Seth Jones Image by: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images
The Norris Trophy race is as close, if not closer, than the Hart Trophy race, but there are 10 top contenders who appear to be set to battle it out in balloting come the end of the campaign.
All eyes are on the Hart Trophy race, and the discussion about the award has been as heated as ever. The playoff race, the scoring race and even things as seemingly arbitrary as percentage of points that have come on the power play have all come into play when discussing the league’s most valuable player award.
But amidst all the discussion about the Hart, the Norris chatter has fallen by the wayside despite the race for the top defenseman award being as close as that of any other individual trophy this season. So, with that in mind, here’s a look at 10 defensemen who stand out as top contenders for the Norris:
Note: All advanced statistics listed below are 5-on-5 numbers among the 121 blueliners who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season. The remaining statistics — including but not limited to points, giveaways, takeaways and time on ice figures — include all defenders.
SETH JONES, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Case For: You could argue that Artemi Panarin has been the driving force behind the Blue Jackets push to the playoffs, but Jones, one half of the most effective young defensive pairing in the NHL, has been nothing short of brilliant from start to finish in Columbus. Not only does he rank 14th in average ice time, he sits just outside the top 10 in scoring among blueliners, third in the NHL in shots for percentage, 10th in shot attempts for percentage and has the third-most takeaways. He has a whopping 57 percent goals for percentage, too, a total which only three blueliners on this list have bested.
The Case Against: Jones isn’t a defender that has to log a lot of heavy defensive zone minutes. In fact, he starts 58 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and ranks 90th in shorthanded time. In a tight vote, every number matters, so that may work against him. You also wonder about the vote splitting. Zach Werenski could draw a few votes and that could pull from Jones’ total.
JOHN KLINGBERG, Dallas Stars
The Case For: Sure, it’s an award for defenders, but we all know that offense plays a big part in the voting every year. Thus, Klingberg’s 64 points, the second-most among all defenders, is a big boost when it comes to his Norris case. Klingberg has been heavily relied upon for the Stars, too. Much more than he gets credit for, at least. He only starts about 53 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. And while his possession numbers — shots for and shot attempts for percentages — rank 26th and 21st, respectively, his other underlying numbers are much better. He sits 19th in scoring chances for percentage, sixth in high-danger chances for percentage and 10th in goals for percentage.
The Case Against: There may be a certain amount of playoff bias that goes into voting, and that’s going to hurt Klingberg. The Stars had a terrible collapse and he could wear part of that. Then there’s the fact he averages little more than a minute per night on the penalty kill, he has the ninth-most giveaways while ranking 42nd in takeaways and ranks 82nd in blocked shots. Those who value a mix of offense with the rugged and raw defensive numbers may not look too fondly on Klingberg’s year.
VICTOR HEDMAN, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Case For: The early season favorite is going to get a lot of love, particularly given he was seen as the clear frontrunner at mid-season. That’s going to help his case. But it’s not just a matter of leading at the all-star break. Hedman has the sixth-most points, sixth-highest average ice time and ranks fourth in goals for percentage. His possession numbers are good — not great, mind you — and he’s done all of this for a club that is heading towards a potential Atlantic Division title and entering the playoffs as one of a few Stanley Cup favorites.
The Case Against: If you really dig into Hedman’s numbers, he doesn’t feel like the shoo-in finalist that he’s been made out to be. He ranks 25th in shot attempts for percentage, 59th in shots for percentage and 16th in scoring chances for percentage, all the while owning one of the higher offensive zone start percentages among the listed defenders. He starts 54.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is a greater percentage than every Lightning defender save Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev.
DREW DOUGHTY, Los Angeles Kings
The Case For: Let’s follow the top early season favorite with the defender who was arguably second at that point in the campaign. Doughty’s season has been impressive all around. Statistically, it’s hard to have any gripes with 10 goals and 59 points in 80 games, and it’s remarkable how much time Doughty has spent on ice this season. He’s the only rearguard with more than 2,100 minutes — close to 225 of which have come on the penalty kill — and he’s averaged nearly 27 minutes per game. He’s doing that while taking a higher amount of defensive zone starts than more than half of his 1,000-minute counterparts, too, so it’s not as though he’s feasting on favorable minutes.
The Case Against: If the knock against Hedman is underlying numbers, the same case can be made against Doughty. He ranks 26th in shot attempts for percentage, 29th in shots for percentage, 44th in scoring chances for percentage and 25th in goals for percentage. You have to wonder how the Kings missing out on the post-season would also impact Doughty’s chances. Los Angeles isn’t locked into a spot quite yet, so keep an eye on that.
P.K. SUBBAN, Nashville Predators
The Case For: Second among all defensemen with 16 goals, eighth with 58 points and an average ice time above 24 minutes despite playing on the most stacked defense in the NHL. Subban didn’t get the early season love, but he’s certainly making the late push as the Predators play their way towards a Presidents’ Trophy. And if you’re looking for two-way impact — and how great is that to say given Subban’s old reputation as a one-way player? — Subban has to get full marks. He has started only 43.5 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and no rearguard on this list starts more shifts in his own zone. He also has the ninth-best goals for percentage among all 1,000-minute defenders.
The Case Against: What comes with own-zone starts are some tough underlying numbers. That includes shots for percentage, where Subban ranks 39th. Or shot attempts for percentage, where Subban ranks 38th. Or scoring chances and high-danger chances for percentage, where Subban ranks 85th and 101st (!), respectively. And if you want to dock marks for turnovers, Subban has the seventh-most.
