If you read the etching on the James Norris Memorial Trophy, you’ll see that it is awarded “to the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” However, only offensive defensemen seem to be taking home the hardware in recent years.
It’s a vital aspect to playing defense (jumpstarting an offense is pivotal for almost every position on the rink), but what about defensemen whose sole purpose is keeping the puck out of the net? It’s a debate that has raged on in recent years, with many hockey pundits feeling the award has lost its roots.
In this writer’s opinion, the award is yet to be handed to a defenseman who is completely useless in his own zone. However, when looking at the recent winners and runners-up, it’s easy to see where the voters’ focus is.
Of the last seven years worth of James Norris Trophy nominees (three each season), the average nominee ranks between fifth and sixth in the scoring race for defensemen. In comparison, the nominees between 1977-78 and 1983-84 averaged a finish between ninth and 10th in the scoring race for defensemen.
It’s a minor trend in this time period, but it’s worth noting as the high-flying offensive rearguards seem to be getting the nod over defensive defensemen who have some skill in the offensive zone.
There are a few notes to take away from these lists:
- Rod Langway was considered to be a premier defensive defenseman of his time. He finished his career with an astounding plus-277 rating, to go along with three James Norris Trophy nominations and one Hart Trophy nomination (1983-84). All of this was despite a career-high point total of 34 assists and 45 points in 1980-81.
- Although Drew Doughty’s season point totals are far beyond Langway’s, his output is rarely among the top-scoring defensemen. However, his name continues to pop up in Norris Trophy voting as a result of his supreme ability to control games and play big minutes for the Los Angeles Kings.
- Of the 14 years listed above, six Norris Trophy winners finished atop the league in scoring by defensemen. Eleven winners were among the top-two scoring defensemen of that season, leaving three winners to be beyond the top two.
- Top scorers from the blue line are always receiving Norris Trophy votes. From 2009-10 to 2015-16, the Nos. 1 and 2 scoring defensemen of each respective season received nominations for the Norris three times, while all three top-scoring defensemen finished as nominees twice. This compares to the top-two scorers receiving nominations five times between 1977-78 and 1983-84, while there wasn’t one season where all three nominees finished atop the scoring race.
- Of the years listed above, the highest-scoring defenseman of that season was not nominated for the Norris Trophy four times (1979-80 —Mark Howe, 80 points; 1982-83 —Paul Coffey, 96 points; 2010-11 — Lubomir Visnovsky, 68 points; 2013-14 — Erik Karlsson, 74 points).
The conclusion: high-scoring defensemen have overtaken the award, leaving mid-level offensive defensemen little to no chance at winning the honor.
Current Technology Being Ignored
The award winner shifting to the more offensive-minded defensemen of the NHL seems to go against the trends of the modern world. Simply selecting the top-scoring defenseman as the Norris winner means, for the Professional Hockey Writers Association members who can’t watch every game, that it is potentially as easy as going to NHL.com and taking a quick glance at the stats engine.
But a few more clicks could add another wrinkle into those writers’ decisions.
Not too long ago, the NHL joined the advanced stats bandwagon and included them in the official statistics recorded by the league. There is so much information about what a player brings to his team available now more than ever before.
The voters for NHL awards hopefully are adding more into their decisions than stats engines, though. Most are dialed into the league and are voting by what they see — but when Brent Burns is barnstorming opposing teams’ nets, it’s hard not to keep him in mind when filling out the ballot.
Thanks to advanced stats (or as the NHL calls them, enhanced stats), players such as Jake Muzzin, Dougie Hamilton and Adam McQuaid should at least receive a second look. All three players are displaying excellent SAT (Corsi) and USAT (Fenwick) statistics this season.
One statistic that is overlooked is shorthanded time on ice. If a Norris candidate finds himself atop his team in this statistic, chances are he is relied on to play against top lines and shut down prime scoring opportunities. Average time on ice has been calculated for many years now, but average time on ice while shorthanded is still in infancy in terms of the league’s age.
For the three nominees last season (Doughty, Karlsson Burns), let’s take a look at where they finished in 2015-16 among their teammates.
The table shows Doughty, the winner, with only one d-man on his team with higher time on the ice while shorthanded. Doughty and Jeff Schultz are who coach Darryl Sutter throws over the boards for the top unit.
Burns bounced around his team’s penalty-kill units, but the common pairing was the team’s top duo, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin.
These numbers don’t bode well for the two-time Norris winner Karlsson. It’s clear that the Ottawa Senators coaching staff didn’t feel his defensive game was as up-to-par as the rest of his teammates last season. However, Karlsson has risen through the ranks this year and ranks third on his club in average shorthanded time on ice (2:11). The change has seen the Senators rise from 29th in penalty-kill percentage last season (75.8) to a tie for 19th this campaign (80.5).
The Age-Old Eye Test
As previously stated, voters are watching the games and are voting on what they see. The old saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder fits well here.
To some, the best defenseman is the catalyst of the offense, keeping the puck along the blue line and funneling pucks to the net. These people will continue to vote for the Kevin Shattenkirks and Justin Schultzes of the league.
To others, the defensive defenseman is the one keeping his team in games, breaking up seemingly every opportunity the opposing team gets. This is why defensemen such as Vlasic and Ryan McDonagh receive votes every year.
Neither mindset is incorrect. Both are vital to success for all 30 teams. It’s created a riff in voting that, in recent times, has been swaying in the favor of the offensive-minded defensemen.
A New James Norris: Finding a Balance
Experts have been calling for two separate trophies for defensemen — one for offensive catalysts and one for the stay-at-home skaters — for decades. The problem with this philosophy is if a player, such as Doughty, dominates games in the offensive zone and cleans up messes in the defensive end, shouldn’t he be considered for both?
Yes, he should be. Forwards and goalies win multiple awards at every NHL Awards Show (and not just the statistical awards like the Art Ross Trophy). Carey Price captured the Vezina and Hart Trophies in 2014-15; Anze Kopitar was awarded the Lady Byng and Frank J. Selke Trophies last season. If they are deserving, what’s stopping voters from choosing a defenseman to win two honors?
Another option would be to make a new award for the statistical leader at season’s end. If Burns ends the season with the highest point total by a defenseman, he automatically wins said award. Then the Norris Trophy is still the honor of being the best all-around defenseman.
Naming the new trophy would be a cinch, too. Is anyone more deserving than a three-time Art Ross and two-time Hart Trophy-winning defenseman? The Bobby Orr Trophy has a nice ring to it. It wouldn’t suggest the player can’t play defense either; every account of the man’s legacy says he wasn’t so bad in the defensive end.
Recognition goes a long way in professional sports. Leading goal scorers and top goalies deserve the praise and awards that come with their star power. The same should be said for unbeatable defensemen.
Feature photo courtesy NHL.com
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