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Guest Post: Has the offensive defenseman role been ruined in Boston forever?

Harrison Mooney
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(Ed Note: Sarah Connors and Erin Cozens blog the Boston Bruins over at Stanley Cup of Chowder. You can also follow them on Twitter at @sarah_connors and @ecozens, respectively. Anyone interested in contributing an article or column to the blog can pitch yo stuff here. Now, here's Sarah and Erin.)

by Sarah Connors and Erin Cozens

In Boston’s recent past, uttering the words “puck-moving defenseman” would often earn you nothing more than a big eye-roll.

At first glance, it would seem as though Bobby Orr ruined the role for future Bruins everywhere; with 915 points and 953 PIMs in 657 games played, he epitomized the label (and Bruins hockey) and it’s hard to replicate that. In the last 40 years, Bruins general managers have tried their hardest to replace Orr by making the acquisition of a Puck-Moving Defenseman a huge priority in the Boston lineup.

Dougie Hamilton seems to be next in line for the role of puck mover - through ten games, he’s shown his ability to jump into the rush, to get the puck out of the defensive zone for good transition through the neutral zone, and has had very few lapses that give his age away. Considering Boston’s history with offensive defensemen, though, is Dougie being set up to be Bruins fans’ next puck-moving whipping boy? Or can he rise above the “but you’re not Bobby Orr” stigma that seems to set every offensive defenseman who sets foot in Boston up for failure?

The Bruins have tried to plug the 40-year-old hole with a seemingly endless parade of “offensive defenseman” in the years since Orr left for Chicago, by whatever methods they deem necessary, often shipping out players that might otherwise have been useful.

Indeed, even while Orr was still in town, the Bruins shipped out three players in search for another PMD - including fan favorites Rick Smith and Reggie Leach - for a guy named Carol Vadnais.

“On the West Coast they have been claiming for years Vadnais can rush the puck with Orr,” wrote the Boston Globe at the time. But, “whether he rushes the puck with the competence of Orr or is the equal defensively to the steady Rick Smith only time will tell.”

Therein lies the second piece of the PMD enigma in Boston; an incredibly high percentage of these offensively talented d-men have been acquired by trading players who are beloved in Boston.

Vadnais was hardly a bad player. In fact, he, like a certain defenseman named Tomas Kaberle we all love to rag on, was acquired at the trade deadline in a Cup-winning season. Vadnais contributed on the Bruins’ second pairing, behind Bobby, and put up 12 points through the rest of the season. At first he seemed to remind the Boston faithful of a “Bobby Orr lite.”

Like Bobby, Vadnais could even fight.

Within two years, though, it became increasingly apparent that Vadnais would not, in fact, be the neo-Bobby for whom Bruins fans had hoped. With 41 goals and 113 assists in three seasons - the amount of points that Orr could put up in half that time - Bruins fans began to turn on Vadnais. By the time he was shipped off to the Rangers for Orr’s first trial “replacement”, they’d completely gone sour on not only his offense, but his defensive skill.

“Vadnais is considered [an] ‘offensive defenseman’ but has been booed recently in Boston because opponents have been getting around him,” read the New York Times after the trade.

The Vadnais trade is better known for the other pieces involved - most notably Bruins superstar Phil Esposito, but also the return for Boston: Brad Park. Park played a grand total of about a dozen games with Bobby Orr before Orr was done in Boston, and right from the beginning had to carry the stigma of being “generally considered hockey’s second best defenseman after Bobby Orr.” Park was an overall success, though he had to deal with the “really awesome - but not Bobby Orr” refrain throughout his career.

As Emile Francis (then coach and GM of the Rangers) said, “It was unfortunate Park came along at the same time as Bobby Orr or he'd have won a handful of Norris Trophies.”

