There have been a lot of pieces written over the past two weeks about the Norris Trophy, as it is widely considered one of the most hotly contested individual awards in the NHL this season. Many believe that deciding who is the best defenseman will put PHWA voters to the ultimate test.
That’s why I have decided to break down and analyze five true contenders for the award. Hopefully, voters and fans will be enlightened by the information that follows.
1. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
This award, whether it’s fair or not, usually goes to the defenseman with the most points. This year, that’s Karlsson, who has 16 goals and 64 assists in 80 games. He’s just the second defenseman over the past 20 years to reach the 80-point mark, equaling the mark of Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the greatest defenseman in NHL history, who had 80 points in 2005-06.
What makes Karlsson’s 80 points (with two games to play) even more special is how the league has changed over the past 10 seasons. When Lidstrom registered his 80 points, teams averaged 3.08 goals per game. This season the league average is 2.71, the lowest it’s been since 2002-03 and sixth-lowest average since 1957-58.
Only Brian Leetch’s 85 points for the New York Rangers in 1995-96, when teams scored an average of 3.14 goals per game, eclipse Karlsson’s season over the past 20 years.
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) April 6, 2016
2. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Another candidate for the Norris Trophy is Karlsson, the 25-year-old defenseman from Landsbro, Sweden. What sets him apart from other defensemen isn’t just his offensive abilities, but his ability to dominate possession at 5-on-5. Karlsson’s +6.53 Fenwick-relative is the fourth-highest mark behind Brendan Smith, Victor Hedman and Hamphus Lindholm.
Those three defensemen combined have 90 points, just 10 more than Karlsson, who puts up points and does so while limiting opponent shot attempts as well as anyone at 5-on-5.
If we choose a handful of other defensemen to see how Karlsson compares, he has a better mark than Drew Doughty (+4.27), Kris Letang (+2.92) and Brent Burns (+1.24).
It appears as though Karlsson is doing more to control play at 5-on-5 in relation to his teammates than almost every other defenseman in the NHL. But is there anyone out there that’s producing points at an elite level at 5-on-5 and not just doing well in terms of shot attempts?
3. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Karlsson, a seven-year veteran, leads all defenseman in 5-on-5 scoring with 42 points. That’s seven more points than the second-place Burns and 13 more than the third-place T.J. Brodie of the Calgary Flames. Karlsson is first in assists (30), primary assists (15), points/60 (1.50) and third in goals (12).
Yeah, but how does he compare to those other players you listed above? Great question. Let’s look.
At 5-on-5, Doughty has 17 points and Letang has 24. If you were to combine them into a Voltron-like creature, it wouldn’t have more 5-on-5 points than Karlsson.
But whatever. The Norris Trophy isn’t for players who amass a bunch of points on the power play and pick their spots at 5-on-5. Who is the defenseman that’s the biggest workhorse and doesn’t necessarily have the best talent surrounding him?
— NHL (@NHL) April 6, 2016
4. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Karlsson, whose middle name is Sven Gunnar, leads the league in ice time per game at 29:03. But if you think Karlsson isn’t doing as much at even strength, you’re right. He’s averaging 23:01 per game, which is a whopping two seconds fewer than league leader Ryan Suter.
If Karlsson were truly good at 5-on-5, wouldn’t the Senators play him three more seconds per game? You have to hear both sides.
So if we were to agree Karlsson plays a lot, with whom is he playing most frequently? Of his 1,676 minutes at 5-on-5, he is most often with Marc Methot (928 minutes), Mark Stone (558) and Mike Hoffman (518). That’s not exactly a trio of dogs but it’s not a bunch of Hall of Famers, either.
Surely others, like ones listed above, must have much worse regular icemates, right?
Brent Burns: Paul Martin, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton
Drew Doughty: Brayden McNabb, Anze Kopitar, Milan Lucic
Kris Letang: Olli Maatta, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist
OK, so Karlsson doesn’t have the same level of talent on the ice with him as those other guys. Big deal. Why don’t we look at one more defenseman that’s doing something that not even a forward is doing this season?
5. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Karlsson has 64 assists, which is more than any defenseman and MORE THAN ANY FORWARD. The last defenseman to lead the NHL in assists was Bobby Orr in 1974-75, when he had 135 with a Boston Bruins team that scored 349 goals, about 120 more than Ottawa will score this season.
Coffey’s team will score nearly twice as many goals as Karlsson’s team, yet Karlsson will finish fewer than 30 assists shy of Coffey, despite playing in a new dead puck era and without prime Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri.
Karlsson may be the presumptive assist king but when it comes to overall points, not one, not two, but three forwards have more points than him. If Karlsson was really that good at his job, wouldn’t he find a way to outscore Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Jamie Benn? Are any of those three guys any good? Will failing to eclipse three likely Hall of Fame forwards in points be what prevents Karlsson from winning a third Norris Trophy?
So there you have it. It’s a tight race. But as long as you pick one of the five guys listed here, you can’t go wrong.
Advanced stats via war-on-ice.com and stats.hockeyanalysis.com