Kris Letang (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The debate about the Norris Trophy is warranted. Should it go to a top point scorer or a defensive defenseman? In our top 10 Norris Candidates, we try to mix both together to see who deserves the award for best all around play. Duncan Keith could repeat, but a pair of younger defensemen stand in his way.
Year in and year out, one of the most heavily debated awards is the Norris Trophy.
The award given to the NHL’s most outstanding defenseman has, in recent years, had a tendency not to go simply to the best defenseman, but rather the one with the most points. At times, it feels as though the trophy should be split in two, with one award going to the defenseman with the most points and another to the best overall defenseman.
However, in our ranking of the top 10 Norris candidates, we did our best to take into account all facets of defense in hopes it gave us a true picture of the Norris race. By using the standard statistics like points, average ice time and shorthanded time on ice – a key defensive situation – mixed with advanced statistics like Corsi for, quality of competition, and defensive zone starts, the things that can help tell us which players are driving play and not just benefitting from sheltered minutes.
There are a few surprises, but for the most part, it’s the usual suspects.
10. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens
When you break down all the metrics, Markov actually has some of the best numbers of the top-30 scoring defensemen. The problem, on a pairing with P.K. Subban, he’s a passenger. He’s not contributing the way Subban is, and it’s evident when he’s separated from the all-world defenseman.
The pairing of Markov and Subban have been on the ice for more than 400 minutes together, posting a tremendous 55.6 percent Corsi For. When apart, Subban’s play levels out to about the even mark, while Markov’s drops off drastically to 45 percent. While his play this season has earned him a spot in the conversation, it’s hard to consider Markov among the true top 10.
9. Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings
In the absence of Nicklas Lidstrom, someone on the Red Wings blueline was going to have to step up. It’s becoming clear that the player who’s taking his place is Kronwall. Though best known for his bone crushing hits, Kronwall has actually found himself quite a nice spot on the Wings backend as a puck distributor and he’s 16th in the league when it comes to points from defensemen.
Of all the defensemen on this list, no player faces tougher competition on a nightly basis than Kronwall. Actually, no defenseman in the top 30 point scorers does. He’s eating up the fifth most shorthanded minutes on a Red Wings penalty kill that is second best in the league.
8. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
There’s a fine argument to be made that Burns is a much better forward, but he’s done an incredible job manning the point this season for the Sharks.
Burns’ nine goals and 25 points put him at third in the league in scoring by defensemen, but it’s not just there he’s excelled. He’s actually spending more time playing – or at least starting – in his own zone than all but three defensemen in the top 30 scorers. And even though he’s starting in his own end, he’s breaking out and turning the tide, with one of the best Corsi For percentages among that same top 30.
7. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames
One half of one of the best pairings in the league this season – and yes, his partner shows up later – Brodie is having a season to remember on a Flames team that has needed every little bit of offense it can get.
At just 24, Brodie is looking like a wily veteran alongside Mark Giordano, and he’s got the numbers to prove it. He faces the second best competition of anyone on this list, takes more defensive zone faceoffs than anyone in the top 30 defensive scorers, and is eating up minutes on the penalty kill, as well.
The Flames were smart to lock up Brodie to a five-year extension earlier this season, because if this continues he’s looking like a perennial Norris contender.
6. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
The argument about which of the two, Shea Weber or Suter, is the better defenseman can probably be put to rest. No defenseman in the world can eat minutes the way Suter does, and very few can play at the level Suter does over the course of those minutes.
He may not be taking the same amount of defensive zone faceoffs as he has in the past, but it’s hard to ask Suter to do that when he’s playing nearly half the game. It’s not exactly like the Wild ask him to play easy competition, either, as when it comes to your top defensive point getters, Suter’s got the 12th toughest competition.
5. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Giordano, Brodie’s other half, is a far cry from the defenseman who played in Russia some seven seasons ago.
Now an elder statesman, the 31-year-old Giordano seems to be hitting his peak. The thing with Giordano, however, is he probably should have had his name etched on this hardware last season. He was easily one of the best defensemen in the league last season, and his 10th place finish in voting was unjust.
He’s looking to right that wrong this season, however, and he’s got the point totals to go along with the stellar defensive play. The Calgary captain has eight goals and 31 points in 33 games this season.
4. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
Subban could be well on his way to locking up his second Norris in just three seasons.
The 2012-13 recipient of the honor, Subban is having yet another incredible season for the Canadiens. His eight goals and 22 points find him in sixth place in scoring, and that’s not to mention that he’s driving play on a teamwide basis better than all but one player on this list. It’s not like he’s being sheltered from tough competition, either.
Compared to the 30 highest scoring defensemen, Subban is facing the 10th toughest competition. If the Olympic team were being picked again today, you’d have to think Subban would be on it.
3. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
There hasn’t been a repeat Norris winner since 2007-08, when the legendary Lidstrom took home his third consecutive award as the league’s top defenseman. Keith could accomplish the feat this season, but it’s likely going to take an increased points performance.
As it stands, Keith is tied for 19th in scoring and on pace for 47 points, a far cry from the 61 he tallied last season. With the weight given to scoring in Norris voting, it will matter little that Keith drives possession better than any player on this list or that he averages more ice time than all but six defensemen in the league.
2. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
With all the great young defensemen in the league, it’s impossible to give them all a nod as the league’s best rearguard. But even still, it somehow seems like Doughty has been slighted in the past few years.
He finished third in voting in 2009-10, but he’s looking to take home the hardware this year. He’s got the numbers to support it, too. He’s playing heaps of minutes and only two defensemen on this list play more shorthanded. He’s got the seventh toughest competition in the top 30 scorers, he’s driving play incredibly well, and he’s tied for 13th with 19 points in 33 games.
Though he may not have made the top five last season, you have got to figure Doughty is in the mix for the Norris come awards season.
1. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins
The perception of Letang is that he’s defensively irresponsible and makes far too many mistakes. That said, his numbers seem to tell a different story this season.
In the categories used to rank all the defensemen on this list, Letang is the only one to finish outside the top 10 in only one category, and that’s defensive zone starts. And it’s tough for him to finish high in that category considering how well he’s driving play.
Letang is logging the 10th most minutes of all rearguards in the NHL, the second most shorthanded minutes of any defenseman on this list, facing the 10th best competition of the top 30 scorers, and is eighth in points with 21, which includes seven goals, the sixth best mark among blueliners.
He finished third in Norris voting in 2012-13, but it could be Letang’s year to be the first Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman to win the Norris since a 24-year-old Randy Carlyle accomplished the feat in 1981-82.