Breaking Down the Norris Trophy Race
According to the NHL, the James Norris Trophy is awarded “to the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.”
If one thing’s clear by looking at the Norris Trophy winners since the 2004–05 lockout, it’s that being the leading scorer among defensemen is not synonymous with “greatest all-round ability in the position.”
Since the last lockout, only three Norris winners led all defensemen in scoring. One winner—Zdeno Chara of Boston—finished 12th in scoring among defensemen.
One can’t tell how a poll of professional hockey writers will shake out in deciding the winner, but another common fact among Norris winners is that they haven’t missed too many games during the season. The most games missed by a Norris Trophy winner since the 2004–05 lockout is six—by seven-time winner Nicklas Lidstrom.
Norris winners also tend to come from top teams in major hockey markets. In other words, it would be hard to envision a Norris Trophy winner coming from a non-playoff team in a “non-traditional” hockey market. Since the lockout, the Norris Trophy winner has only come once from a team that finished below the top three in its conference.
Norris winners also tend to be experienced blueliners who have built up a good reputation and have a decent +- rating.
Last year’s winner, Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, was an exception to many of the above “rules”. Karlsson was only 21, was coming off a season in which he finished a -30, and his team finished eighth.
Out of Nowhere Came Subban
Karlsson is out of the running this year as he has only played 14 games this season due to a serious Achilles injury. With Lidstrom’s retirement two years ago, the field is truly wide open for another first-time Norris winner this year.
Perhaps the top three candidates at the present time are P.K. Subban of Montreal, Kris Letang of Pittsburgh, and Ryan Suter of Minnesota. Subban is the surprise defenseman of the season, while Letang and Suter have been earning plaudits over the past few years.
Subban burst on to the NHL scene during the 2010 playoffs as a brash young 21-year-old during the Habs improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals.
Having only seen limited action in two regular season games prior to the playoffs, Subban proved he belonged in the NHL as a mainstay on defense. He played 14 games in that run, but gained an immeasurable amount of experience.
The following two seasons, he recorded 38 and 36 points in 77 and 81 games respectively. Subban was still learning his craft despite having already been given the responsibilities of a veteran in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But in this lockout-shortened season, Subban has put it all together to become the NHL’s current top-scoring defenseman. He has already racked up 36 points in only 36 games played. He leads all defenseman with 11 goals.
Subban missed Montreal’s first six games due to a contract dispute. He eventually signed for $5.75 million over two years—a veritable bargain given his performance this year.
Letang arguably fits the Norris Trophy definition best. He has the best +- of the three, but he has missed 12 games due to injury. Letang is averaging a point a game and is hot on Subban’s heels in the scoring race for defensemen.
Letang’s Penguins are likely to finish first in the Eastern Conference and have to be considered serious Stanley Cup contenders. Those factors would seem to help Letang’s cause.
Suter hasn’t missed a single game, but his +- rating is not strong enough. His Wild are unlikely to finish in the top three of the Western conference, but at least they look like a playoff team.
Karlsson won the Norris on the strength of his offensive output—78 points and a respectable +16. He had 25 points more than the second best scoring defenseman, which must have been very hard to overlook. No defenseman has stood out in that manner this year.
Lidstrom won the last of his seven Norris awards two years ago with a -2 rating. It was only the third time in the 58-year history of the award that a “minus” player won it. But Lidstrom’s reputation was unmatched.
This year’s Norris Trophy race is hard to call, like last year’s was when Karlsson edged Nashville’s Shea Weber.
Traditions were thrown to the wind with Karlsson’s victory, and for Subban to win, that kind of mentality needs to continue. Otherwise, it’s Letang’s trophy to lose.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports