The case for why Kris Letang deserves Norris Trophy consideration

Watch as Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang takes a wrist shot that finds the top corner against the New York Islanders.

Although we’re in an era that’s blessed with breathtaking talent on the blueline, the reality is this year’s Norris Trophy race has been over for some time now. Erik Karlsson’s transcendent individual output has not only eclipsed his peers, but has put his name among the all-time great seasons.

If Karlsson registers two points in his final four games, he will become just the fourth defenceman to reach the 80-point plateau in the past two decades (Nicklas Lidstrom in 2005-2006, and Ray Bourque and Brian Leetch in 1995-1996 were the others). Considering the league average save percentages were .901 and .898 in those two years, Karlsson’s inclusion on this list becomes even more impressive.

This hasn’t stopped a verbal war over Karlsson’s claim to being the NHL’s best defenceman. Fans and analysts are splintered into two camps based on a difference in fundamental philosophy over how “best defenceman” is defined. Despite “defence” being the prefix in the job title, the actual act of defending is multi-faceted. Points aren’t everything, but all things being relatively equal, a player who’s able to contribute offensively and actively move the needle for his team by quarterbacking the attack will always be more valuable than the alternative.

While this year’s debate has focused on Karlsson vs. Doughty, a somewhat surprisingly worthy third candidate has been building up his stock. This candidate may even be a more palatable option for the risk averse segment of the crowd that thinks being productive offensively and able to defend are mutually exclusive skills:

Player A Player B
Goals 14 15
Assists 35 32
Points 49 47
Fenwick For/60 48.7 49.9
Fenwick Against/60 34.1 36.1
Adjusted Fenwick % 58.9 58
Relative Fenwick % 4 3.8
Goals For % 58.4 58.7

Player A is Drew Doughty, and his statistical resume for the entire season. Player B is Kris Letang, since the Christmas break (a span of just 42 games).

The first couple of months of the season for Letang shouldn’t be swept under the rug here. Not while players like Karlsson and Doughty have been consistently playing at the highest level for the full season. That being said, the sheer overwhelming nature of his play since coming back from an injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks in mid-December is worth considering:

Letang Before Injury Letang After Injury
Games Played 25 42
Goals 1 15
Assists 13 32
Points 14 47
Average TOI 26.04 27.13
Adjusted Corsi % 49.5 58.1
Relative Corsi % 0.7 4.4
Goals For % 25.2 58.7

The driving force for his turnaround is a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Has the entire team been so much better under coach Mike Sullivan because of Letang’s gargantuan performance or has Letang (and the rest of his teammates) been the beneficiary of Sullivan’s refreshing system? The truth, as always, is likely somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the formula is, there’s no denying it’s been working. Since getting healthy, Letang has essentially been the perfect marriage of everything people love about both Karlsson and Doughty. He’s posted Doughty’s puck possession and shot suppression defensive numbers (while being second on the Penguins in penalty kill usage), and has performed like Karlsson at the other end of the ice.

Sidney Crosby has justifiably soaked up a large proportion of the credit for Pittsburgh’s surge from a bubble team into one that no rival wants to meet in the playoffs. The same goes for Sullivan, GM Jim Rutherford, and anyone else responsible for giving the organization a facelift. What was once a slow, plodding unit that was stuck in the old NHL has been repackaged into one that comes at you in relentless waves.

But Letang has been just is vital to this turnaround, given what he’s been able to do in the second half. While there’s never been a question about his raw talent, it’s gratifying to see him put it all together and stay healthy for a sustained period.

He’s not only helped salvage the Penguins’ season, but he’s also firmly thrown his hat into contention for one of the three Norris Trophy finalist spots.

And when Hockey Canada has to fill out its World Cup roster in June, you can bet Letang will get a call.