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Scott Cullen

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The most heated debate surrounding NHL awards this season has centered on defence, where challengers try to unseat two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. 

Karlsson’s case is as strong as it’s ever been, which makes the task all the more daunting. With 64 assists, Karlsson is three ahead of San Jose centre Joe Thornton, with two games remaining. Should Karlsson hold on to that lead, he would be the first defenceman to lead the league in assists since Bobby Orr, in 1974-75, when he was tied with Bobby Clarke, or 1973-1974, when he had the most assists outright.

This gives Karlsson 80 points, tying Nicklas Lidstrom for the most points among defenceman in the past 20 years. Brian Leetch (85) and Ray Bourque (82), had more, both in 1995-1996. So, it should be easily established that this is a special offensive season.

As always, Karlsson is a positive possession driver, and this is remarkable because the Senators struggle without him on the ice. That leads Karlsson to elite relative possession numbers.

Relative numbers have value because they attempt to separate individual contribution. It’s not as though merely having strong relative numbers can be the backbone of a player’s case – it’s not an attempt to find the player with the worst teammates – but the context it adds to Karlsson’s production should make it clear how spectacular he’s been this season.

Consider the Ottawa centres with whom Karlsson has played the most this season: Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Kyle Turris, all three between 400 and 500 5-on-5 minutes. Each one of them gets buried without Karlsson on the ice.

By way of comparison, Drew Doughty has played primarily with Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter as his centres and while they are worse without Doughty, their possession dip isn’t nearly as dramatic.

One of the most popular criticisms of Karlsson is that he doesn’t kill penalties for the Senators. A couple of points on this: one, a player doesn’t control deployment. Two, how a player is deployed doesn’t mean that they can’t perform in one aspect of the game. It could very well mean that there is a greater advantage to using the player at another time. In the case of Karlsson, an out-of-this-world offensive defenceman, why would it make sense to have him spending shifts in the defensive zone when that’s not the best use of his skills and the team is far more likely to benefit from his play at even strength? Oh, and third, Karlsson has typically been quite effective as a penalty killer, and it’s no different this season.

Some might point to Karlsson’s minus-3 rating as evidence of Karlsson’s defensive shortcomings, but this is precisely when we look to teammates. Karlsson’s on-ice save percentage this season is .913, his worst since 2010-2011. So, the randomness of goaltending plays a part. Add in the Senators being minus-8 (6 for, 14 against) with the goaltender pulled when Karlsson is on the ice and a couple of shorthanded goals against the Senators power play with Karlsson on the ice and it’s easy to see that a minus rating isn’t an effective measure of a player’s contribution.

One last point for Karlsson is that, when he is criticized, it is for being disengaged defensively, and over the course of more than 2,300 minutes this season, it’s possible to find examples of poor or sloppy defensive play. But, he’s also recorded 169 blocked shots this season, far and away a career high. If the point of contention is that Karlsson is not engaged defensively, then he’s still getting in the way of a whole lot more shots when he’s not busy driving play into the other team’s end of the ice.

 

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Drew Doughty has 51 points and has been on the ice for 59.0% of shot attempts at even strength.

The most popular challenger to Karlsson for the Norris has been Kings blueliner Drew Doughty, who has a sterling reputation built on the back of multiple Stanley Cup and Olympic victories. Make no mistake, Doughty is really, really good and if Karlsson wasn’t having a phenomenal season, Doughty might have a viable case.

First off, he excels at shot suppression and that’s certainly a big part of the job description. However, this can’t be attributed only to Doughty considering that the Kings, as a team, are the league’s best in this regard.

But, just as the Senators contribute to Karlsson’s surface numbers perhaps looking questionable, Doughty also gets some benefit from the strong team around him. For example, with Doughty on the ice at 5-on-5 this year, the Kings have a .941 save percentage, easily the best of his career. Did he do something especially impressive to help his goaltender’s save percentage this year, compared to other seasons, or is this more randomness? 

But, there's no need to quibble with Doughty’s defensive play. That’s a strong part of his game and the basis for his Norris Trophy contention.

Where that contention comes undone is at the offensive end. While Doughty has taken off on the power play, putting up 24 points (9 G, 15 A), his most with the man advantage since 2009-2010, his production at 5-on-5 is a long way off the pace, not only of Karlsson, but of nearly all the top contenders for the Norris (see table below).

Doughty is a terrific player, and could very well win the Norris Trophy at some point but, at 26-years-old, there’s no need to be voting him one on the basis of career accomplishments.