As Park’s career wound down, the next great defenseman in Boston was winding up - Ray Bourque, of course. Unlike the significant defensemen added since Orr, Bourque was home-grown, drafted eighth overall in 1979. He came in and made an immediate impact as a rookie, with 61 points in 81 games. Everyone worth their salt in Boston can tell you about Ray Bourque’s career - 21 seasons, the longest tenured Bruins captain ever, left for Colorado to win a Cup, scored the most points as a defenseman in NHL history. And yet - for all Bourque’s records and trophies, for all that he should be the face of Bruins hockey, as the player with the most games-played for Boston ever, for as beloved as he was in Boston - he still just wasn’t Bobby Orr.

In 1997, the Sporting News spelled out the way Boston felt about their two greatest defensemen, quoting Harry Sinden who compared the situation to the coaching of the Green Bay Packers: "Mike Holmgren won it all for the Packers this year. That doesn't mean he's better than Lombardi, but there's a place for him in history, just like there is a place for Raymond Bourque right next to Orr."

After Bourque left in 2000, the puck-moving defenseman situation became an even bigger disaster in Boston. Now there were, not one, but TWO legendary defensemen to be compared to. Players like Bryan Berard, Jeff Jillson and David Tanabe were brought in to fill the role - and ultimately couldn’t live up to the expectations. Even other players recognized this. Joe Thornton, who was traded a few weeks after Tanabe was brought in in exchange for Dave Scatchard, said, “Obviously, when you don't win, things have to change...Dave Scatchard got traded a couple of weeks ago and nothing came, really, of that and what was the next step?”

Harsh, Joe. But, when your team is near to worst in the NHL, what’s to be expected?

Thornton was flipped to San Jose, as we know, for Brad Stuart, along with Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau. Even Stuart himself knew he was being brought in to replace a popular player, saying at the time that Thornton was “obviously, a big part of this team and a big part of this city.” He also understood that, of the three players coming back, he was the “crown jewel” of the trade. He was brought in to lessen the burden on workhorses Brian Leetch and Hall Gill, certainly, but also to fill that ever-perceived gap where a PMD should be.

Boston faithful were not impressed.

From there, it was the parade of Wideman, then Kaberle, then Corvo: Wideman, acquired for Brad Boyes, a favorite in Boston; Kaberle, acquired for Joe Colborne and a first-round pick (woe to he who actually GIVES Brian Burke a first-round pick) and Corvo, a UFA signed as a stopgap.

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What’s often overlooked about Wideman and Kaberle is that they weren’t, in fact, awful for the Bruins. Wideman had two successful seasons, putting up 50 points in 08-09 before faltering in 09-10, and he was a workhorse, regularly playing around 30 minutes a night. Kaberle, like Vadnais, brought in to make a run at the Stanley Cup, ended up leading all defensemen in points for the entirety of that playoff run. But that double stigma - not Orr/Bourque, traded for a player/assets fans wanted to keep - doomed them to eternal scorn from Boston fans.

Which brings us to 2011 NHL draft and the selection of one Dougie Hamilton from the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL. In his last season and a half in the OHL, he scored at more than a point-per-game pace; through 10 games in the NHL as a 19-year-old, he has four points and already plays with the poise of a much older player. And, if anything, Bruins fans delight in the fact that the Phil Kessel trade resulted in the pick used to draft Dougie.

So there’s hope yet in Boston. Despite the Orr stigma, Dougie will likely never deal with the scorn Wideman, Vadnais, Kaberle, et al faced. For all that fans and management have come down hard on those puck-movers who have failed to live up to Orr's (impossible) standard, Hamilton neither required the sacrifice of a beloved player, nor will he be expected to carry a struggling team like so many of his predecessors.

In short: You’ll never be Bobby Orr, Dougie, but that doesn’t mean Bruins fans won’t love you.

Just ask Chris Bourque’s dad.

Sarah Connors and Erin Cozens blog the Boston Bruins over at Stanley Cup of Chowder. You can also follow them on Twitter at @sarah_connors and @ecozens, respectively.

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