The Norris Trophy is given to the league’s “top defence player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” making it somewhat of a conundrum to award. Some people view this in a traditional sense and seek the defenceman who’s the best at shutting the other team down, because that’s just what defencemen are supposed to do. Others determine who provides the most to their team by looking at their offensive production. Regardless, it’s not an easy task to quantify a defenceman’s ability, especially not when you’re trying to look at the big picture and truly determine all-around play.
Fortunate for us, there isn’t really much of a conundrum this season. Yes, there a whole boatload of excellent defencemen in the league who deserve praise for different reasons, but this year, nobody has dominated the game from the blue line as much as Erik Karlsson has. Call him a forward, pseudo defenceman, or liability as much as you want, but the Senators are barely an NHL team when he isn’t on the ice, and what he lacks in strong, standup defence, he compensates for by completely changing the game in his team’s favour when he gets on the ice.
Like I said in the introduction, the league is loaded with damn good defencemen. It was really hard to narrow this list down for me (so much so that I talked about six players rather than five), so I’m going to give shoutouts to some players I felt bad for not including.
At the top of this list in Kris Letang, who has an incredibly impressive 55 points in 62 games and is pretty much the only defenceman on the Penguins who’s capable of providing Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, or Evgeni Malkin with a good outlet pass. Same goes for P.K. Subban, who’s been tremendously underrated this season in Montreal. Let’s make this clear: He isn’t the team’s problem. In fact, he’s one of the few players on that roster that should be considered a solution. John Klingberg has emerged as one of the league’s best offensive defencemen, and anybody who was confused when Dallas inked him to a long-term extension last summer can go ahead and give themselves a whack on the head. And finally, Roman Josi deserves more credit as “the guy” in Nashville, because Shea Weber isn’t that guy anymore, and Josi’s game tends to go unnoticed outside of a small contingent of analytics people on the internet.
On with the list!
I’ll preface this bit on Dustin Byfuglien by saying I’m ecstatic for the Jets that they signed Big Buff to a five-year contract extension. People seem to be worried that his game is going to completely fall off a cliff at any moment because of his style of play and, well, unconventional physical attributes. But in all honesty, nothing in Byfuglien’s stats suggests that his game is going down hill at all, and the Jets were smart to realize that he’s been one of the league’s elite offensive defencemen over the past few seasons and that he’s an incredibly valuable asset moving forward. I mean, there really isn’t anybody in the league like Big Buff at all. He can provide offence with the best of them, he drives possession, shuts the opposition down, and he strikes fear into his opponents by roaming around the ice like a Ford F-150. He truly is a one of a kind in the NHL.
This season, Buff has 44 points in 72 games on an underachieving Jets team that ranks 22nd in the league in goals for. He also boasts the best possession numbers of any Jets defenceman, and averages the most time on ice of anybody on the team. In terms of his impact, the Jets are a much better team offensively when he’s on the ice than they are when he isn’t. He ranks fourth in the league in Corsi For percentage in relation to his teammates, putting him in company with the likes of Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman for driving his team’s possession.
This may seem like an odd name to add to the list, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been one of the league’s best this season at oppressing the other team’s ability to generate offence. His boxcar stats aren’t sexy by any stretch of the imagination, as he’s scored 39 points in 67 games while averaging a shade over 23 minutes of ice time per night. Even when you look at his possession numbers nothing really jumps out, as his 52.6 Corsi For percentage at even strength is good, but certainly not great.
But when you dig deeper into his numbers you’ll notice just how excellent Vlasic has been defensively this season for the Sharks. Like I said, his numbers in suppressing shot attempts haven’t been all too impressive, but his ability to stop them from becoming legitimate scoring chances has made him a defensive juggernaut. Only two defencemen in the league are allowing fewer scoring chances against per hour at even strength than Vlasic is (Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson), but Vlasic plays in more defensive zone situations than either of them do. Taking that a step further, nobody in the league allows fewer high danger chances against per hour than Vlasic does, so when it really comes to protecting the net from high quality chances, Vlasic manages to keep it to the outside.
Of course, Vlasic would never actually win this award because he simply doesn’t provide enough in the way of offence to be considered the league’s best defenceman. That said, I wanted to give him a shoutout on this list because of his elite shutdown game, which is tremendously impressive and often overlooked.
Let’s stick with the Sharks for a moment and talk about how great Brent Burns has been. He currently ranks second in the league in points among defencemen behind only Erik Karlsson, and has been a driving force in San Jose’s elite offensive attack this season. Okay, well, it isn’t all that hard to be a part of an offensive juggernaut that includes the likes of Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, but still, 65 points in 73 games is nothing to shrug off, regardless of who’s on his team. He drives possession, creates scoring chances, and generally makes the team better when he’s on the ice.
