The most recent round of Professional Hockey Writers Association voting for the NHL’s individual awards wasn’t my industry’s finest hour. The nadir came when, in spite of a clear warning/clarification email to membership, the PHWA voted Alex Ovechkin as an NHL first team all-star… at both left wing (on the second team) and right wing (on the first team).
It’s easily the most embarrassing problem I’ve had with our voting decisions as a group over the past couple seasons, but it isn’t the only one. And there’s one area in particular I want to address with my fellow hockey writers: the Norris Trophy.
You know that trophy, right? Goes to the NHL’s best defenseman. Defense. Man. But I’m not so sure the definition is getting through to all who get a ballot. Nothing personal against the past two Norris winners – Montreal’s P.K. Subban last season and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson in 2011-12 – but we’re being overwhelmed by the appeal of the offense-minded blueliner at the expense of D-men whose strength comes in their own zone.
It’s not that I think Karlsson or Subban are defensive-end-disasters. It’s that I remember why, a decade ago, we voted for Nicklas Lidstrom for six of seven years. He truly excelled in all zones of the ice. He wasn’t always the highest point-getter, but he was universally respected because his coaches could send him over the boards any time, for any reason, and he would perform far above his peers.
How do you tell who coaches can trust? That’s easy: you look at the time-on-ice average of the sport’s best defensemen. It’s not an exact science (coaches of some teams may lean more on star players because of lack of depth and not out of preference), but it does provide an indication of a player’s versatility. And remember, the Norris is supposed to go to the blueliner with the greatest all-around ability, not the one who thrives in the most glamorous aspect of the job.
Let’s use those standards to examine what happened the past two seasons. And just for argument’s sake, let’s compare the Norris winners’ numbers to those of a blueliner looking for his first Norris: Wild star D-man Ryan Suter.
When Karlsson won, he had averaged 25:19 a night, including 3:53 a game on the power play. Impressive? Absolutely. But when it came to the penalty kill, Karlsson averaged 0:33 per game. Suter, meanwhile, logged a team-best 26:30 of ice time for his former Predators squad, including 3:41 per game on the power play and 2:20 on the penalty kill.
And last season, Subban averaged 23:14 a game, including 4:42 on the man advantage. However, he was only out on the ice during penalties for an average of 1:27 – sixth best on his own team. By contrast, Suter led Minnesota (and the entire NHL) in time on ice (27:16) and led the Wild in shorthanded time (2:07) and power play minutes (3:46).
Yes, Subban and Karlsson are more dynamic offensive presences than Suter. But if you asked coaches around the league which of the three they’d want on the ice when the game was on the line, and when they needed a defensive stop as badly as a goal, Suter would be the right choice, just as Lidstrom was the right choice for the balance he displayed on a nightly basis.
Being dangerous on offense is something that sets a defenseman apart from the rest. However, it’s not the driving force behind the spirit of the Norris Trophy. The sooner members of the PHWA act with that in mind, the sooner we’ll see the appropriate blueliners honored again.