It’s a glory age for do-it-all, game-changing defensemen in the NHL. Last season, seven of them crested the 60-point barrier. Seven did it in the previous two seasons combined. The last time the NHL had seven 60-point blueliners? The run-and-gun 1995-96 season. More teams than ever funnel their offenses through their elite D-men now.
“Getting the ‘D’ involved is huge, joining the rush, creating offense, creating confusion in the ‘O’ zone,” Lightning defenseman and reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman told me last year. “I don’t have an explanation why that is, but that’s how the game is played right now. You involve everyone in offense. You need everyone to play defense as well. It’s a five-man unit out there right now. You’ve got to make the most of it and use everyone to create plays, so that’s why you see those high numbers (for defensemen).”
The top 10 Norris Trophy candidates for 2018-19 thus include a cluster of blueliners with all-world scoring skill, but that doesn’t mean these guys are stiffs on defense. The modern definition of a defensive defenseman calls for someone who can shadow the opposition using his mobility and disrupt plays with an active stick. Everyone on this list fits those criteria. And, OK, a few can still blow up opponents with the odd big hit.
1. SETH JONES, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Jones was considered almost interchangeable with Nathan MacKinnon in the race for 2013’s No. 1 overall pick before Jones shockingly slipped to fourth on draft day. That provides perspective of just how highly regarded he was. Long, rangy and a great skater, Jones always projected to be a phenom, and he truly busted out in the second half last year, when he was arguably the NHL’s best defenseman for a two-month stretch. In one 16-game chunk from mid-February to early April, he went nuclear for eight goals and 21 points in 16 games. The late surge gave him season-ending totals of 16 goals and 57 points. Jones also ranked 12th in the NHL in 5-on-5 Relative Corsi. He was a dominant force all over the ice, and he finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting.
This year, we think Jones maintains that elite production all season long, especially with another stud defenseman on his left side in Zach Werenski.
“Since I’ve been on the team in my rookie season, you can see he plays with this confidence that he knows he’s going to go out there and make the right play and help this team win, but last year, he took that to a new level,” Werenski said. “He would get the puck in our D-zone, and I knew he was going end to end and no one was stopping him. Or someone was coming wide on him, and I knew they weren’t getting the shot off. He just had this confidence to him last year, and he played with that every game. It was pretty awesome to see.”
Jones turns 24 on Oct. 3 and enters his true prime years. It appears to be his time. Franchise defensemen do seem to spend a few years in Norris runner-up purgatory before getting their “turns,” but Jones enters his sixth season. Chris Pronger got his Norris in his seventh season, Drew Doughty in his eighth, Hedman in his ninth. Maybe it’s a little “early” for Jones, but so many of the other contenders have won recently that politics may not get in his way.
2. VICTOR HEDMAN, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Should I be projecting a Jones win or just acknowledging that Hedman is the game’s top defenseman at the absolute peak of his powers on an elite team? I certainly can’t fault anyone making that case. Hedman ranks among the NHL’s best in every major offensive metric, and he can control a game so deftly on his own he allows the Lightning to spread out their assets on defense. He dragged Dan Girardi around during the 2017-18 playoffs. It doesn’t matter who Hedman plays with. Few if anyone in the league mixes talent with strength as well as he does.
3. ERIK KARLSSON, SAN JOSE SHARKS
He played on a left ankle doctors literally took apart over the summer and endured as much turmoil, of the personal and team variety, as any player in the NHL last season, and Karlsson still had 62 points. That’s his floor? Unbelievable. He’s a future Hall of Famer. Among the 133 defensemen who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Karlsson ranked first in points per 60 minutes – and that’s despite ranking second last in quality of teammates. If he can do that with so little help in Ottawa, what will he do as a Shark? He’ll have the best teammates of his career, and he’ll be emotionally lighter. The only reason I don’t have Karlsson first on this list: he now shares a team with a fellow Norris Trophy winner in Brent Burns and another fringe Norris candidate in Marc-Edouard Vlasic. In a subjective voting process, will the trio steal votes from each other?
4. DREW DOUGHTY, LOS ANGELES KINGS
Did Doughty actually deserve the Norris more last season than he did two years before, when he won it? The knock on Doughy – well, knock is a strong word. I’m just talking in terms of Norris finalist context – has sometimes been that he’s played on such strong defensive teams that “everyone on the Kings has a good Corsi.” But Doughty was among the league leaders in possession relative to his teammates last year. He was the driving force on the ice and sat in the league’s top third in quality of competition. It’s hardly a coincidence that Doughty achieved his first career 60-point season in his first year with Darryl Sutter out and John Stevens in as Kings coach, either. Under Stevens, Doughty has a bit more freedom. He shot the puck at the highest rate of his career last season, too.
