The NHL award that seems to be generating the most interest and discussion this season is the Norris Trophy given to the best defenseman. In some circles Drew Doughty seems to be the favourite because he is having a great season in a great career on a team having a great year. Others are picking Erik Karlsson because of his dominant offensive season for a defenseman, one that few defensemen can match in the history of the game. Brent Burns is having almost as good of an offensive season but for a playoff team so his name gets thrown into the mix too. Kris Letang is having an outstanding second half of the season putting him into the mix as well.
Along with Doughty, Karlsson, Burns and Letang I am going to throw Victor Hedman, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and John Klingberg into the discussion because they are who I have seen mentioned in Norris discussion or who I feel deserves some consideration. I am sure I am leaving a few notables out but I am also certain the Norris Trophy will and should come from this group of players.
All statistics in this article, unless stated otherwise, are 5v5 even strength statistics.
The easiest measure of offensive production is straight up point scoring rates. Here Karlsson is clearly king but Burns is not too far behind with a higher goal rate but significantly lower assist rate. Hedman, Klingberg and Letang all look pretty strong here as well.
On the flip side, this is an area where Doughty’s Norris trophy credentials are definitely lacking.
Another measure of offensive production is GF60 RelTM which attempts to measure a players impact on the offensive production of the players he plays with.
Karlsson still leads here but Hedman is almost his equal. Drew Doughty looks a little better than his raw point rate which is a result of the fact that he plays on a team that struggles to score at 5v5. You can’t rack up points if your team doesn’t score many goals.
Although point totals generate the wow factor GF60 RelTM is probably a better measure of offensive contribution.
GA60 RelTM attempts to measure the players contribution to goal prevention. Here lower numbers are better as it indicates the players has an ability to reduce goals against rates. This was Drew Doughty’s strength this season while the offensive defensemen Karlsson, Burns and Letang performed quite poorly.
Now I know some people are going to scream “But players can’t influence save percentage, you should look at CA60 RelTM” but I completely disagree. I do not believe it is coincidence that Karlsson, Burns and (to a lesser extent) Letang – the three highest scoring defensemen in the league this year – are among the worst defenders in GA60 RelTM over the last 3 seasons. Weber is having an atypical season for him but his role seems to have changed to a less defensive oriented role. The last two seasons he has been on the ice for 51.8% and 50.9% of the Predators defensive zone faceoffs. This season that has dropped to 43.9%. I have written enough on this topic so I won’t go into it further here. Besides, the Norris Trophy goes to the best *performance* by a defenseman, not most talented (that is a somewhat different question to answer).
Zone Starts and Roles
The following chart shows how coaches have used each of these Norris trophy candidates.
The majority of defensmen have been assigned a higher percentage of his teams offensive zone starts than defensive zone starts with Karlsson being given the most significant offensive role. The exceptions are Shea Weber who had a slightly higher percentage of defensive zone faceoffs and Duncan Keith who was given a significant defensive role.
The zone starts don’t directly impact a players statistics all that much but zone starts can indicate player role which is an indication of what the coach expects of the player. Here we can probably conclude that Duncan Keith is expected to prevent goals as much or more than he is expected to produce offensively. As a result his offensive production may be inhibited by the role he is given. Karlsson conversely is expected to produce more offense (which he does well) and asked to play defense less. This is important because if we evaluate defensemen based primarily on their offensive statistics without taking roles into account we unfairly penalize defensemen who are asked to play a more defensive shut down role.
The following chart summarizes the above by plotting GF60 RelTM vs GA60 RelTM.
For me this chart is what has me leaning towards Hedman as my Norris trophy pick. Klingberg is interesting as well but he probably should be eliminated from discussion due to his lower quality of competition (not discussed in this article) and lack of PK usage (also not discussed in this article). His low face off deployment likely also indicates the coach doesn’t trust him for a specific role or line matching duties which is probably typical for young defensemen.
Beyond Hedman you have Karlsson for pure offensive ability and Doughty for stellar defensive performance and Duncan Keith deserves consideration for putting up solid numbers despite by far the toughest defensive role. I know people are wowed by Karlsson’s numbers but I personally have a problem awarding the Norris Trophy to a defenseman who plays like a forward while his team suffers defensively while he is on the ice.
In conclusion, my pick for Norris Trophy is Victor Hedman. Runner Ups are Doughty, Keith and Karlsson in that order.