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The best Maple Leaf—and NHL—defense pairs of the past 50 years…

Though I’ve been watching and following hockey closely going back to the late 1950s, I certainly don't have instant recall when it comes to all the great players I have been fortunate enough to see in action over that time. Meaning, if I was to create a list right now off the top of my head (and that’s how I write here, with no real “research” involved, as longtime VLM readers understand) about all-time greats, I would undoubtedly forget to include some awfully good players.

Once the name was brought to my attention, I would likely immediately go, “oh right, of course…”.  But the list would not be perfect.

I mention this because today, I wanted to draft a piece about great defense pairings over the years I’ve followed the NHL, including but not limited to defensemen who have been part of Toronto hockey history.

There are many instances where I will not be able to recall with certainty who played with who—for example, who played with Bobby Orr the most (I think it was Dallas Smith, and I should know this, but time is difficult to beat when it comes to sometimes fading memories…)

The Leafs

Leaf followers of a certain vintage know these names: Baun and Brewer, Horton and Stanley.  We know, because from the late 1950s through the later ‘1960s (excluding Brewer, who retired abruptly at training camp in the fall of 1965), Tim Horton, Allan Stanley, Carl Brewer (below right) and Bobby Baun all stuck like glue together as  pairings on Punch Imlach’s generally very solid Maple Leaf blueline. So for me, given that they won those four Cups together, they stand as some of the finest Leaf defense pairs of my lifetime.

Toronto started to build other good pairings in the early ‘70s, but the incoming World Hockey Association unfortunately grabbed the guts of that group:  Pelyk, Ley, Selwood and Dorey (after he had been traded to the Rangers).

Later in the ‘70s, Trevor Johansen and Randy Carlyle began to emerge as solid young D-men, but both ended up (for some reason) elsewhere. The memorable Leaf defense pairing through the 1970s was no doubt Ian Turnbull and Borje Salming.  Turnbull was a remarkably talented guy, but rarely played to his talent, it felt like. His career ended in the early ‘80s.  Salming played forever, and will always be remembered as a Leaf who came out of seemingly nowhere to take the league by storm in his 1973-’74 rookie season- twisting, turning, making plays, blocking shots with every part of his body, getting hammered and coming back for more punishment. (And proving, if proof was needed, that Europeans could excel in North American hockey.)

We had a number of good defensemen in the lineup through the 1980s but I’m not sure we had a too many outstanding defense pairs. (Please chime in if a combination comes to mind.)

In the early 1990s, Pat Burns deployed the famous no-name defense corps, as I like to refer to them—especially Rouse, Gill, Ellett, Macoun and Lefebvre. As I write this, I could not, for sure, tell you who always played with who, but I know some of you will remember like it was yesterday, because (like Baun, Brewer, Horton and Stanley were for me) it was your first big memory of being a Leaf supporter.

Later, in the Quinn years, we had guys I really liked—Yushkevich, Markov, McCabe, Karberle and others.  For me, McCabe and Kaberle was a pair I thought hit the high notes. Like any defense pairing they had their difficult moments, but when it mattered, in big games and at playoff time, they could play huge minutes and play pretty darn well. I liked them both.

Non-Leaf pairings I recall

I was too young to fully appreciate Doug Harvey’s best years in Montreal, but if someone remembers who he played with a lot, share your recollections. (Possibly Bob Turner?) I remember Doug during his time with New York in the early ‘60s, but could not tell you who he was paired up with. (I think he actually won his last Norris Trophy with the Rangers.)

I do recall Pierre Pilote (what a fine player) and “Moose” Vasko as a pair seemingly forever with the Blackhawks.  Pilote did it all- he was small but tough and could make all the plays. Vasko could really rush the puck and delivered big checks.

During all those Cup years in the mid and late ’60, Montreal had a number of standout defensemen.  Was it rugged Ted Harris that usually played with the steady and talented Jacques Laperriere (left)?  Terry Harper had a nice run with the Habs as well. Was it Harper and J.C. Tremblay? (In the 1970s, Montreal had three future Hall-of-Famers—Lapointe, Savard and Robinson, and it felt like Scotty Bowman could interchange those guys whenever he wanted to. They were awfully tough to play against.)

