They make it look so easy. Too easy. So that for a long time the temptation was to pooh-pooh Coffey's scoring totals and say: Anybody could chalk up those kinds of stats if they played with Gretzky. In the Oilers' Cup-winning 1983-84 season, Coffey scored 40 goals and added 86 assists, which was second only to Gretzky in the scoring race. But the "experts" weren't buying. Rod Langway of the Washington Capitals was voted the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. The knock on Coffey was still that he didn't play defense properly—didn't block shots, didn't tie guys up in front, was too often out of position—even though he was on the ice for 52 more even-strength goals than were scored against him. (Langway was plus 14.) "The number one responsibilty for a defenseman in his own zone is to get the puck out," says Green. "Whether you smother it, flip it out, pass it out or carry it out, the idea is to get it out. Coffey does that as well as anyone in the league."
Not always, of course. One of the most persistent raps against Coffey is that every now and then he will give the puck away in his own zone for no discernible reason. "It happens when you get a guy like Potvin or Bourque or me, who handles the puck a lot," says Coffey. "Sometimes you're trying to make a perfect pass that isn't really there. Sometimes it's the result of miscommunication between me and a forward. Then, of course, a lot of times it's a bonehead play."
The game that earned Coffey recognition for his defensive skills was the Canada-Soviet Union match during the 1984 Canada Cup. With the score tied 2-2 in overtime, the Soviets broke in on Coffey two-on-one. "Just before he passed, the guy with the puck tilted his whole body slightly, so I was able to anticipate," Coffey recalls. Diving forward, he intercepted the pass, then got back to his feet to start the counterstrike that ended with Mike Bossy tipping in Coffey's wrist shot for the winning goal. Says Coffey, "That play right there made a lot of people realize I can play half-decent defense."
Which is about the way Coffey played until Christmas last year—half-decent. Obsessed with proving to his critics that he could play the role of the traditional stay-at-home defenseman, Coffey had only nine goals in Edmonton's first 33 games. "Gretzky told me one day to stop playing like a tabletop defenseman," says Coffey, referring to the game kids play at home in which the defensemen slide up and down a narrow track about three inches long. "My job is to get the puck and lug it."
Coffey got the message, and during the last 65 games of the season, including playoffs, Coffey scored 40 goals—a rate that projects to 49 goals over an 80-game season, three more than Orr's record for defensemen. In so doing, Coffey emerged out of Gretzky's shadow. Instead of being seen merely as a supporting member of the Oilers' cast, he is recognized as that great defenseman you will find as a cornerstone of all great teams. Whether Coffey is indeed the next Orr is less important than the fact that he is carrying on Orr's work, making those dazzling, end-to-end dashes that turn into memories.
"My philosophy is the same as Wayne's," Coffey says. "When we've got the puck, they can't score."
The last Orr might have said that.