hockey Hall of Famer recorded 787 career points and had a plus-175 rating in 1,148 games. He was a mixture of skill and toughness. He blocked shots and contributed on offense.
In 1973, Salming began his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he played all but 49 games of his career. There, he set numerous franchise records in the process. In his final season, 1989-90, Salming played for the Detroit Red Wings.
Salming was prolific. 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 earned five Second-Team All-Star selections and was a First-Team pick in 1977.
Not only was he the first Swedish hockey player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he became 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.
2. Sergei Gonchar, Russia (USSR)
Sergei Gonchar had both a long and successful career, where he’d often be found quarterbacking the power play. The left-shot blueliner was selected with the 14th overall pick in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals.
Gonchar played in 1,301 NHL games, amassing 220 goals and 591 assists. He won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. From the 2000-01 season through the 2009-10 season, Gonchar tallied exactly 500 points, which was second among NHL defensemen only to Nicklas Lidstrom’s 550. Gonchar was also second among NHL defencemen in assists during that span with 372 assists, behind Lidstrom’s 434. He led the NHL in goals by a defenceman during that span, with 128. Gonchar also led the NHL in points-per-game average among NHL defensemen during that span, scoring at 0.80 points per game.
Since his first NHL season in 1995, only Lidstrom scored more points (889) among defensemen to Gonchar’s 684. Gonchar recorded a whopping nine 50-point seasons and scored 10 or more goals twelve times, tying Sergei Zubov for the most 10-plus 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.
1. Nicklas Lidstrom, Sweden
The best European defenseman to lace up his skates in the NHL is an easy choice: Nicklas Lidstrom. He’s got a laundry list of accomplishments, including: four Stanley Cups, 12 NHL All-Star game selections (10 times being first team), a remarkable seven Norris Trophies, the 2002 Conn Smythe Trophy and a 1992 NHL All-Rookie selection.
Drafted 53rd overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 1989, Lidstrom became a cornerstone of the Red Wings and all of their success.
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 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and first European-born Norris Trophy winner.
We could go on and on about the man born in Vasteras, Sweden, 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. He’s also a true professional, highly respected by his peers and the entire hockey community.
There are several other players that garnered consideration but missed the cut. They’re listed below by their native country.
From the USSR: Andrei Markov and Vladimir Konstantinov. Konstantinov of the USSR was likely on track to become one of the best European-born NHL defensemen of all-time before his horrible accident. He played for the Detriot Red Wings from 1991-97.
From Sweden: Calle Johansson, Fredrik Olausson, Stefan Persson and Victor Hedman. Hedman may eventually make the Top-10 list if he continues to play at a high level.
From Czechoslovakia: Tomas Kaberle.
From Finland: Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numminen. Numminen was the poster child for perseverance. He played in 1,372 career NHL games (a record among European-born players upon his retirement), which included returning after having open heart surgery. 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.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”