Unfortunately for Burns, while he has produced at a level that would usually be tops for any defenceman in the NHL, there’s somebody out there who does it at an even higher rate, and who plays for a vastly inferior team than he does.
I briefly mentioned above that Byfuglien has been a driving force on the Jets this season and his value to the team is unquestionable, but man, I don’t even want to imagine how horrific the Arizona Coyotes would look without Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He leads the Coyotes in scoring with 19 goals and 31 assists, logs the most minutes per game (the next highest guy is Michael Stone, yikes), and he’s the only Coyote defenceman with positive possession numbers. The only guy who’s even close (and who’s played enough games to be considered) is the aforementioned Stone, who has a Corsi For percentage of 47.8.
And the thing about OEL that’s so impressive, aside from the fact he literally drags this Coyotes team through the mud with him, is that he does it at both ends of the ice. His relative numbers in terms of simple possession and in terms of scoring chances is the result of being able to generate chances and having the ability to suppress the other team’s ability to do the same. His relative possession numbers are right up there in the top tier with names like Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman, and his relative figures in terms of scoring chances are right at the top of the list too.
I doubt he’s going to get much attention this year, considering the two guys (well, one, really) at the top of this list are damn near impossible to hop over, but I don’t think we’re far from hearing Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s name as a consistent Norris Trophy contender.
A lot of people are suggesting that it’s time to finally throw Drew Doughty a bone and give him the Norris Trophy he’s deserved for years. And while I really, really like Doughty as a player, this isn’t going to be the year. He’s an excellent player, but he simply isn’t the best defenceman in the league right now. It’s not about a Western Conference bias in which everyone has fallen asleep before the Kings ever manage to take the ice, it’s just the simple reality that there’s somebody out there (I’m sure you can guess who it is) who’s been better.
Anyways, there are a whole bunch of good things that can be said about Drew Doughty. First of all, no qualified defenceman has better possession numbers than he does right now, as his 58.4 Corsi For percentage stands alone at the top of the chart. This is because he manages to shut his opponents down at an elite level when he’s on the ice, which is made evident by the fact he boasts some of the best numbers in every ‘insert category here’ against per 60 minutes in the league.
There’s no doubt that he makes the Kings a better team, and that he’s an excellent and valuable player, but we also have to consider that a decent chunk of his success has been a product of his environment. I mean, right behind him in possession numbers is Brayden McNabb, Jake Muzzin, and slightly lower is Alec Martinez. And those are just the defencemen. Pretty much every King is right at the top of the list when looking at possession figures, because the team plays an elite two-way game.
I’m sure that eventually Drew Doughty will win a Norris Trophy. I’m also very confident that one day he’ll be inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But unfortunately for him, his prime years are coming at the same time as Erik Karlsson’s prime years.
What Erik Karlsson is doing this season in Ottawa is nothing short of legendary. I mean, just from a production perspective, he’s leading the league in assists with 62 and he’s sitting fourth in total points with 75, which is completely jaw-dropping. His possession numbers don’t seem all too impressive off the hop, as a Corsi For percentage of 52.0 at even strength is good but not great especially considering the offensive minutes he’s handed, but you have to take into consideration the fact he’s playing for the Ottawa Senators, who get eaten alive in just about every aspect of the game unless he’s on the ice.
Karlsson is the only defenceman on the Senators who has a Corsi figure above 50 per cent at even strength, and the next best guy is Dion Phaneuf, who has a 49.3 Corsi For percentage in 20 games since being acquired from Toronto. With that considered, it shouldn’t be a a surprise that Karlsson is second in the league in Corsi For percentage relative to his teammates, meaning whenever he’s not on the ice, they’re getting hemmed in their own zone and not generating chances, but as soon as he joins the play, they’re a completely different team.
And this isn’t just because he’s a “forward who pretends to play defence” or whatever it is the lazy rhetoric is that surrounds him. In general, there’s a misconception that an offensive defenceman doesn’t inherently provide value on the defensive side of the game with their offence. A good chunk of Karlsson’s relative possession numbers are driven by the fact he produces a tremendous amount of offence, but he also pulls his weight defensive and manages to suppress shot attempts from the other team, as he ranks sixth in the league in Corsi Against in relation to teammates.
There’s just no way to argue that Karlsson isn’t far and away the most dominant defenceman in the league right now. The team he plays on doesn’t do him any favours, and yet, he still manages to produce like an elite scoring forward. When he isn’t on the ice, the Senators look like an AHL, but when he is, they’re a completely different team. Unfortunately for them, he only averages a league-leading 29:07 minutes of ice time per game. If only he could play more, the Sens might actually be a decent team.