A couple of offensive dynamos have made a late surge into the Norris Trophy discussion: San Jose’s Brent Burns and Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang.

Burns has put up 27 goals and 74 points, more than he ever did as a winger, and has piled up 347 shots. In the past 20 years, Ray Bourque (390 in 1995-1996) is the only blueliner to fire more pucks on net in a season. Burns’ relative numbers (both possession and high-danger scoring chances) are negative relative to teammates, though some of that may be an indication of Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s relative strength on the San Jose blueline. Nevertheless, that probably hinders Burns’ chances of winning, though he could be the third finalist.

Like many Penguins, it’s been a tale of two seasons for Letang, who struggled early in the season and missed some time with an upper-body injury in December. Since returning, though, he’s played at a Karlsson-like level, putting up 52 points in 45 games since Christmas. His 25 games before that weren’t so dynamic, however, and that has to be weighed in the final evaluation. I’m inclined to give Burns the nod ahead of Letang, mostly because he’s played an additional 10 games.

Beyond the top four, the field opens up a bit, but there have been some really quality performances. Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson has established, in the past two seasons, that he’s a top-tier defenceman, even if he tends to get overlooked on a non-contending Coyotes team. But Ekman-Larsson isn’t the only quality defenceman that isn’t going to the postseason. Calgary’s Mark Giordano, Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien and Montreal’s P.K. Subban are three examples.

Then, there are rising defencemen on playoff teams, like Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, Dallas’ John Klingberg and Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm, all of whom had strong seasons. I’ve also included St. Louis rookie Colton Parayko along with Nashville’s top pair of Roman Josi and Shea Weber, the tandem that may cause the greatest divide between analytics and traditional measures. (For the record, I think they’re really good, but not at the level of the top contenders.)

So, there are some great candidates for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the defenceman who “demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability at the position”, but in the end, it should go to Erik Karlsson for the third time in the past five seasons. 

 

NORRIS TROPHY CONTENDERS

 
Name Team GP G A PTS P60 (5on5) SAT% SAT%Rel ZSO% TOIComp SATComp
Erik Karlsson Ottawa 80 16 64 80 1.56 51.6 7.3 55.4 17.7 50.6
Drew Doughty Los Angeles 80 14 37 51 0.66 59.0 4.7 57.1 17.3 49.9
Brent Burns San Jose 80 27 47 74 1.40 53.0 2.4 50.5 17.4 50.6
Kris Letang Pittsburgh 70 16 50 66 1.13 54.7 3.4 54.2 17.5 50.0
Oliver Ekman-Larsson Arizona 73 21 32 53 0.93 50.5 5.6 48.6 17.8 50.6
Mark Giordano Calgary 80 21 34 55 1.15 50.3 3.7 47.3 17.4 50.0
Dustin Byfuglien Winnipeg 79 18 31 49 1.16 54.3 4.7 52.0 17.4 50.4
Victor Hedman Tampa Bay 78 10 37 47 1.27 56.7 7.3 55.8 17.7 50.2
John Klingberg Dallas 74 10 46 56 1.21 55.5 4.5 52.0 17.5 49.7
Colton Parayko St. Louis 77 9 24 33 1.16 55.1 4.3 51.8 17.7 50.2
Marc-Edouard Vlasic San Jose 67 8 31 39 1.17 52.8 2.7 44.1 17.7 50.6
Hampus Lindholm Anaheim 77 10 18 28 0.41 57.3 7.0 50.2 17.6 50.1
Roman Josi Nashville 80 13 46 59 1.09 50.1 -4.1 51.1 17.4 49.9
Shea.Weber Nashville 77 19 31 50 0.89 51.2 -3.0 50.9 17.6 50.2
P.K..Subban Montreal 68 6 45 51 1.24 52.5 0.5 51.7 17.5 50.3
 

P60 - Points per 60 minutes, during 5-on-5 play

SAT% - percentage of shot attempts during 5-on-5 play

SAT%Rel - percentage of shot attempts when on the ice, relative to teammates when off ice

OZS% - percentage of faceoffs in offensive zone

TOIComp - time on ice quality of competition

SATComp - shot attempt quality of competition

(stats via www.war-on-ice.com)

Much of the data included comes from www.war-on-ice.comcorsica.hockey, stats.hockeyanalysis.com and www.hockey-reference.

Scott Cullen can be reached at scott.cullen@bellmedia.ca