After breaking down the candidates for this season’s Selke Trophy, and going over the awards that are essentially already decided, the last major player award to look at is the Norris Trophy handed out to the league’s best defenceman.
Unlike the Selke where you can focus essentially on one aspect of the game to drill down on who is most deserving, the Norris is a little bit more complicated. While a lot of people rumble about offensive defencemen getting more attention in Norris conversations than others, it’s not a defensive award. It’s an award for the defenceman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability at the position.
That means we need to look at offensive, defensive, and transition play. You also want players who are eligible for the award to be the ones playing important minutes for their teams.
When I rank the top defencemen in the league every summer, I weigh offence as worth 25 per cent of their total value, transition as 40 per cent, and defence as 35 per cent. I think it makes sense to keep those same valuations in mind for the Norris, so let’s look at the top contenders and see how they shake out.
Before we get into the separated areas of the game, let’s look at a wide shot and see how teams do with these Norris candidates on the ice compared to when they’re on the bench. All statistics are at 5-on-5.
All these players are driving goal differentials into the positives for their respective teammates, but they’re getting it done in very different ways.
The players who are in the positives for all four metrics are Mark Giordano, John Carlson, and Roman Josi. Kris Letang is close, but barely in the negatives in high danger scoring chance differential.
However when you look at how large the impacts are for each metric, I think you could argue that this should be a three-horse race between Giordano, Carlson, and Letang. Let’s go into the individual metrics.
All of these defencemen are extremely good offensive players, but after looking at the dangerous shots each of them take at even strength, the number of chances they create for teammates, and how involved they are in the offence by moving the puck around the offensive zone, Josi emerges as the leader offensively.
That isn’t surprising considering that Josi has been the second-best offensive defenceman in the league over the last three seasons, beaten only by Brent Burns. Burns is producing more points this year, but the goal of looking at underlying numbers is to move beyond points and look at the process players are partaking in that drives the results. Also, keep in mind that the gap in points is mostly due to Nashville’s power play being awful.
The important thing to notice here, though, is that there’s not a ton of separation.
Once again, there isn’t a ton of separation between the top defencemen in the league this season, but one player that sticks out to me in terms of defensive involvement is Letang.
The 31-year-old has been stripping opponents of pucks more than once every two minutes of ice time this season with successful defensive plays (stick checks, body checks, shot blocks or pass blocks), and he’s been recovering more loose pucks in the defensive zone than anyone else in the field.
Obviously this isn’t a complete picture of defensive impact, but it does give us an approximation of who is pushing possession changes most often, especially in important areas where defencemen have more impact.
I should also mention that Carlson is usually not a great defender without the puck. He’s stepped up big time this season for a Capitals team that has been relatively mediocre for most of the season, on the defensive side at least. He’s been legitimately great.
Transition play is where you can most easily see how strange of a player Josi is compared to how other top defencemen play. When he gets the puck in the defensive zone, he’s going to choose to carry it out more often than anyone, almost never choosing to make an outlet pass. In fact, only two regular defencemen have made outlet passes less often than Josi this season; Dougie Hamilton and Nick Leddy. Both players also like to skate with the puck, but both also go for stretch passes nearly twice as often as Josi. He loves to carry the puck into the neutral zone before dishing it off.
Contrast that with Carlson, who rarely skates the puck out, but is a proficient zone exit player because of his passing ability.
Hedman is a little bit like Josi but not as extreme, which is interesting because the same holds true of how he plays in the offensive zone. Hedman and Josi regularly lead all defencemen in shots taken from the slot.
Burns has high rates of play, but a lot of his success is simply spamming plays over and over. In the defensive and neutral zones, his plays have among the lowest success rates in the league, ranking in the bottom-10 among all regular defencemen, and bottom-25 in the offensive zone. That style has led to great success for him and the Sharks, but would that be the case if Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic hadn’t taken the toughest minutes all year, or the years before? It’s a tough question to answer.
Overall, the waters are very muddied for the Norris. It’s tougher to pick a winner this year than in any recent season I can remember. Because the individual contributions are so similar among these excellent players, I keep going back to the on-ice numbers for this, and I just can’t get around how dominant the Flames have been with Giordano on the ice.
It should be close, but at 35 years old, the Flames’ captain has put up such remarkable numbers when many thought he might take a step back without Dougie Hamilton. I’d like to see his great season rewarded.