This year’s crop of Norris Trophy candidates was incredible. And that’s not hyperbole: if you were fortunate enough to be one of the Professional Hockey Writers Association members who voted for the award – and I was – you’d be lying to yourself if you didn’t acknowledge there was a solid argument to be made for each of the five defensemen who appeared on most voters’ ballots.
There were so many worthy challengers for the title of the NHL’s best blueliner, I had to leave off stars such as San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic, St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo and the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh. And none of those three made the cut when the Norris finalists were announced Monday morning. I had all three finalists – Boston’s Zdeno Chara, Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Nashville’s Shea Weber – on my ballot, but Keith got my fourth-place vote and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter was No. 3 for me. (I had Kings star Drew Doughty fifth.)
It was a brutal decision to choose between Weber (who probably should’ve won the Norris at least once by now) and Chara (who has only won the Norris once, in 2009). But in the end, I went with the Bruins captain over the Preds captain. The Norris goes to the defenseman with “the greatest all-around ability”, so it didn’t matter that Chara didn’t lead the league in point production from a blueliner – the guy who did was Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, whose defensive play was nowhere close to elite – or that Chara averaged only 24:39 a night, nearly five fewer minutes per game than Suter (a league-best 29:24) and more than two fewer minutes per game than Weber (fourth-overall at 26:24).
No, what set Chara apart was the overall package he brings: his scoring (his 17 goals were fourth-best among defensemen); his menacing physicality (163 hits); his self-sacrifice (104 blocked shots); his ability to be used in different ways on offense (he routinely sets up shot in front of the opposition’s net); and his stellar positional awareness. That he’s able to do all he does at age 37 – and especially when you consider he’s a nightly primary target for his opponents – makes his accomplishments all the more impressive.
That’s not taking anything away from Weber, who was phenomenal on a sub-par Predators squad. The 28-year-old’s 23 goals led all NHL defensemen and he was Nashville’s top point producer while also their most solid defensive presence. This is the third time he’s been a Norris finalist, but sometimes even the best of the best have to wait until the moment is right for them to ascend to the top of the awards podium. I expect him to receive the award sooner than later, but just not this year.
Ask yourself which defenseman you’d want on the ice in any situation. For me, the answer used to be retired Red Wings star and future Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. But with due respect to Weber, Suter and the rest of the Norris contenders, the guy who jumps to mind before anyone else now is Chara. He can do it all – and that’s why he deserves top honors this season.