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Norris Trophy finalists: The case for Doughty, Hedman and Subban (and the snubs)

Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman and P.K. Subban are this season’s Norris Trophy finalists, and it’s clear voters have put more stock in two-way play over offense this time around.

The way in which the Norris Trophy has been decided has become a point of contention between traditionalists and new-school thinkers over the past several seasons, but it appears that this season, more than any in the post-lockout era, voters have put less emphasis on the value of a high-scoring blueliner in the Norris Trophy race.

On Thursday, the NHL announced that the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty, Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman and Nashville Predators’ P.K. Subban have been named as finalists for the top defenseman award, and this marks the first time in the post-lockout NHL that none of the top-three point-scoring blueliners — a list that includes the Washington Capitals’ John Carlson, Dallas Stars’ John Klingberg and San Jose Sharks’ Brent Burns this season — finished among the top three in voting. Thus, the deciding factor in who wins the Norris will come down to defensive play as much as putting points on the board. 

With that in mind, here are the cases for each of the Norris finalists, and a quick look at those who likely finished just outside the top three:

THE CASE FOR DOUGHTY
Kings fans won’t be happy about the recent sweep suffered at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Doughty will be as angry as anyone about the way Los Angeles’ season ended. But, if nothing else, at least Doughty can finally get some rest. If anyone has earned it, it is the Kings’ No. 1 defenseman.

This season, Doughty was a monster on the back end, averaging almost 27 minutes of ice time per game. When the season concluded, he was the only defenseman who skated more than 2,200 minutes, an impressive feat in an era where the minutes on the blueline have begun to spread out further. And to put Doughty’s ice time into context against his two Norris competitors, neither Hedman or Subban cracked the 2,000-minute mark. Doughty also finished 14th in shorthanded ice time with 226 minutes and 10th in power play ice time with nearly 259 minutes.

More than basically living on the Kings’ blueline, though, Doughty was impactful for Los Angeles. Offensively, he finished with 10 goals and 60 points, the latter good enough for seventh among defenders, and his underlying numbers for the top defensive team in the entire NHL were impressive. Though he had a slightly heavier slant of defensive-zone starts, Doughty finished with a 52.8 Corsi for percentage, 51.4 scoring chances for percentage and 54.6 goals for percentage, and he managed this while skating against the highest quality of competition of any Kings defender.

THE CASE FOR HEDMAN
There were no shortage of reasons why Hedman was the mid-season favorite for the Norris. Not only were the Lightning the league’s top team at the time, seemingly the runaway favorite for the Presidents’ Trophy, but Hedman’s influence at both ends of the ice was significant. As of Jan. 1, Hedman was fifth in scoring among defensemen, had the sixth-highest average ice time and was the No. 1 rearguard on one of the league’s stingiest defensive teams.

Hedman continued working his way to the Norris throughout the back half of the campaign, too, and despite missing five games due to injury, he finished with the offensive numbers necessary to at least get into the running for the end-of-year hardware. To wit, Hedman closed out the campaign with 17 goals, tied for first among all defensemen, and 63 points, which put him fifth in scoring among blueliners. But it’s the sheer volume of minutes, and therefore influence Hedman had, that earned him a spot as a Norris finalist more than anything.

While he had previously been a big-minute defender, Hedman averaged just shy of 26 minutes per game this season and finished fifth in average ice time. He was huge in all situations, too. He skated 199 minutes on the penalty kill, nearly 262 on the power play and upwards of 1,500 at even strength. He was no slouch in his 5-on-5 minutes, either, with a 52.3 Corsi for percentage, a 53.5 scoring chances for percentage and a staggering 60.3 goals for percentage. Only one 1,000-minute blueliner, Anaheim Ducks defender Josh Manson, had a better 5-on-5 goals for percentage.

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THE CASE FOR SUBBAN
During his time in Montreal, a common knock on Subban was that he was style over substance, the type of risk-taking offensive defenseman with which a team couldn’t win. Turns out that assessment of his game couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, Subban has an element of offense to his game — he finished in a tie for eighth in scoring among rearguards with 59 points and his 16 goals put him into a tie for second-most among blueliners — but what puts the Predators defenseman in the running for his second Norris is his play in his own zone.

Subban was the top choice of Nashville coach Peter Laviolette in defensive-zone situations this season, and his zone starts tell the story. No rearguard who was really in the running for the Norris this season took a heavier slant of defensive-zone starts and there were only eight defensemen in the entire NHL who started more shifts in their own end. Despite that, though, Subban managed a 51.6 Corsi for percentage and the 12th-best goals for percentage, 57.5 percent, at 5-on-5 among 1,000-minute defenseman. 

It’s worth noting, too, that the Predators had the NHL’s fifth-best penalty kill, and Subban was a fixture on the unit. He skated 217 minutes on the penalty kill, 19th among all defensemen, and an average of 2:39 per game. With the way Subban played, and with as many minutes as he skated, it’s no wonder Nashville had the NHL’s second-best team defense.

WHO GOT SNUBBED?
It’s going to be incredibly interesting to see where a few of the high-scoring rearguards ended up in voting, namely the trio of Carlson, Klingberg and Burns. 

When the campaign closed, Carlson was the league leader in points by a defenseman, firing home 15 goals and 68 points in 82 games. A ton of Carlson’s production — 32 points, to be exact — came on the power play, but that’s not to say he was a specialist. Only 11 rearguards saw a higher average ice time than Carlson. As for Klingberg, he was only one point back of Carlson for the scoring lead among blueliners, but he was, for a large part of the campaign, the scoring leader among his fellow defenders. At mid-season, he seemed like a no-brainer finalist, but the rest of the pack seemed to catch up as the season wore on. Which brings us to Burns, who turned it on over final three-quarters of the campaign to challenge for another scoring title among his blueline counterparts. Last year’s Norris winner came just short, though, finishing tied with Klingberg with 67 points.

Another rearguard who may have just missed out on the top three is Seth Jones. The Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman had an outstanding season worthy of high praise. He finished more than 10 points back of the scoring lead, but Jones did finish tied for fourth with 16 goals, 14th in average ice time at 24:36 and his underlying numbers were fantastic. It’s entirely possible that Jones finished as high as fourth in voting ahead of the three highest-scoring defenders.

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