Determining who were the Top-9 Rangers Defenseman in their 90-year history was not an easy task because some awfully good ones had to be omitted.
That said, my criteria is the same — Hall of Famers, Stanley Cup-winners and players who delivered in the clutch.
In addition to listing the nine best in alphabetical order, I matched them with contemporary Rangers who play most like those on the All-Time list.
Naturally, I expect some disagreements and welcome other suggestions. Let’s drop the puck and go.
The emergence of Art Coulter as a star Ranger backliner came in a curious way.
After arriving in New York in 1935, the introverted Coulter seemed unable to get along with manager-coach Lester Patrick. Eventually, the impasse was detected by center Frank Boucher who understood the psyches of both the boss and his defenseman.
Boucher realized that the prideful Coulter had natural leadership qualities. With that in mind, Boucher urged Patrick to give Coulter the captaincy. Fortunately, Lester agreed and Art suddenly became a tower of strength on the Blueshirts’ blueline.
This was reflected by a boost in Coulter’s performance and he made Second Team All-Star three years in a row — 1938, 1939, 1940. No less important was the fact that Coulter was a force in leading the Rangers to their third Stanley Cup triumph in 1940.
[Current Ranger that most resembles him: Ryan McDonagh. Like Coulter, McDonagh has become a strong leader and solid in his own zone.]
The best word describing Bill Gadsby would be, “Warrior.” His first game wearing a Ranger uniform after being traded from Chicago to New York was against the Bruins on Thanksgiving Eve, 1954.
Spearheading the Blueshirts to a resounding victory, the Calgary native went down to block a shot late in the third period and took a puck in the jaw to preserve the victory.
This was typical of the Hall of Famer, who played a big part in the Rangers’ renaissance, starting with the 1955-56 season when the Blueshirts became one of the best teams in the league. One of Gadsby’s assets was calm on the ice.
When Gadsby completed his first year with the Rangers they missed the playoffs, but he helped turn them around the following season and was a First Team All-Star, three times during his New York years. In 1958-59, Bill set an NHL record, by recording 46 assists for a defenseman.
Along with Harry Howell, Lou Fontinato, and Jack Evans, Gadsby gave the Rangers one of the best defense units in the league.
[Current Ranger comparison: Kevin Klein. Klein is aware of the puck and is able to skate efficiently.]
There were many superb episodes during Ron Greschner‘s lengthy playing career with the Blueshirts, but it was one offensive maneuver that embedded him in my mind as an all-time ace.
This was against the Islanders during the early 1980s when those New York-New York contests outdid each other in epic qualities. In this case, it was a one-on-one situation with Ron going head to head with one of the best defenders ever, Denis Potvin of the Islanders.
Greschner sped down the right side, across center ice and over the Islanders’ blue line. Potvin appeared to have Ron lined up for a relatively simple defensive maneuver; either a poke check or a shove harmlessly into the corner.
But the Ranger seemed — mind you, seemed — to slow down just a bit, suggesting that there was no way he would be a threat. Then — poof! just like that — he went into high gear, around Potvin before firing a laser past goalie Billy Smith. That was something I’ll never forget.
This was the essence of Greschner, who was respected by critical New York fans on many counts, not the least of which was the fact that he wore the Blueshirt throughout his 16-year big-league career.
And when it came to hockey, Greschner was always ahead of the curve.
After seven games and 11 points scored for the Providence Reds of the AHL, a 19-year-old Greschner found himself on Broadway. Ron played in 70 games his rookie season, setting the record for assists by a rookie defenseman with 37, and added eight goals to his resume. The handsome defenseman let his swift skating and smooth stick handling speak for itself and became the quarterback for the Rangers’ attack.
Over the next five seasons, Greschner accumulated 298 points in 288 games. Along the way, he was part of the 1978-79 team that lost to Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals and became the highest scoring Rangers defenseman when he assisted on a Dave Silk goal in 1981. This was just one of the many records Greschner held for Rangers defensemen until Brian Leetch found his way into Rangers Blue.
[Current Ranger comparison: Marc Staal – durable and savvy.]
Although his stint with the Blueshirts was relatively short, it was as memorable as any in terms of what Doug Harvey meant to the Rangers in one glorious campaign.
