As the Tampa Bay Lightning continue their march towards the Presidents’ Trophy, so too have their individual stars continued to make their cases for end-of-season hardware after a near sweep in mid-season awards voting.
Nikita Kucherov, for instance, has maintained his lead in the Art Ross Trophy race while also remaining a frontrunner for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Andrei Vasilevskiy, meanwhile, has continued to lead the goaltending field and many would likely consider the Vezina Trophy his to lose at this point in the campaign. Even rookie Yanni Gourde has become a surprisingly legitimate candidate for the Calder Trophy, even if it is unlikely anyone unseats New York Islanders freshman Mathew Barzal as the favorite.
It appears increasingly likely that the Lightning will also be making room in their trophy case to celebrate defenseman Victor Hedman’s Norris Trophy win. A mid-season runner-up on most lists, including ours at THN, Hedman’s case has only gotten stronger as the season has worn on.
Offensively, he remains among the highest-scoring blueliners, having accumulated 11 goals and 49 points in 61 games, which places him sixth among all defensemen despite missing several games due to injury around the all-star break. He has been an absolute workhorse for Tampa Bay, too. His average ice time — 25:57 — is the fifth-highest among all defensemen and a scant 53 seconds off the league lead. He plays huge defensive minutes for the Lightning, is the team’s most heavily utilized penalty killer and is relied upon in every crucial situation by Tampa Bay.
That said, his candidacy isn’t unassailable and Hedman winning the award shouldn’t be the given that it has seemed to be in recent weeks. Among the 78 defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Hedman ranks 37th in Corsi against, 58th in shots against and 15th in goals against at per-60-minute rates. The latter is a category in which he has been helped by the play of Vasilevskiy, too, as Hedman’s expected goals against per 60 rate is actually 20th among the 1,000-minute blueliners. It’s not as if Hedman is only playing the tough minutes, either. He has the 16th-highest rate of offensive zone starts at 5-on-5 and his quality of competition isn’t the toughest among rearguards who’ve been mentioned in the Norris conversation.
So, is Hedman the favorite? That’s the feeling around the NHL, no doubt. But the play of these defensemen down the stretch could impact who actually takes home the hardware:
P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators
On that note about taking on tough starts, few defensemen are routinely on the wrong side of the ice as often as Subban. Despite that, Subban has been an offensive firecracker for Nashville and his 15 goals and 50 points rank first and fifth among defensemen, respectively. He has also skated the eighth-most minutes among all rearguards at 5-on-5 and battles a high quality of competition yet has managed to maintain a sub-2.00 goals against per 60 rate. Only eight other defenders can claim that. Like Hedman, Subban should score some points with voters for being part of one of the league’s top teams. He has the complete case.
John Klingberg, Dallas Stars
Like it or not, offense counts in the Norris race. In fact, in recent years it’s meant more than ever, and that’s why Klingberg has to be considered. Entering play Monday, the Stars blueliner has seven goals and 55 points, giving him a two-point edge on the next-highest scoring defensemen. And while some will claim he’s all offense and not so much defense, that argument holds little water. Klingberg has taken on a second-unit penalty killing role under coach Ken Hitchcock and has done very well to limit quality chances against while on ice at 5-on-5 all season. The biggest knock is that Klingberg still doesn’t have to take on heavy defensive zone minutes. He falls in the bottom-third of defensemen when it comes to defensive-zone starts per 60 minutes at five-a-side.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Doughty was the mid-season favorite for a reason. He was playing monster minutes on a seemingly rejuvenated Los Angeles squad that appeared to be well on its way to returning to the post-season. Now, the Kings find themselves back in a fight for a playoff spot and Doughty has tumbled down the list of Norris favorites somewhat. He’s still in the mix, though, thanks to his reliability at all strengths. He does tremendous work on the penalty kill for the Kings and he continues to provide offense despite Los Angeles’ standing as one of the lower-scoring teams in the league. He has eight goals and 44 points, good for ninth among rearguards.
THE DARK HORSES
Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
That Columbus is at risk of missing the playoffs is almost incredible given they have one of the great young defense pairings in the NHL in Jones and Zach Werenski. It’s tough to choose between the two when it comes to potential Norris contention, but Jones gets the edge as he plays bigger minutes, has more points and has been all around more effective than his partner this season. Jones impresses not only in his ability to produce offense, but his prowess on the penalty kill. He’s strong at limiting shots and attempts against when down a man. It should also be mentioned that he is one of the few defenders who, like Subban, has been on ice for fewer than two goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Giordano should really be getting more attention for his play this season. Consider this: Giordano has the best 5-on-5 possession rate among all 1,000-minute defenders, ranks second in scoring chances for percentage, third in high-danger chances for percentage and is 24th in goals for percentage. With better goaltending, the latter would be much higher, particularly given he has the second-best expected goals against among defensemen on this list. The Flames have been absolutely dominant when Giordano is on the ice, and that’s about the truest mark of effective defense as there is. Oh, and no defender on this list has had to play more time shorthanded. That’s a nice feather in his cap.
John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Carlson would be the candidate most likely to win the award based purely on offensive output. That’s not to say he’s some sort of defensive slouch, mind you, but Washington’s No. 1 rearguard has made his living this season feasting on the opposition defense. He ranks second among NHL defensemen with 53 points and his 12 goals are tied for fourth-most among blueliners. Not only that, but no rearguard has more power play points than Carlson, whose 25 points while on the man advantage ties him with the Flyers’ Shayne Gostisbehere. Unfortunately, his possession rates, goals against rates and expected goals against rates per 60 minutes aren’t nearly as flattering as those of several of his counterparts.
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Last year’s winner had a slow start to his season, but has really picked it up since the first quarter of the campaign ended. Offensively, that has meant Burns is right in the thick of things in the defensemen scoring race. He currently sits 10th and third, respectively, with 10 goals and 52 points as we enter the homestretch. Burns’ game is predicated upon driving the offense and he has done that awfully well this season, but the Sharks’ defensive woes have also popped up in his game. He has the lowest goals for percentage of any defenseman on this list and that percentage is in the dumps when compared to his teammates. That Burns has the highest percentage of offensive-zone starts makes his low goals for percentage stick out like a sore thumb.
Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
A second Predator appears on this list, and while some Blue Jackets fans might cry foul, the reason is this: Josi and Subban don’t play together. Nashville’s captain has spent the majority of this campaign playing alongside Mattias Ekholm. But why does Josi appear in a category separate from Subban if both play on the same successful squad? Well, Josi takes easier zone starts against similar competition yet doesn’t have the offensive totals to match Subban. It’s about as simple as that. What Josi does have in his favor, though, is one of the best possession rates among big-minute blueliners, a top-tier goals for percentage and heavy usage on the penalty kill.