Voters have to ask themselves an important question when they fill out their Norris Trophy ballot: what matters most?
In recent years, we've seen the award handed to offensive-minded blueliners who crush the competition with big point totals, to players who get the job done at both ends of the ice and to those whose primary responsibility has been shutting down the opposition, where the added bonus is some offensive upside. We've seen eye test-versus-spreadsheet. And we've seen a clash of mentalities, with those who believe in base statistics trumpeting the numbers measured in the box score debating those who feel deeper numbers can tell us more about a player's performance.
But the reality is that the Norris is a difficult award to pin down. It comes down to what matters most to each individual voter. And that's why the top-blueliner award is one of the most intriguing each year.
This season, voting came down to the San Jose Sharks' Brent Burns, Calgary Flames' Mark Giordano and Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman, and here's a look at the case for each:
THE CASE FOR BURNS
Burns’ spot among the top three is one that will drive certain old-school thinkers crazy, though it might not sit all that well with those who have a new-school mentality, either. That is to say that the Sharks defender’s a case is one built almost solely on offense, maybe more than any other instance in recent memory.
Through 82 games this season, there’s no question that Burns was the most productive rearguard in the NHL, and his impacts were huge. His 16 goals this season marked the fifth time since he arrived in San Jose that Burns has scored more than 15 goals in a campaign and after years spent just shy of the point-per-game plateau, the bearded blueliner finally managed the feat. His 83 points were nine more than the next-highest scoring defenseman and Burns’ point total was the highest single-season mark by a blueliner since Brian Leetch’s 85-point season in 1995-96. As if he needed more evidence to support his offensive effectiveness, it should also be noted that Burns’ 300 shots were the most of any defenseman and seventh-most of any skater in the NHL. It was his fourth consecutive season firing 300 or more pucks on goal.
The issue some will take with Burns’ Norris nomination, though, is that his defensive numbers were suspect. For instance, of 171 blueliners with at least 750 minutes played at 5-on-5 during the regular season, Burns ranked sixth in Corsi percentage (57.1), but fell to 55th in goals for percentage (53.2), 28th in scoring chances percentage (53.6), 45th in high-danger chances percentage (53.8) and his numbers tilted more towards break-even than they should have given Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug was the only defender among the group of 171 that had a higher percentage of offensive zone starts than Burns’ 68.1 percent.
THE CASE FOR GIORDANO
Spoiler alert for the “Who Wins” section below, but this is Giordano’s Norris to lose. Though he has received votes – arguably far too few – in each of the past five seasons, the Flames captain delivered such a no-doubt, slam-dunk case for the award this season that the official announcement of the winner in Las Vegas will probably be somewhat anti-climactic.
Let’s start with the attack, where Giordano was spectacular. His 17 goals this season were tied for the third-most in the NHL, fewer than only the 18 scored by Dougie Hamilton and the 20 scored by Morgan Rielly, and though unable to match Burns’ total, Giordano’s 74 points were second-most among all blueliners. (Not to mention a whopping 18 more than his next-best season.) Giordano also came through on the penalty kill, scoring four shorthanded goals, and logged big minutes in all situations, his 24:14 per game 16th in the league.
But more than offense, it’s the underlying numbers that really speak to Giordano’s performance. At 5-on-5 and measured against the aforementioned group of 750-minute defenseman, Giordano finished fourth in Corsi percentage (57.3), seventh in shots percentage (56), fifth in scoring chances percentage (56.5) and fifth in goals for percentage (60.8). His only average underlying number was his high-danger scoring chance percentage (54.1). Making Giordano’s numbers all the more impressive is that he managed to drive play so well despite a 48.7 offensive zone start percentage.
And while it shouldn’t factor into his case, it should be said that Giordano is the fine wine of Norris candidates this season. Only three defensemen in NHL history aged 35 or older have scored 74 or more points in a season: Ray Bourque and Nicklas Lidstrom. The former came second in Norris voting that season. The latter won the thing.
THE CASE FOR HEDMAN
The best defenseman on the best (regular season) team in the league gets a nod, and it certainly didn’t hurt Hedman’s case that he is the defending Norris winner. However, there’s a lot to be puzzled about when it comes to his spot among the top three.
Offensively, Hedman was good, but by no means great. He missed a dozen games this season, but in the 70 contests he did play, Hedman managed 12 goals and 54 points, neither of which were in the top 10 in the NHL, and nearly half of his output – 25 points – came with the man advantage. From a minute-logging perspective, it wasn’t as if the Bolts leaned heavily on Hedman, either. Granted, it’s likely that Hedman’s minutes were far more limited with Tampa Bay trying to preserve some of his energy for the post-season, but his 22:46 ice-time average ranked 37th in the NHL.
It’s further puzzling that Hedman finished top three in voting given his underlying numbers. Among defensemen with 750 minutes played at 5-on-5, Hedman ranked 40th in Corsi percentage (52.5), 71st in shot percentage (50.8), 35th in scoring chance percentage (51.4), 43rd in high-danger chances percentage (54) and 29th in goals for percentage (59.8). He was good, no doubt, but he wasn’t great and likely shouldn’t have finished top-three in Norris voting.
WHO WAS SNUBBED?
If offense was enough to unlock a top-three finish for Brent Burns and if it played a part in Hedman’s case, how in the world is Rielly not in the running? The Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman led all defensemen with 20 goals this season and finished third with 72 points. He logged upwards of 23 minutes per game, certain old-school voters may have appreciated his plus-24 rating and he also has the underlying numbers to be in the conversation. That’s especially true of his goals for percentage, which was 13th among all 750-minute blueliners at 5-on-5 at an excellent 59.3 percent. More shocking is that Rielly was a mid-season favorite who somehow fell out of contention.
There should be similar questions asked, too, about Kris Letang’s candidacy. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense was shaky at times and Letang didn’t have a great post-season, but his regular season numbers were excellent. He was at or above 53.9 percent in every single major 5-on-5 category, as well as an incredible 61.2 percent in goals fo percentage.
Finally, it’s somewhat surprising not to see a single Nashville Predators defender crack the top three, particularly Mattias Ekholm. His offensive numbers don’t reach the same heights – eight goals, 44 points – as other top candidates, but he had excellent underlying numbers as a shutdown defenseman on one of the best defensive teams in the NHL.
Giordano should win it in a walk. He had the most complete game of any defenseman this season, and it’s near impossible to poke a hole in his candidacy. This is the first time he has earned a trip to the awards ceremony as a Norris candidate, and he’s almost certain to stand on stage as the winner.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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