Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman were the consensus 1-2 favorites in Norris Trophy voting at the mid-season mark, and Alex Pietrangelo wasn’t far behind. But Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg should be right alongside the top contenders for the hardware.
While there’s still nearly half a campaign to go before the end-of-season awards picture is firmed up, the mid-season awards doled out by a number of outlets tend to offer a window into the minds of voters. And a quick perusal of this season’s mid-season winners would seem to suggest that Drew Doughty is playing his way to a second Norris Trophy.
Doughty has had a fantastic season, to be sure. The 28-year-old is on pace for more than a dozen goals and nearly 60 points while skating monster minutes on a Los Angeles blueline that has been a key factor in the Kings’ resurgence under bench boss John Stevens. Doughty’s 27:09 per game, minutes that have been skated, and effectively, at all strengths, are tops among all rearguards and his four game-winning goals are a nice nod to his importance to the Kings. Thus, it was no surprise that here at THN, Doughty won our mid-season poll, outpacing the next-highest vote-getter by 12 points. Nor was it surprising that in the NHL’s own mid-season rankings, Doughty pulled down the highest vote total, leading the class by eight points. TSN crowned Doughty its winner, too, while Sportsnet gave the nod to Victor Hedman, who has since fallen injured and as such could fall out of contention, in a toss-up over Doughty.
But what stuck out most about the mid-season awards, especially as the league’s second half has gotten underway, isn’t that Doughty was atop the Norris voting, but rather those with whom he was seemingly facing as top competition. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Hedman was considered one of the top two or three candidates in most circles, as was St. Louis Blues rearguard Alex Pietrangelo. Others put P.K. Subban in the top three or four spots and a fair number of voters had him in their top five. But often sitting outside the top three was Dallas Stars blueliner John Klingberg, and his exclusion from the top threes of many pundits is puzzling.
Statistically, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore what Klingberg is accomplishing this season. Through 46 games, the 25-year-old has six goals and 43 points, the latter of which is tops among all defensemen by eight points. He’s been one of the league’s most lethal power play rearguards, too, notching 15 points with the extra man. More importantly, though, Klingberg is on pace to achieve a point total that is nearly unmatched in the post-lockout era.
If he maintained his current scoring rate, Klingberg would end the campaign with 11 goals and 77 points. That would be the fourth-most points by any defenseman since the 2005-06 campaign — one more than San Jose Sharks standout Brent Burns registered in last season’s Norris win — and Klingberg would become one of only 13 defensemen to register at least 70 points in a campaign since the lockout. The gap between Klingberg’s offensive numbers and those of his counterparts would be significant at their current paces, too. Heading into Thursday’s action, Klingberg’s 77-point pace would put him 13 points up on the next-best scorers, with Burns and John Carlson both heading towards 64-point campaigns.
Some will argue that points alone shouldn’t merit a Norris victory, and that undoubtedly has become a common gripe with the award, particularly over the past several seasons. And while that’s a debate for another day, the fact of the matter is there has been correlation between high-scoring rearguards and Norris victors. To wit, of the 12 Norris winners since the NHL’s lost season, nine have finished in the top three in scoring by a defenseman. The outliers are Doughty, who won the award in 2015-16 despite finishing 10th in scoring, Zdeno Chara, whose 2008-09 win was paired with the 12th-best point total, and Nicklas Lidstrom, who finished fifth in scoring, but only seven points off of top spot, when he captured the 2006-07 Norris.
There will still be those who want to discredit Klingberg’s candidacy on the grounds that he’s an offensive defenseman, however. But there isn’t much merit to that argument. While his shorthanded ice time doesn’t match that of other top contenders — Klingberg is averaging 1:19 on the penalty kill, while other top contenders such as Doughty, Hedman, Subban and Pietrangelo average between 2:29 and 3:00 — the Stars rearguard’s overall ice time is commensurate with those he’s in direct competition with for the hardware. In fact, no Stars defenseman has a higher average ice time than Klingberg, who has skated 23:28 per game. That’s the 28th-highest per-game average among all defenders.
The case can further be made that Klingberg is holding his own among the best of the best when considering his underlying numbers, too. Measured against Doughty, Hedman, Subban and Pietrangelo, Klingberg’s numbers at 5-on-5 are actually as good or better. His Corsi for percentage is tops among the group at 53.7 percent. His relative possession rate, 2.8 percent, is second behind only Doughty’s admittedly remarkable 6.4 percent. Klingberg ranks third in goals for percentage at 59.7 percent, second in relative goals for percentage at 11.27 percent but has an expected goals for percentage of 58.4 percent, more than four percent better than the second-place Hedman. And for those who might argue that Klingberg is being sheltered or given a ton of favorable zone starts, the numbers say otherwise. He’s third in offensive zone starts among the above listed group of Norris candidates and his quality of competition, while lower than each of Subban, Pietrangelo and Doughty, who rank first through third among the five defenders, has been very similar to Hedman.
In every defensive facet, Klingberg has been on par with or better than the consensus Norris favorites. And offensively, it isn’t really a contest. Klingberg has been and continues to be the premier blueline playmaker this season. And the longer he keeps this up, and the more success the Stars have, voters will be forced to take notice of Klingberg as a true top candidate for the Norris this season.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.