Thinking back to the Rangers in the 1960s, I seem to recall Rod Seiling and Jim Neilson playing together, but my memory may be faulty. Both were excellent defensemen.  Harry Howell was a Rangers’ stalwart for almost twenty years before finishing his career in LA or Oakland, but I’m not sure who his primary partner was- perhaps Arnie Brown in the mid '60s.

One pair I remember very well, though they didn’t actually stay together for that long, was Bill White and Pat Stapleton in Chicago.  White was late to his NHL career, but after he was traded from the Kings to Hawks during the 1970-'71 season, he paired really well with Stapleton, who I recall starting his career with Boston.  (Both were part of Team Canada ’72, if I remember correctly.)  Stapleton was not a big guy at all, but was very smart and could skate and move the puck. White was your classic defensive defensemen, and he was really, really good. Stapleton signed in the WHA, and that ended a great pairing.

I realize as I’m writing this that there is no way I can include all the great names I’d like to.  So I’ll leave it to you to talk about some of the great defense pairs I have missed here.  Some of you, for example, may recall whether the Plager brothers (Barclay and Bob) played together a lot in St. Louis. Who was Denis Potvin’s primary partner on the Island? (He was there a long time, of course. At times I think he played with his brother, Jean…)

There are lots of very good pairs today, and there have been through the years.  By all means share your memories of some of the great defense pairs you’ve enjoyed watching through the years…


  1. Did Denis Potvin not team up with Ken Morrow in the 80's mainly? Morrow was the solid stay at home guy to enable Potvin a bit more freedom. But Stefan Person might have been his partner at times as well...

    MacInnis and Suter were pretty good during the mid/late 80's for the Flames.

    I believe one of Bobby Orr's main partners during the Bruins haydays was Dallas Smith. Was that a truly "great" pairing or more like Potvin/Morrow with a super star and a very good defensive dman perhaps?

    And not NHL at the time but I am not sure there have been very many better pairings than Fetisov and Kasatonov during their prime. They came to the NHL later in hockey life but were still very good.

    Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon on Philly in the 80's were very good but maybe not "great". But at the time any team would have have loved to have them playing for them so....

    Hard to define the difference between great and very good. Fuzzy old memory doesn't help :)

    1. I'm glad you mentioned Morrow because that was the name that popped up for me, too, as a partner for Potvin (in the early '80s).

      Agreed on Fetisov/Kasatanov. It's too bad we missed seeing a lot of the great Russian players until relatively recently.

      We probably all have slightly different memories, and different thoughts as to who was "great", but it's fun to look back on some tremendous players from days gone by. Thanks Pep.

  2. The iconic Leafs defence pairings are pretty much the same for me as for you - understandable, perhaps, for those of a certain age! Horton/Stanley, Baun/Brewer - the cornerstones of the memory edifice I've erected to my childhood Leafs. Salming/Turnbull would rank right up there, as would Kaberle/McCabe (before the "can opener" was disallowed), and Yushkevich/Markov (mostly for their toughness).
    Other teams? I seem to remember that Doug Harvey was paired with Tom Johnson on those great Habs teams - I seem to recall that Johnson was a very stay-at-home, take-care-of-business type, but big. I think Lapierre's partner was JC Tremblay, who I seem to remember as a slick skater who always got out of trouble with relative ease. And Pilote and vast! The epitome of a perfect pairing, I'd say - and one of the banes of my youthful fandom!
    How about Larry Murphy/Paul Coffey for the Pens, Coffey and was it Huddy (?) for the Oilers, Weber/Suter for the Preds, the two Scotts -Niedermayer and Stevens - for the Devils, Ray Bourque and Rob Blake for the Avalanche (short-lived though it was), Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis for the Blues, Lidstrom and Rafalski for the Wings, Duncan Keith and... Hjalmarsson (?) for the Blackhawks...

    1. I think you're right about Tom Johnson playing with Harvey, Gerund O'. (Tom finished his career with Boston, right? And later coached the Bruins...)

      All the others you cited are great names as well, including the current guys.