5. BRENT BURNS, SAN JOSE SHARKS
Over the past three seasons, Burns leads all defensemen in goals, points and shots. Only four times in the past 20 years has a defenseman registered a 300-shot season, and it was Burns three of those times. He stands shoulder to shoulder with his new teammate Karlsson as unquestionably the two most impactful offensive defensemen of this millennium to date. Burns got his first Norris in 2016-17 but has a couple hurdles to clear for his second: (a) competition from his own teammates for the award, as mentioned earlier, and (b) the fact he’s not his team’s go-to shutdown option. The Sharks have deployed the Vlasic/Justin Braun tandem against opposing teams’ top forwards more often, giving Burns more offensive zone starts to capitalize on his scoring ability. Among the 133 blueliners with 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Burns had the ninth-highest offensive zone start percentage.
6. P.K. SUBBAN, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
If you tracked the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s inaugural vote reveal, in which all our ballots became transparent for the first time, you might have found within the results that I voted Subban No. 1 for the Norris this past season. He rated as one of the NHL’s best 5-on-5 players despite (a) ranking well above average in quality of competition and (b) spending a significant portion of the season with Alexei Emelin as his partner. Emelin’s 5-on-5 Corsi was three percentage points higher with Subban than without. Subban is a powerhouse no matter whom he’s paired with.
“I take pride in having my coach look at the board and say, ‘I can put him on the ice with anybody.’ and I’ll never complain, I’ll never go down the hallway to his office and request to play with anybody specifically,” Subban said. “I’ve never done that in my career.”
Slated to spend an entire season with his regular partner Mattias Ekholm, Subban might have his best year yet. But is it possible no member of the Predators’ ‘Big Four’ wins the trophy because they all snatch votes away from each other? That’s arguably been the case for the past decade or so. Would Shea Weber have won a Norris several years back if Ryan Suter and, later, Josi weren’t his regular partners?
7. JOHN KLINGBERG, DALLAS STARS
The top four scorers among defensemen across the past three seasons: Burns, Karlsson, Hedman, Klingberg. He has emerged as one of the sport’s pre-eminent power play quarterbacks and puck-movers. He finished second in the NHL in points and primary points per 60 minutes at his position last year. Yet ‘The Ghost of Gothenburg’ still hasn’t finished higher than sixth in Norris voting. With the exception of last year’s tighter-checking group under coach Ken Hitchcock, Klingberg has played on several defensively leaky teams, so is the perception among voters that he’s a one-way defenseman?
Sometimes, however, a good offensive defenseman is the equivalent of a good defender because the puck just flies at the other net so often when he’s on the ice. The Dallas Stars had 187 more 5-on-5 shot attempts for than against with Klingberg on the ice. That +187 ratio put him 17th in the league among D-men between Josi and Zdeno Chara. Being an offense-first guy hasn’t locked everyone out of Norris consideration in the past. The question is how much Klingberg regresses defensively, if at all, under new coach Jim Montgomery, who favors an up-tempo game. Then again, that could lead to Klingberg smashing his career-high scoring totals.
8. JOHN CARLSON, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Carlson, not Burns or Karlsson or Hedman or Klingberg, won the league’s defenseman scoring crown last year with 68 points. He logged a career-high 24:47 per game, was a horse in the playoffs, won a Stanley Cup, earned a new eight-year contract and pretty much came out of hiding in every possible way last season. That matters to a subjective voting panel. You might find a player who does each individual thing better than Carlson, but he’s extremely well rounded and, entering his 10th season and fresh off a fifth-place finish in the Norris vote, he has a case for “due” status. I’m not saying I condone that mentality, but the pattern of past votes suggests it exists for some ballot casters.
9. ROMAN JOSI, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
There’s a case to be made for Josi ranking much higher. He led the league in primary points per 60 minutes by defensemen, averaged more than 3:00 shorthanded per game and regularly faces some of the toughest competition of any blueliner. A cool customer, he turns the puck over less than most of the league’s other top rushing blueliners do. But he also plays with a guy who may be just as good: Ryan Ellis. That counts for something. Again, there’s a reason why it’ll be tough for a Predator or Shark to stand out above his peers and win the award this year. This isn’t just a “best defenseman” list, remember. It’s a ranking of those most likely to win the award.
10. IVAN PROVOROV, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
So many other defensemen could’ve rounded out this list. The beastly Dustin Byfuglien? The steady Alex Pietrangelo? Minutes machine Suter? I’ll roll the dice that Provorov, the Flyers’ mature-beyond-his years anchor, makes the same leap Jones did last season. Provorov crested the 24-minute mark in ice time, emerged as one of the league’s better shot-blockers and tied Hedman and Dougie Hamilton for the goal-scoring lead among defensemen with 17. Provorov did get a nice boost in his numbers partially by moving off the Andrew MacDonald pairing to get more minutes with the dynamic Shayne Gostisbehere but, regardless, Provorov is an all-around beast ready to threaten annually for the award.
Other Norris Trophy candidates to consider: Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators; Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues; Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild; Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets; Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets; Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins; Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes; Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes; Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators; Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs; Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers; Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers; Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks; Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames; Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks; Josh Manson, Anaheim Ducks; Mathew Dumba, Minnesota Wild; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins