Even with an elite trio topping the list, there's no tougher award to forecast than the Norris year to year.
The defense-oriented NHL awards are easily the most subjective. That makes the Norris and Selke Trophies the most difficult to forecast. The Norris factors in defense and offense, and voters must decide how much to value each. A pure shutdown blueliner rarely captures voter hearts, and while offensive dynamos have a much better success rate, the Norris winners most commonly display prowess in both areas. The award goes to the player demonstrating “the greatest all-around ability in the position,” after all.
Not that possessing the best overall skills – or even the best stats – guarantees you the Norris. The Norris has functioned as somewhat of a lifetime achievement award the past couple seasons. Drew Doughty and Brent Burns are phenomenal talents, but it’s tough to understand how Erik Karlsson didn’t win the past two Norrises when he had the most dominant overall impact on the game. That’s why I voted him first place the past two seasons. Alas, my vote only counts once, so who knows who prevails in 2017-18? Here are my top 10 candidates. Disclaimer: Hampus Lindholm would make the top 10 if I wasn’t worried his shoulder surgery will cost him October.
1. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
He’s a two-time winner who also finished second the past two seasons and is just 27. He’s one of the greatest offensive blueliners of all-time. Only Karlsson, Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey have finished among the top 10 overall NHL scorers as defensemen twice. Karlsson, though, isn’t the defensive sieve he’s sometimes reputed to be. He finished second in the NHL in blocked shots last season, and he drives possession in Ottawa’s favor when he’s on the ice. Even if his off-season foot surgery costs him a couple games to start the season, he’s the safest bet to win the Norris and a virtual lock to be a finalist.
2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
The difference between Hedman and his other fellow “elite tier” members, Karlsson and Brent Burns: Hedman is still ascending or perhaps peaking. He exploded for career highs with 16 goals and 72 points. He’s dominant in possession at both ends of the ice. He has no holes in his game. He plays for a Tampa Bay team that should be much better in 2017-18 after a disappointing playoff miss. And if the trend continues of first-time winners getting their due, it’s Hedman’s turn.
3. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
The most fascinating stat in Burns’ Norris-winning season: he led the NHL in shots on goal. Wow. He’s a rare specimen, the only other D-man capable of carrying his team’s offense the way Karlsson can. Burns is virtually guaranteed to finish among the top two or three scorers at his position. Working against him this season: he’s 32, meaning a decline may start one of these years, and his San Jose Sharks did very little to improve themselves over the summer. The franchise’s arrow is starting to trend down. A weaker supporting cast could suppress Burns’ numbers ever so slightly.
4. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Doughty has finished among the top 10 Norris vote-getters seven times in the past eight seasons and took home his first Norris in 2015-16. He always had sparkling advanced statistics under coach Darryl Sutter, and that isn’t likely to change since new coach John Stevens has been with the Kings' organization for years. Doughty will play as much as anyone in the league, he’ll post good offensive totals and he’ll continue to be one of the best all-around players at his position, even if it sometimes seems like the Kings' system makes every player look good defensively. Doughty can’t crack the top echelon of contenders, though, with his team looking likely to miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
5. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
Nobody has a better claim to the annoyingly sentimental “he’s had a great career, let’s give him a Norris” vote than Suter. No one in the NHL has played more minutes per game since Suter joined the Wild in 2012-13. He’s steady as they come, well-rounded and extremely valuable to his team. With Marco Scandella dealt to Buffalo, Minnesota will lean on its top pairing of Suter and Jared Spurgeon more than ever this season.
6. P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators
Even on the Predators, with their outstanding group of D-men, Subban’s game stands out. Just look at his 5-on-5 score-and-venue-adjusted Corsi relative mark, which led the team’s defensemen at 3.98. Sometimes his charismatic media-magnet persona distracts from how good of an all-around blueliner he is. If he stays healthy after averaging just 67 games the past two seasons, he’ll contend for his second Norris.
7. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
The two-time Norris winner and future Hall of Famer has finished in the top 10 for the award in four of his past five seasons. He plays in all situations against opponents’ best attackers, and he still generates consistent offense. Keith is a horse. He’s also 34 and playing for a Chicago team lacking depth, which is why he’s in the second tier of contenders for 2017-18.
8. Dougie Hamilton, Calgary Flames
If you want to swap Mark Giordano in here, no problem. Giordano was the better overall player last season or at least had more responsibility. He played very tough minutes and was still an elite possession player. He got my fourth-place Norris vote. But Hamilton, 10 years younger, had a phenomenal season of his own and flashed top-shelf offensive ability. He racked up 50 points despite only playing 19:41 per game. Hamilton has earned a much bigger workload and has potential for a Hedman-like breakout with a spike in responsibility.
9. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Like with Giordano and Hamilton, I have no qualms if you prefer Seth Jones here. He’s an outstanding young blueliner. But Werenski showed so much as a rookie that his ceiling appears higher. He was already one of the best all-around defensemen in hockey last season. Sure, there’s the threat of a sophomore slump, but Werenski was a mature rookie coming out of college and with an AHL Calder Cup on his resume, too. He’s seasoned for his age and likely to repeat or exceed his standout freshman performance with Columbus.
10. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
This is probably wishful thinking, as I was one of just two voters to put Slavin’s name on the ballot last season (he got my fifth-place nod). But this guy is a stud. He plays more than 23 minutes a night as part of Carolina’s No. 1 pair with Brett Pesce. Slavin had some of the league’s best defensive possession numbers despite also facing some of the stiffest quality of competition. He might be the best shutdown guy in the game right now. Maybe he received enough off-season publicity to be legitimized in the eyes of more voters in 2017-18. It will help if Carolina sneaks into the playoffs, which is very possible.
Other Norris Trophy candidates to watch:
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens; Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames; Roman Josi, Nashville Predators; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins; Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets; Torey Krug, Boston Bruins; Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues; Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets; Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers; Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers; Kevin Shattenkirk, New York Rangers; Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators; Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks; Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators; Josh Manson, Anaheim Ducks; Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes; Oscar Klefbom, Edmonton Oilers; Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks