When trying to decide who the best defenseman in the NHL is, you have to look at more than just goals and point totals. The Norris needs to be about the all-round game, which is why players such as Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara are competing with P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson.
The Norris Trophy needs and has to be about more than just point totals. Sure, P.K. Subban is a dynamic offensive player, but did you know he gets more of his starts at even strength in the defensive zone than the offensive zone? When giving out an award for the best defenseman in the NHL, it’s important to pick someone with an all-round game. It’s imperative to pick someone who both scores and helps his team out of sticky situations.
Where Subban falls short is on the penalty kill, when he rarely contributes to the Canadiens. He makes up for that in a lot of ways elsewhere, but that’s a gap you can’t ignore with all the other worthy Norris candidates hanging around.
With the help of advanced stats to make sense of the intangibles, we break down the top 10 Norris candidates as they appear (in my mind) today. The most important point: look beyond the points.
1. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators
Weber is the second-highest point-getter on the low-scoring Predators and leads all NHL defensemen with 12 goals. Nine of those have come on the man advantage, but 12 other NHL defensemen receive a higher percentage of their team’s PP minutes than Weber – and five of them appear in this ranking. Weber starts a high 34 percent of his even strength shifts in the D-zone (most on this list) and faces some of the stiffest competition each time he takes to the ice. He’s a big scorer, reliable defender and massive minute-muncher. Weber is an example of where the plus-minus stat skews real value.
2. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
For an offensive defenseman, Subban receives a surprisingly low 28.4 percent of his shift starts in the offensive zone at even strength. This is an eight percent decrease from last year, when he won the Norris. What holds Subban back, in my books, is his complete lack of shorthanded ice time.
3. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
With only 19 points in 47 games, Chara is not going to be the defensemen scoring leader, but that shouldn’t hurt a Norris bid with all the other intangibles he brings. The quality of competition he faces each night ranks among the most difficult in the league, meaning he is out there for all the toughest matchups. And despite having nine goals – five of which came on the power play – Chara receives a relatively little percentage (55.6) of his team’s power play time compared to others on this list. The guy is a beast whose contributions go much deeper than his point totals. He should always be in consideration for the top defenseman award.
4. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
The league leader in defensemen scoring with 46 points in 49 games, Karlsson gets a pile of offensive zone starts. You can’t hold that against him if he (along with Duncan Keith) has a healthy lead on the pack in scoring. Karlsson averages 27:10 of ice per game. He also doesn’t receive much PK time, which could hurt his value as an overall defender.
5. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
When you average being on the ice for nearly half a game each night, you’re doing something right. Suter averages around a minute-and-a-half more ice time than No. 2 on the TOI list and has also handled himself on the offensive side, with 31 points in 51 games. The most surprising stat about Suter is that he only gets 28.8 percent of his even strength starts in the defensive end, which is third-lowest on this list.
6. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
One of the best five-on-five defensemen in the league, Doughty is one of the smoothest defensemen to watch. He has 26 points in 49 games, most of which have come even strength. He gets most of his even strength shifts started in the offensive zone, but a lot of that has to do with the fact the Kings are so darned good.
7. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks defender is second among blueliners in scoring even though he’s only scored three goals. Keith is one of the best puckmovers in the game, but he’s also helped by a lineup that’s stacked with superstars. His partner, Brent Seabrook, is no slouch either and is quietly putting up his own career year. Using advanced stats, you can make the case Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson face the tougher competition, so that hurts Keith some. Only Niklas Kronwall averages less ice time on this list than Keith.
8. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes
Ekman-Larsson has about the same even strength offensive zone start numbers as Subban, which is surprisingly low but speaks to his overall value to the Coyotes. Since he logs so much time on the league’s ninth-ranked power play, but is only 17th in extra-man scoring, you could say Ekman-Larsson stands to improve on the man advantage. But he more than makes up for it on the defensive end, as his plus-7 rating on a minus team shows.
9. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
As the ice time leader on the Blues, Pietrangelo faces some of the top talent on opposing teams yet he is among the scoring leaders at his position. Pietrangelo gets the lowest percentage of his team’s PP time among players on this list, but he’s among the most proficient on the man advantage anyway and a large reason the Blues rank No. 3 in that category.
10. Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings
He’s the go-to defenseman for the Red Wings and makes opposing forwards keep their heads up because you never know when one of his patented bone-crunching hits will fall. He’s also remarkably consistent: he has the exact same goal and assist totals through 46 games this season as he had through 48 games last.