When people in the hockey world talk about the best defensemen of all time, the conversation is generally limited to a few names. The likes of Bobby Orr, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Ray Bourque almost exclusively dominate the topic; not without reason, but I'd say certainly not in fairness. Occasionally, you do hear some other names like Paul Coffey and Denis Potvin, but the debate seems limited, and I think the field needs to be opened up a bit. So I'm going to break down why Larry Robinson should be considered one of the greatest defensemen to ever lace up skates.
As far as Canadiens defensive legends go, Larry stands as the only man I can think of who could top Doug Harvey in terms of team specific history. Harvey is a long story for another day, as the hardships of his life may well have overshadowed the run of Norris Trophy dominance he enjoyed in his career. Larry may not have enjoyed the same level of individual award success, but was a dominant force on the Canadiens blueline for 17 years, in a totally different league. My problem is that I don't feel people nowadays know how good Larry Robinson really was, and I don't think he gets the full credit he deserves as one of the best ever.
Big Bird came to the Canadiens in 1972 as a relative unknown, with little fanfare. A tall, lanky Ontario farm boy, he didn't exactly carry the appeal to the fan base of a Guy Lafleur, and was actually a self-admitted Habs hater as a kid; "because they won all the time, and I liked cheering for the underdog." Notwithstanding his initial obscurity and youthful impressions, he went on to be an integral part of six Stanley Cup winning Canadiens squads, won two Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and his number 19 jersey has been retired by the most storied franchise in hockey history. He played in the NHL for 20 years, and not once did he miss out on the playoffs, a record he holds with Niklas Lidstrom to this day.
Serge Savard once said of Robinson: "I'd say 'you go ahead, don't worry about what's happening in the back' and I became a more defensive defenseman." Serge actually noted that Larry was so talented, it changed the way he played the position once they were partnered up. Robinson noted Savard as a boost for him too, giving him the confidence to use his rushing skills, knowing Serge would back him up. And when he decided to go, man was it a sight to behold. I'm not sure there's ever been another 6'4" 225 pound defender in the NHL that could move the puck like him. Despite being an awkward looking, lanky man, he possessed incredible skills on the rush. He had a stride like a champion thoroughbred; with which he could exit his zone and cut through the neutral zone like a hot knife through butter. He was a fantastic passer, and was admittedly a pass-first guy, but he could also blow by defenders and finish himself if he had a mind to it.
While plays like the one above are indeed 'classic Larry Robinson' (He won the Conn Smythe that year), he was every bit as effective defensively as he was on the rush, if not more so. His rushing skills weren't exactly a hindrance in his own zone. Larry was a breakout machine who could retrieve the puck with ease, and move it himself or find teammates with excellent passes. His long reach made it very hard for opposing players to get around him, and he had a way of giving guys enough space to think they could, before giving them a stern reminder of exactly who it was they were trying to get by. Former NHL ref Bryan Lewis said; "If a guy was going by Larry Robinson along the boards, Larry would take him out clean. Hard. The way that the game should have been played." And if you got under his skin, look out. Angry Larry would drop the mitts, and you would not want to be on the receiving end of a Robinson right. Ask Mike Milbury, he found out the hard way. Still don't believe me? Here's him "Really giving it to Teddy."
When you hear people talk about defensemen they'll often invoke the football analogy of a quarterback, particularly when talking about the powerplay, but I find the analogy works in all facets. Elite blueliners are somewhat like a QB, in that they don't necessarily score the points themselves, but are often the springboard from which scoring plays are executed. The best defensemen in the history of the NHL are guys that could completely take control of a game from the back end; and Larry Robinson is perhaps the best example of this out of all the players I've mentioned. Many will want to scream the name Bobby Orr as they read that last sentence, but that's exactly my goal; Larry Robinson was a lot like Orr in that he could totally take control of a game, and I believe he deserves to be talked about with the same regard. If Bobby Orr was the first defender who could dominate an entire game, perhaps Larry Robinson was the first big man to exert such control. Marcel Dionne said exactly that, and I'd think he knows his stuff, having played against both of them.
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to make the Larry Robinson case is to turn to a traditional NHL stat line. As much as I am one who has embraced advanced statistical analysis in today's game, such data for past players like Robinson would be pretty hard to come by. I also like to downplay the reliability of the plus/minus stat line, but It is statistically relevant when your sample size is a player's entire career. Larry Robinson holds the career record in the NHL with a whopping career plus-730. Bobby Orr comes in second on that list with a plus-597. This is a pretty massive gap, and serves to illustrate the type of presence he was on the ice. Simply put, when Larry Robinson was on the ice the Habs scored a lot more goals than were scored against them
So why is it that people seem to forget Larry Robinson's name when they talk about the best defensemen ever? Is it that he only won two Norris trophies during his career? Well, that argument seems a little silly because Bobby Orr only won two cups but took the Norris 8 times. Individual awards are voted on by people, and Stanley Cups aren't won individually, so they can't effectively quantify who was better over the span of a career.
Is it because he didn't score more points than Lidstrom, Ray Bourque or Paul Coffey? Well, Bobby Orr scored less points than all four of them due to his career being cut short by injury, so it hardly seems fair to do any type of ranking based on points. Besides, to be in the discussion for the greatest defender of all time, you'd have to be about a lot more than just putting up points.
Maybe Larry wasn't even that good, and he played on stacked teams that made him look good? Well, all the other guys played on some pretty damn good teams too. I'll grant that Larry had some great teammates -- he was on the ice with Guy Lafleur a lot -- but he was as much a catalyst for the Habs successes as any. Imagine you're an opposing defender, you look up and Big Bird is steaming out of his zone, head up, looking for a streaking Guy Lafleur. You'd be involved in a guessing game where he'd either come barreling straight at you and let loose a cannon, find Guy Lafleur at full speed, or just skate past you because he could. None of these options would seem preferable to you at the time it would happen.
I absolutely do not want to take away from great players like Orr, Lidstrom or any of the others, I want to be very clear about that. What I am saying is that he absolutely deserves to be talked about right alongside those guys. Much can be made about the fact he was on some amazing teams, but lost in that argument is that he was one of the best players on those amazing teams. He wasn't along for the ride, he was a massive piece of the 70's and 80's Canadiens, and you could easily make the argument that those teams wouldn't have been the same without him.
The next time I hear people talk about the best defensemen of all time, I just want them to mix in a little Big Bird talk. Let's face it, I might be biased, but that conversation is incomplete without Larry Robinson.