For the Rangers — in that 1961-62 season — the best player-coach the Blueshirts ever had certainly was the prime reason why the New Yorkers gained a playoff berth after a long, non-playoff drought.
That catalyst was none other than Harvey. Without question, Harvey had been one of the most important players on the greatest dynasty of all time, Montreal’s Canadiens, the only team to win five consecutive Stanley Cups (1956-60).
But after the Habs won their Cup in 1960, Harvey fell out of management’s favor, and by the end of the 1960-61 season, managing director Frank Selke Sr. decided that he’d had enough of Dough’s shenanigans and, in a startling move, dealt him to the Rangers for erstwhile New York hero Lou Fontinato.
Not only was Harvey to become a defenseman, but it was decided that Doug would take on the head coaching assignment as well. The move shocked the hockey world because Harvey had never been a head coach before. The burden of the dual assignments seemed staggering in every way. Nevertheless, Harvey took on the challenge head first and with his usual aplomb.
The results were amazing, and the defenseman’s confidence and championship demeanor instantly rubbed off on the Rangers. They not only became competitive but made a rare run for the playoffs. In addition to his stellar defensive play, Harvey could also turn on the offense when necessary. For example, the Blueshirts once were losing 2-1 in the third period in a contest against the Blackhawks. Harvey set up the tying score and then scored a goal to lead the team to a 4-2 victory.
Even after he reached the age of 37 midway through the season, Harvey continued to play 35-to-40 minutes a game.
On the final Thursday night of the season, the race for fourth place reached its peak at Madison Square Garden, where the Red Wings challenged the Blueshirts for the final playoff spot. Early in the game, the immortal Gordie Howe blew past Harvey, putting the visitors ahead.
Nonplussed, Dough rallied his troops, and the Rangers skated to victory on Andy Bathgate’s penalty-shot goal, which propelled New York into the playoffs for the first time since 1958.
[Ranger comparison: Sorry, nobody.]
When Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy as the National Hockey League’s best defenseman in 1967, he graciously accepted the award and then uttered the deathless quote: “I guess this is the first and last time I will win this prize!”
It wasn’t that Harry didn’t expect to be at the top of this game since he played six more years in the NHL. The reason for his droll commentary was that he knew that Bobby Orr had entered the scene and likely would be a Norris Trophy-winner for years to come; which Orr did, proving Howell prescient.
While Harry was right, it never diminished his value as a Rangers defenseman. His quality was the ability to play his game unobtrusively and with little fuss or fanfare. He merely did it well game in and game out from his debut in New York in 1952 to his departure in 1969.
He was intelligent, courageous, and a thorough team man and quietly responsible for some of the club’s major triumphs. Howell spent 22 years in the NHL. Seventeen of those were spent with the Rangers, for whom Howell played 1,160 games, a team record. For his 1,000th game, the Rangers honored him with a memorable Harry Howell Night at Madison Square Garden.
Howell quickly established himself as one of the game’s best defensive defenseman with his subtle-some deprecatingly called it dainty-style of play. Fans overlooked the fact that his bodychecks were effective, timely, and often lowered opposing players’ morale.Howell posted his best offensive year in 1966-1967 with 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points. This accomplishment along with his strong defensive play garnered him a berth on the NHL All-Star squad as well as the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.
Howell was the youngest Blueshirt ever to be given the captaincy. At age 23, he was given the “C” for the 1955-56 season. However, Howell gave up the position to Red Sullivan after the 1956-57 campaign, saying, “I was just too young for it. I know that after Sully took over, I had a good year with that off my mind. We finished second that year, too.
Howell was voted to Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979 and continued as an NHL scout. He also won the Rangers Fan Club’s Frank Boucher Trophy for being the most popular player on and off the ice three straight times from 1965 to 1967. This feat has been accomplished by only three other Rangers: Andy Bathgate, Rod Gilbert and Mark Messier.
[Ranger comparison: Dan Girardi – solid and workmanlike.]
It could be said that Brian Leetch was the Bobby Orr of the Rangers.
Like Orr, Leetch was a terrific skater who saw the ice clearly and saw it whole, while possessing excellent offensive abilities. This was most evident to Rangers fans on the night of June 14, 1994, when the Blueshirts’ backliner sped down left wing and beat Vancouver Canucks goalie Kirk McLean with the opening goal of the decisive game seven of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.
