The Norris Trophy is one of the least exciting and more predictable awards in the NHL in recent years for a couple of reasons. First, the trophy is heavily weighted towards the top offensive defenseman in the league. Of course, it is important for the top player at any position to be good at and contribute on both sides of the puck. However, the voting for the award does not often give enough consideration to the prowess of defenders at actually defending, instead giving votes to the flashier and more offensive defensemen who may not be as strong at playing defense (which so far, even in our early predictions, is not changing). Second, the finalists and winners are very often the same people year in, year out. More notably over the past 5 years (though the trend can be seen over 10 years as well), the finalists are a rotating cast of the same 4 or 5 players.
|2018-19||Mark Giordano||Brent Burns||Victor Hedman|
|2017-18||Victor Hedman||Drew Doughty||P.K. Subban|
|2016-17||Brent Burns||Erik Karlsson||Victor Hedman|
|2015-16||Drew Doughty||Erik Karlsson||Brent Burns|
|2014-15||Erik Karlsson||Drew Doughty||P.K. Subban|
Yes, the top players will be top players every season, so of course they will always be in contention for the awards. But after a number of years, one has to wonder if the same players are getting votes moreso based on reputation than that year’s performance. Many years there are other players having comparatively outstanding seasons but get little-to-no attention for the award. We saw what it took in 2018-19 for Giordano to get the backing he deserved for his Norris winning campaign. It’s not often a player has just one outstanding season to get the Norris, there’s usually a couple years of building media attention before a player gets serious consideration.
So far, this year is different. As we start hitting the thirty game mark, most of the mainstay finalists are having off-years or are not impressing as they usually do. And, the early favourites for the award are (for the most part) fresh faces to this whole ‘awards’ thing. Because of that, the 2019-20 Norris Trophy race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting of the last decade.
Johnny Norris is by far the #1 favourite and the likely winner of the award, barring a complete meltdown in the latter stages of the season. Carlson is having an historic season from the blueline, putting up offensive numbers that haven’t been seen since Paul Coffey and Bobby Orr. With 42 points in 30 games, Carlson is on pace for approximately 114 points.
Carlson has been pushing to put his name in contention for the Norris for a couple of seasons, but has been held back in part due to concerns around his defensive play and the lack of reputation he had built up. This season, Carlson has taken massive leaps forward in both his offensive and defensive play and has catapaulted himself into trophy favourite position. Even though his underlying numbers may not be as impressive as others in contention for the award, the offensive explosion Carlson is having may be enough to have that overlooked.
He is now more than just an offensive defenseman, as Dougie Hamilton is now being relied on for his play on both sides of the puck. Dougie is having himself an excellent season and has been picking up nods across the hockey world suggesting him as a Norris candidate for his play so far. Offensively, he is exceptional, with 28 points in 29 games. He is well on his way to setting a career high in goals, assists, and points. Taking over for Justin Faulk on the Hurricanes’ top powerplay unit has certainly helped his offensive production, as he has already surpassed his 9 powerplay points from last season.
What sets Hamilton apart from Carlson in the Norris race is his defensive play (which has been better than Carlson this season), and his clutch performances. Of defensemen with a minimum 350 minutes TOI at 5 on 5 play, Hamilton sits 10th in GF%, 3rd in CF%, and generates 10 more shots/60 than shots against/60. The underlying numbers show a player who, while on the ice, is doing an excellent job at creating and maintaining possession and generating offense while preventing the opposition from creating anything. Hamilton and his partner, Jaccob Slavin, are one of the best pairings in the league so far.
The captain of the reigning Cup champs, Pietrangelo is quietly having himself a top tier season. Everyone’s favourite cousin has been one of the league’s top defenders for years but has never gained enough attention for an award winning season, topping out at fourth in voting back in 2011-12. After leading the Blues to the Stanley Cup, however, he has drawn the attention of the hockey world. He is returning to top form in a contract year and gaining some serious Norris consideration would be a great little boost to his resume before signing his next deal.
He is unlikely to beat out Carlson or Hamilton due to the outstanding seasons those two are having. Pietrangelo’s 20 points in 30 games and reliable, steady defensive play is finally putting him back in Norris talks.
After a fairly lengthy absence from the Norris Trophy finalist team, Weber has returned to form this season with the Habs. But, while he has been a finalist a few times, he has never won the trophy. Will this be the season he finally gets his first?
Weber has had a couple of injury plagued seasons but is bouncing back nicely. He has 23 points in his first 29 games, is averaging just shy of 24 minutes of ice time per game, and his underlying possession numbers indicate he is driving play more often than not. He currently sits second in xGF/60 among defensemen playing more than 350 minutes and 16th in xGF% (though second to Dougie Hamilton in Norris favourites here).
He is a bit lower on the offensive side in comparison to the top candidates, but Weber’s play this season is definitely worthy of Norris talks.
Josi is a borderline favourite. He has been one of the most consistent and reliable defenders in the league over the past 5 seasons. Finishing top-10 in Norris voting in 5 of the last 6 seasons, Josi may find himself reaching the finalist stage for the first time in his career this year.
Despite the struggles of his team, Josi has done nothing but stand out. He is an absolute workhorse, averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game. Roman is on pace to set career highs offensively, starting the year with 24 points in 27 games. And his defensive abilities provide a consistent, dependable presence backed up by strong underlying scoring and possession numbers.
Josi has finally built the reputation to get serious consideration for the Norris, and it will be adding on to his already strong showing this season.
A bit of a wildcard in the Norris race is the Oilers’ top defender, Oscar Klefbom. He isn’t a flashy defender and he doesn’t stand out much when on the ice (which can sometimes be a good thing for defenders). But, under new head coach Dave Tippett’s, Klefbom has blossomed into the team’s most relied on defender in all situations.
So far, Klefbom has been averaging nearly 26 minutes of ice time per game, most in the entire league. He has 19 points in 30 games and is well on his way to setting career highs offensively. But, where Klefbom stands out the most is in his use in all situations and the smart defensive efforts he has been putting out thus far. The biggest barrier for him to quietly sliding into year-end votes will be his ability to stay healthy, as he usually misses significant time injured each season.
Klefbom won’t likely gain serious attention for the trophy due to poor performances analytics-wise and a lack of reputation around the league, but don’t be surprised to see him get a respectable amount of lower votes come year-end. Even NHL.com has given him a bit of a nod.
Another case of an excellent defenseman who won’t get much award attention due to lack of reputation, Miro Heiskanen is building off of a stellar rookie season to continue his development into the best defenseman in the league. With 20 points in 30 games and averaging 24:43 TOI/G so far this season, the young defender is one of the key reasons the Dallas Stars defensive corps has been able to turn things around over the last couple seasons.
His underlying stats are respectable and he is relied on in all situations (he actually averages more ice time per game shorthanded than on the powerplay, 3:01 to 2:22). What sets Heiskanen apart are his smooth skating abilities that allow him to play the role of a two-way defender very well and his vision that helps him anticipate plays defensively and make the right moves offensively. Although he may be a year or two away from serious Norris contention, he will absolutely receive some votes in the 2019-20 season.