Monday

Paul Coffey


The first thing everyone thinks about when the name Paul Coffey is mentioned is his skating ability. Wearing skates several sizes too small, this guy was simply amazing. In a couple of strides he was able to glide through the neutral and offensive zones faster than those dogged checkers chasing him. He was every bit as silky smooth as he was lightning quick.

Scoring exploits are also always remembered. He retired as the 10th highest scorer in NHL history, even though he was a defenseman. Coffey tallied 396 goals and 1,135 assists for 1,531 points in 1,409 regular-season games. He added 196 points, on 59 goals and 137 assists, in 194 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He eclipsed the 100-point mark five times in his career, and set the single-season goal-scoring record for defenseman with 48 goals in 1986.

Given the green light to play offensively from the blue line while skatinging alongside the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Steve Yzerman allowed him to attain such lofty career numbers. The three time Norris trophy winner and eight time All Star was a brilliant passer, often triggering transition offense with amazing and instinctive breakout passes. While everyone will remember him for his skating and his puck rushing, Coffey may have been the best first-pass defender in league history.

The Oilers drafted Coffey 6th overall in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft. It took a little patience, but soon Coffey was a key member of hockey's last great dynasty.

"Joining the Oilers was a great opportunity for me to get a chance to play on a young team that had a lot of talent," Coffey said. "I was always a good skater, but I was not as offensively oriented as a junior as I was as a pro. That was the style Glen Sather wanted me to play. My first partner was Gary Lariviere and he gave me a lot of confidence. I had the green light every time I was on the ice. Then, working with Charlie Huddy, we took it to another level. He allowed me to play the way they wanted me to play. Charlie was a very good defenseman and we had a lot of fun playing together."

"It was exciting to be on the ice with him and watch the way he could skate," Huddy said. "The great thing was he would take a few strides and then he'd just glide most of the time. He would glide by people, which is fairly unusual. He was such a powerful skater that it was fun to watch. He could come out of our end and find guys in the middle of the ice and the pass would be right on the tape. There weren't very many times that it wasn't right on the tape.

"His ability to see the ice and make those kinds of plays was remarkable. You know, it was something different every game. You never knew what was going to happen. It was exciting for me to be part of it."

The Oilers exploits need no introduction. With Coffey on the blue line the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1984, 1985 and 1987. In 1985 he set playoff standards for all defensemen with 12 goals, 25 assists and 37 points in 18 playoff games.

Following a contract dispute, Coffey was traded to Pittsburgh after the Oilers were eliminated in the 1986 Playoffs. It was a blockbuster deal that gave Pittsburgh a top-notch offensive defenseman and Edmonton a good scorer in Craig Simpson.

"Going to Pittsburgh was a great opportunity and great challenge for me," Coffey said. "GM Eddie Johnston acquired me and that was awesome. I saw him play with the Bruins and the Maple Leafs and now I was getting a chance to play with a superstar in his own right in Mario Lemieux, but we didn't know how to win yet. I went from a team that was a perennial Stanley Cup champ to a last-place team, but one with all the right people in place. They didn't know quite how to get to first-rate status. My first week there I realized what a big challenge this was for me. I was thinking, 'What the heck have I done?' I kept my nose to the grindstone and management kept acquiring players until we had a team that could win."

Coffey would get a lot of credit in turning that franchise around, helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 1991. But a lot of people forget that Coffey was actually traded prior to the Penguins successful Stanley Cup defense in 1992. Late in that season Coffey was moved to Los Angeles where he would be reunited with his old Edmonton running mates Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri.

His stay in California was short, just 60 games spread over parts of 2 seasons. Before the Kings went on their magical march to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, Coffey was traded to Detroit where he played strongly for four seasons.

Coffey became a vagabond player after that, playing in stints with Hartford and Philadelphia, Chicago and Carolina and finally in Boston in the 2000-01 season. Though he was a shadow of his former self, his experience and leadership undoubtedly proved to be valuable assets.

Coffey had his share of detractors - he did play with some awfully great players to help pad his stats, he wasn't the greatest defensive player, and outsiders labelled him as a difficult personality in dressing rooms. These suggestions may all have some merit to them, but at the same time I think are somewhat exaggerated. But for whatever reason, Coffey isn't quite considered with Doug Harvey or Ray Bourque or even Niklas Lidstrom as the best defenseman in NHL history not named Bobby Orr.

Watching Coffey speed through the neutral zone and penetrate the offensive zone and carry that puck to the net was a great treat. For me he will always be an Oiler, and I was glad to see he and the organization patched up their relationship and had his jersey #7 retired.

I will also always think of Paul Coffey as a legend of Team Canada. He starred in the 1984, 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups in particular, he was also part of the 1990 world championship entry and the 1996 World Cup team.

Most people will remember Coffey's magnificent 1984 blocked pass on a Soviet 2-0n-1 break and his subsequent transition on the offense to set up Mike Bossy for the overtime winning goal. It's funny how his defensive play was considered spotty in the NHL, but with his amazing speed he was a key defender for Canada against those powerful Soviet teams in the 1980s.

2 comments:

Anonymous,  8:05 PM  

I was at Coffey's first game as a Penguin. He shredded the Nordiques with 4 assists. He was beautiful to watch. Neutral zone traps were useless against him. How good does he look now? No current defenseman is close.

Anonymous,  6:53 PM  

Coffey was not traded after the 1986 playoffs. He played one more season with the Oilers, capturing his 3rd title with them. He was traded in November of 1987 to Pittsburgh.

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