In the new hockey set, it’s clear that defensemen know their place


By Glenn Guzzo





            Perhaps more than any other season since Bobby Orr revolutionized what it means to be a National Hockey League defenseman, the just-released 2009-10 Strat-O-Matic set reflects a return to NHL basics: Defensemen defend and forwards score.

            Among all 681 carded skaters, defensemen are twice as likely to be rated 5, 4 or 3 at even strength defensively than forwards (44.7 percent of rearguards, 22.7 percent of forwards) and more than three times as likely to be rated 5 or 4.

            Meanwhile, centers and wingers are more than three times as likely to score goals.

            In this respect, the 2009-10 teams are much more like the simultaneously released 1963-64 teams than they are the new 1972-73 teams, which feature Orr and the Orr wannabes – free skater/shooters who can pass and score, but are rated 1 or 2 defensively.

            The carded 1963-64 teams have 13 defensemen rated 5 or 4 defensively, while the six carded 1972-73 teams combined for only six defensemen rated that highly. That’s all the more remarkable because the 1972-73 teams are the elite teams of that season, while 1963-64 include that season’s worst teams as well as the best.

            As Strat-O-Matic always does, the ratings show us how the game is being played and the changes in eras.

            In the 2009-10 set, 16 of 30 teams can dress a top-four blue-line crew of 5, 4 and 3 defenders. Nineteen teams have at least three defensemen who are 5s and 4s. Six teams – Columbus, Los Angeles, Montreal, New Jersey, Ottawa and Phoenix – can ice four 5s and 4s. That’s a level of quality matched only by the 1963-64 Toronto Maple Leafs (5-rated Allan Stanley and 4-rated Tim Horton, Bob Baun and Carl Brewer) in this year’s vintage sets.

            Up front, the scarcity of checking forwards becomes more acute after delegating elite two-way players like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrick Marleau and Zach Parise to scoring lines. After that, few teams can put together a solid checking line of three forwards all with defensive ratings of 3 or higher.

            With scoring and defense dropping steeply after the first two lines on most teams, the Strat-O-Matic coach will have to be more alert than ever in finding the right ice time for role players.

            However, many 2- and 3-rated forwards improve defensively while penalty-killing, a highly realistic way of representing their ability when defense earns their full concentration.