Although Brian’s goal was not the game-winner it set the stage for what ultimately was a 3-2 victory. That, however, was just one of a long series of captivating episodes that led critics to assert that Leetch was the best American-born defenseman ever to play in the National Hockey League.
Smooth, clean, and calm in both zones, Leech metamorphosed into a perennial All-Star, frequently appearing at the top of scoring races among defensemen with contemporaries Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, and Larry Murphy.
In his first full season, 1988-89, Leetch took the NHL by storm with 23 goals and 48 assists and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. He markedly improved in his own zone as the Rangers built their franchise around the dynamic Leetch, young goaltender Mike Richter, and, beginning in 1991-92, the game’s premier leader, Mark Messier. Messier’s arrival that year lifted Leetch to a career-high 102-point season and a Norris Trophy as he played a key role in the Blueshift’s division title.
During the Rangers’ magical postseason of 1993-94, Leetch led all players with 11 goals and 23 assists in 23 playoff matches en route to becoming the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
How does one make a case for Leetch as the best Rangers defenseman of all time?
For starters, his numbers are staggering, outpointing every other Rangers backliner, including Brad Park. For another, unlike Park, Leetch played on a Stanley Cup-winning team. Few could ever match Leetch’s offensive style, let alone his ability to orchestrate the tempo of the game to suit his team. In that sense, Brian emulated the inimitable Harvey, who won the Norris Trophy in 1961-62 as Rangers player-coach.
Then there was his power-play work. Teaming with Sergei Zubov, Leetch provided the Rangers with their best-ever double-dip power-play combination.
Likewise, Leetch made a better player out of his even-strength defense mate Jeff Beukeboom, who achieved his finest moments working alongside No. 2.
How will historians regard Leetch among hockey’s greatest stars? Some have labeled him as the foremost American-born defenseman.
This much is certain: he scored 247 goals and had 781 assists over 1,205 career games, mostly in his 17 seasons as a Ranger. He was also responsible for 97 points in 95 postseason appearances. The numbers speak volumes as to why those who saw Leetch in action have no problem comparing him to New York’s very best.
[Ranger comparison: See Doug Harvey.]
If ever there was a split-personality in a player’s career, it belonged to Brad Park. The major — or first-half — of his National Hockey League life was spent with the Rangers and it was glorious. Until he was traded to Boston in 1975.
What makes the Park saga so interesting is that, at first, he never figured into the Rangers’ plans. GM Emile Francis had expected highly regarded Al Hamilton to be his defenseman-of-the-future in 1968. By contrast, Park was virtually The Invisible Man among the prospective young back liners.
This impression was dispelled the moment Park began scrimmaging, and in no time at all, it became evident that Brad belonged on the big club. Nevertheless, Francis shunted him off to the minors and went with Hamilton, whose build-up rather quickly led to a letdown.
Finally, Francis saw the light and promoted Park, who immediately displayed high-grade talent. He was named to the First Team All-Stars three times as a Ranger in 1970, 1972, and 1974. More than anything, Park was a refreshing player to watch and, in some ways, a throwback to an earlier, more robust era of defensive play.
Keeping his head up never was a problem for Park, and was a key to his success. In fact, had Orr not skated onto the NHL stage in the late 1960s, the spotlight would have focused on Park, who was arguably the best defenseman – including offensive play as well as play behind the blue line – in the National Hockey League.
In fact, there was little to distinguish between Park and Orr when it came to analyzing their respective styles, not to mention value to their teams.
However, Park had one missing link in his glittering hockey necklace: a Stanley Cup ring. Orr had two.
The consummate contemporary defenseman, Park was the master of the hip check and an exceptionally accurate shooter who could develop an attack and then retreat in time to intercept an enemy counterattack. The baby-faced backliner could also play the game as tough as anyone.
Park’s game was embellished by a fluid skating style that often underplayed his speed as well as strength, which proved deceptive because of his modest size. It was Park’s misfortune never to have skated for a genuine powerhouse. He was the ice general and captain of a modestly successful Rangers team in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but he never tasted the Stanley Cup champagne.
[Rangers comparison: See Leetch or Doug Harvey.]
