Blue Line Special




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.