ALEX PIETRANGELO, St. Louis Blues
The Case For: Pietrangelo has been an absolute workhorse for the Blues this season, and if St. Louis makes the playoffs, particularly after the losses of Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson, the St. Louis captain deserves a boatload of credit. He has the fifth-highest average ice time, ranks 50th in shorthanded ice time, 18th in power play ice time, sits 13th in scoring with 53 points and tied for fifth with 15 goals. He also takes a ton of hard minutes. He has a 47.3 percent rate of offensive zone starts and only 27 rearguards have started more shifts in the defensive zone per 60 minutes than Pietrangelo. He’s done it all for the Blues.
The Case Against: Part and parcel with logging tough minutes is that driving play up the ice is going to be more difficult. That’s particularly the case when you’re facing top competition all the time. You can see where this is going. Pietrangelo’s underlying numbers aren’t great at all. He ranks 38th in shots for percentage, 43rd in shot attempts for percentage, 63rd in scoring chances for percentage and 30th in goals for percentage despite allowing the 15th-fewest goals against per 60 minutes. He’s another rearguard who could fall victim of some weaker advanced statistics in a year where the margin of victory could be razor thin.
SHAYNE GOSTISBEHERE, Philadelphia Flyers
The Case For: Few would have had Gostisbehere in the running a few months back, but the Flyers blueliner has blasted his way into contention. In 75 games, he has 13 goals and 60 points, and he has been arguably one of the league’s most lethal power play weapons. Half of his points have come on the man advantage. He’s produced at five-a-side, too, mind you, and he’s been adept at keeping pucks out of his own net. He possesses a 58.1 percent goals for percentage, which is seventh-best among the 1,000-minute blueliners.
The Case Against: Gostisbehere could suffer from many of the same judgments that will befall Klingberg. At 5-on-5, the Flyers rearguard hasn’t been trusted with a lot of the heavy lifting — he starts only 16.5 faceoffs in the defensive zone per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which ranks 109th of the 121 defensemen — and it’s not as though he’s making up for that with time on the kill. He has played 6:11 shorthanded this season. Yes, that’s six minutes and eleven seconds. No, that isn’t a typo.
JOHN CARLSON, Washington Capitals
The Case For: What a time to have a spectacular offensive season. Carlson is set to become an unrestricted free agent and has turned in a blueline-leading 66-point campaign. He’s also tied for fifth with 15 goals, four of which are game winners. Carlson’s logging 24:47 per night, the 13th-highest average ice time among defenders, and doing so while owning the fourth-lowest offensive zone percentage among defenders on this list. He’s also helped Washington cinch up yet another division title. That’s not going to hurt his case.
The Case Against: Carlson is the only defenseman who’s a top Norris contender while also boasting a sub-50 percent possession rate. He’s also below 50 percent in shots for percentage, scoring chances for percentage and high-danger chance percentage. His goals for percentage is also only 51.7 percent, middle of the pack among the 1,000-minute rearguards, despite his huge offensive year. Also, while true that you have to have the puck in order to turn it over, Carlson ranks sixth with 95 giveaways.
BRENT BURNS, San Jose Sharks
The Case For: Last year’s winner has thrown his hat in the ring in much the same way he did last season: with pure offensive force. Following a slow start, Burns is only three points off the league lead. He’s also one of only 10 defenders who is averaging upwards of 25 minutes per night. Not only that, Burns has the 14th best shot attempts for percentage and ranks 28th in shots for percentage. He’s driving play as well, if not better, than any other defenseman and capitalizing when he has his chances, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the bearded blueliner.
The Case Against: Does Burns play heavy defensive zone minutes? No. Does he spend a lot of his time on the penalty kill? No. Does that matter? To some, it absolutely will, and it could cost Burns his shot at truly contending for the Norris in a campaign where, if he does win the blueline scoring race, he’ll do so by a slim margin. It should also be noted that the Sharks have a 44.4 percent goals for percentage when Burns is on the ice at 5-on-5, which is the worst of any defender on this list, and that’s happening despite San Jose giving Burns a nearly 60.4 percent slant of offensive to defensive zone starts.
RYAN SUTER, Minnesota Wild
The Case For: Maybe it’s an outside shot, but Suter should get his due for another year in which he has been an ice-time monster. He’s one of only two defensemen with more than 2,000 minutes at this point in the season and his average ice time of 26:46 is second only to Doughty. That said, Suter’s average shift is nearly one minute and he’s the ultimate all-situations player. He ranks second in even strength ice time, sixth in shorthanded ice time and 14th in power play ice time, and he’s had a big statistical campaign with six goals and 51 points. His unfortunately ill-timed injury, however, won’t allow Suter to put the finishing touches on another workhorse campaign.
The Case Against: Logging a lot of minutes alone shouldn’t be what makes a Norris winner. If that was the case, the Sabres’ Rasmus Ristolainen would be in the running. And if we dive into Suter’s numbers, there are some things that stick out. First and foremost, he has the second-worst goals for percentage — 47.8 percent — of rearguards on this list and has a sub-50 percent possession rate. If Subban can manage to be above the 50 percent mark with a greater slant of defensive zone starts, Suter should need to show that, too, to be a top contender.
MARK GIORDANO, Calgary Flames
The Case For: Giordano led all the 1,000-minute defenders in: shots for percentage, shot attempts for percentage, scoring chances for percentage and was second in high-danger chances for percentage. He was the most limiting rearguard in the league this season. He also blocked more shots than any defenseman on this list, had more takeaways than all but Burns and Pietrangelo and had the 12th-highest average ice time. What a shame it is his season is going to end after Game 82.
The Case Against: He won’t win. There’s absolutely no chance he wins in a season in which he’s set to finish 30 or so points back of the top-scoring defenseman. That’s particularly true given the Flames’ defensive woes down the stretch and the fact Calgary is missing the playoffs.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick.)
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