For roughly three-quarters of the season, there wasn’t really need for a Norris Trophy discussion. It was Brent Burns’ award and that was as far as talk about the honor had to go. The San Jose Sharks defenseman was on pace to have one of the best offensive seasons by a blueliner in recent memory and there was no talk about him sacrificing defense in favor of offense. He was all-around outstanding.
But the final months of the campaign saw Burns fall off and real, honest-to-goodness conversation start about the possibility that the Norris could slip away from the Sharks rearguard. Burns falling off offensively had something to do with that, sure, but the play of the rest of the league’s defensemen was the reason for the debate. Not only were others catching up on the scoring register, but the defensive play of some of the league’s best has turned what was supposed to be a no-brainer award for Burns into a heated debate.
Now, with the end-of-season awards show two months away, it’s a legitimate three-horse race between the league’s three top-scoring defenseman and with good reason. Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman had outstanding finishes to their season and it wouldn’t be all that shocking were either to take the hardware. Will they, though?
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Burns’ rise to becoming one of the league’s star defenders has been swift. Only a few seasons into his career, Burns finished 12th in Norris voting, but since his shift back to defense in the 2014-15 campaign in San Jose, the bearded blueliner has been elite. He was a 24-minute per game rearguard that first season and a steady offensive contributor, versatile in a way that few defenders are. He chipped in 60 points and wowed the league. His encore was even better, however. In 2015-16, Burns made the second all-star team and finished third in voting behind Karlsson and Drew Doughty, who won the award.
His Case: There was a point, a few months out from the end of the season, that Burns was on pace to have the best offensive season by a defender in more than a decade. At that same point, he was in line to become the first rearguard since Mike Green in 2008-09 to eclipse the 30-goal plateau. Burns scored only two goal over the final 22 games of the season, though, and his production dipped in a big way. But that shouldn’t take away from how outstanding his year was. He was still the highest-scoring blueliner in the league with 29 goals and 76 points and Burns was dominant in every facet — a true game-changer from the back end. Only nine 1,000-minute defensemen had a greater goals for percentage at 5-on-5 than Burns and only a dozen defenders had better possession rates. Burns was that good.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Karlsson is a Norris finalist for the fourth time in six seasons and it’d be fair to say that he’s the most consistently strong defender in the league. Finishing among the top three rearguards makes Karlsson a finalist for the third-straight season and some would argue that he should be in line to win a third-straight Norris this season. He was unstoppable in 2015-16, putting up 16 goals and a mind-bending 66 assists. It was the most helpers by a defenseman in a campaign in 20 seasons, but that wasn’t enough to win the Norris. He finished second place by a long shot, garnering half the first-place votes of Doughty, the winner.
His Case: The knock against Karlsson has long been that he had no defensive substance to his game. Boy, how a single season can change things. Karlsson put his doubters on notice, finishing second in the league with 201 blocked shots, and putting up the third-most takeaways of any rearguard, all the while skating nearly 27 minutes per night. And it’s not as if his offense went away with what would some consider his newfound focus on defending. Karlsson didn’t reach the same scoring heights, but he put up 17 goals and 71 points, finishing only five points back of Burns for the scoring title among defenders. Karlsson isn’t just in the conversation for the Norris. He could very well be considered for the Hart Trophy, as well.
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning had hoped that Hedman would become a franchise blueliner when he was drafted second overall in 2009 and he’s certainly become that. By the 2013-14 campaign, he was starting to get noticed as a Norris contender and he had his best finish when he earned four percent of the vote and finished in seventh in 2015-16. This time around Hedman is a finalist and it seems only a matter of time before the smooth-skating, steady rearguard is taking home the award.
His Case: Hedman might have the weakest case of the three, but his late charge might set him apart from Burns and Karlsson. He led all defensemen with nine goals and 30 points over the final two months of the season and, outside of the play from Nikita Kucherov, Hedman was the driving force behind the Lightning’s late charge towards the post-season. More impressive than that, though, was his ability to come through in big moments. He had three game winners down the stretch. Hedman was a juggernaut on the back end, skating more than 24 minutes per game — two more than any other Lightning rearguard.
The Winner: The case for Burns is rock solid, but it’s hard not to lean in Karlsson’s favor. Maybe it’s the late charge and Burns’ slowing up as the season ended, but Karlsson was a stud when the Senators needed him to be, his dedication to improving his defensive game was remarkable and he has both the offensive and defensive numbers to support his case. As noted, Karlsson’s season could be punctuated with a Hart Trophy nomination to go along with his Norris nod. He was that good. Regardless of who wins, though, expect the vote to be incredibly tight. Be it Burns or Karlsson — the two definite frontrunners — the margin of victory should be slim.
The NHL awards, which are set to be broadcast in conjunction with the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft, will take place at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena on June 21.
(Advanced statistics via Corsica.Hockey)
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.