The Rangers of the late 1930s and early 1940s became beloved for many reasons and one of them was the fact that some critics considered them The Gashouse Gang of hockey; a rollicking sort of club that enjoyed life on and off the ice more than most.
If any single player represented that genre of stickhandler, it was Babe Pratt whose competence was matched by his joie de vivre. Sometimes that annoyed his boss, Patrick, but on most occasions, the Rangers’ coach appreciated Babe’s performances overall.
The Babe replaced veteran defenseman Ching Johnson during the 1937 playoffs against Toronto and made headlines by scoring the winning goal in the deciding game. His presence also paid off in 1940, when the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in seven years.
Pratt was a defenseman who could rush the puck and score goals in a manner similar to later blue-liners such as Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin. He had a flair for the dramatic and the ability to satisfactorily conclude each project he began.
By all rights, Pratt should have been a New York Ranger at the time. He had climbed through the Rangers’ system, but his off-ice antics finally infuriated Patrick to the point that he finally decided to unload his ace.
Those who knew and loved the Babe were delighted when the Vancouver Canucks signed him as a goodwill ambassador after they entered the NHL in 1970. Few big leaguers possessed as much goodwill as Pratt, and even fewer possessed his talent. The Rangers were fortunate to have him when they did.
[Ranger comparisons: See Harvey, Leetch or Park.]
In the nine-decade history of the Rangers no individual was more misunderstood, nor controversial–but not of his doing– and competent than defenseman Allan Stanley.
Sparkling as a defenseman for the American League’s Providence Reds in the late 1940s, Stanley caught the eye of Rangers manager Frank Boucher. Boucher realized that Stanley would fortify his defense and turn the Blueshirts into a playoff contender.
The result was one of the biggest deals in Rangers history up to that point. But because of the enormity of the trade, a rather large spotlight was focused on Big Allan and one that he could do without. Fans wanted Stanley to be what he was not, a big brawling fighter, and this eventually caused a rift between the Blueshirts’ faithful and the player himself.
To obtain Stanley, New York dispatched three pro players, cash, and the rights held by the Rangers to the services of an amateur. At the time, the value was estimated to be about $70,000. By today’s fiscal standards, it would be worth more than$2 million dollars.
At first glance Stanley lived up to his buildup, playing with poise and confidence rarely seen in rookies. Despite a late start and an injury that hampered him later in the season, Stanley was runner-up to teammate Pentti Lund for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
One of Stanley’s biggest attributes, his endless patience, was also his biggest liability with Rangers fans; he wasn’t flashy, and as a result, his skating, passing, and shooting skills were sometimes lost on the gatherings at the Garden.
“In not time at all, the “$70,000 Rookie” was being chided as the “$70,000 Beauty” and then the “$70,000 Lemon.” None of this would have happened had the Blueshirts been winners, but they hovered between mediocrity and melancholy.
The agony went on for six years, but for one brief break when the Blueshirts took the Detroit Red Wings to the seventh game of the 1950 Stanley Cup Finals before losing. Lynn Patrick was the New York coach at the time and called Stanley his most valuable Ranger. Although he played defense, Stanley had seven points in 12 games.
He was even chosen as captain in December 1951 when Frank Eddolls stepped down. But the Rangers continued struggles and Stanley’s lack of flash began to grate even more on the Garden faithful. He would spend two unhappy years with the Blackhawks before
Needless to say, Stanley played some of best games against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
In the eyes of the Ranger faithful, Stanley had been an abject failure, a skater who never fulfilled his notices, would never cut it on Broadway, and would never make it to hockey’s Hall of Fame.
But “Big Allan” did, and part of his endorsement was his excellent, — albeit short career — as a Bruin as well as his Cup-winning seasons in Toronto.
It was a strange and very painful counterpoint for Rangers fans who has wanted so much from the defenseman. It was even harder to digest when Stanley played so well against his former team at Madison Square Garden.
Stanley wound up with exactly 100 career goals, 433 points, and four Stanley Cup rings. In 1980, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Had Rangers fans been as patient with Allan as he was with Allan as he was with the puck, the big fellow might have graced the Garden as a Ranger trough his entire career.
But to that conjecture, Stanley might have responded with a line from William Shakespeare:
“There’s much virtue in IF.”
[Current Ranger comparison: Dan Girardi.]