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Top 10 Norris Trophy candidates for 2019-20

No one monopolizes the award for best defenseman. There's a good chance the unpredictable Norris changes hands again in 2019-20.

Raise our hand if you had Mark Giordano first in your Norris Trophy predictions a year ago. Stop lying. None of us did. He was an outstanding defenseman – I’d voted him fourth place in 2017-18 – but he was entering his age-35 season. As of a year ago, the only blueliners to win the Norris at 35 or older were gentlemen named Nicklas Lidstrom, Doug Harvey and Al MacInnis. When Giordano won the Norris last season, it was thus a remarkable feat. And it’s not like he stole it from a more deserving candidate because of a sentimental vote. Giordano was the most dominant blueliner in the game at both ends of the ice. He earned 96.5 percent of the first-place votes.

So can we expect Calgary Flames captain Giordano to challenge for the Norris again this season? It’s tough to say, not just because he turns 36 in October, but also because Norris winners tend to vary year to year nowadays. The era of Lidstrom monopolizing the award has ended. Since his last win, 2010-11, we’ve seen seven different winners across eight seasons, with only Erik Karlsson snatching the Norris twice. Last season, Giordano was a genuinely deserving winner but, in years with closer races, there’s a tendency for voters to break ties by rewarding guys who are “due.” As I list my top 10 candidates to win the Norris in 2019-20, I’ll keep an eye on veterans who have flirted with the Norris without winning one yet.

1. VICTOR HEDMAN, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

We’ll start with the safest pick on the board. Hedman plays for hockey’s best team, virtually guaranteeing huge offensive totals thanks to the Lightning’s powerhouse collection of forwards. His defensive numbers also get a boost with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal. Hedman has finished third, first and third in the Norris vote over the past three seasons and, at 28, should continue to perform as an elite blueliner.

There’s a strong chance his numbers bounce back to their 2017-18 level this season now that he doesn’t have Dan Girardi to drag around as a partner. The shot-attempt data tell us Hedman significantly elevated Girardi. Hedman will get a better partner this season, be it Mikhail Sergachev or Kevin Shattenkirk.

If anything holds Hedman back, it will be his health, as he’s never played more than 79 games in a season and missed 12 games in 2018-19. Still, it’s telling that he still finished as a finalist despite playing just 70 games and ranking 37th among all blueliners in minutes per game. The voters hold him in high regard. On reputation alone, Hedman is the most likely NHLer to finish as a Norris finalist this season.

2. BRENT BURNS, SAN JOSE SHARKS

Burns is one of the top two offensive blueliners of the century alongside Karlsson. Over the past five seasons, Burns leads all defensemen in goals and points by a wide margin, and he’s tied for first in assists. At 34, he’s not slowing down, having posted a career-high 83 points last season. Burns carries a reputation as more of a one-way defenseman, but the Norris is awarded to the blueliner who demonstrates the best all-around ability at the position, and if you tilt the ice heavily toward the other team’s end every time you’re on the ice, you’re making a significant “all-around” impact. Norris voters tend to value offense more than defense anyway. Nine of the past 10 winners have ranked top-five in scoring among defensemen.

Also, despite Drew Doughty claiming last season Burns “gets beat 20 times a game,” Burns isn’t exactly a defensive sieve. He gets burned in spectacular fashion from time to time because he’s a gambler, but he’s an excellent stick checker, and last season, he and partner Radim Simek allowed the seventh-fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Burns is pretty much peerless offensively, and he’s adequate enough defensively that it doesn’t cost him any Norris votes. He has one win and two runner-up finishes in the past four seasons.

3. JOHN CARLSON, WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Carlson gets the vote as the “due” guy this season. He’s 29 and has finished in the top five of the Norris vote the past two seasons. He’s a horse, logging 25-plus minutes per game, and only Burns has more points over the past two campaigns. Carlson checks so many boxes because, in addition to being a top-tier offensive weapon, he’s given plenty of responsibility on defense. He blocks shots with aplomb and logs significant minutes on the penalty kill. He’ll also be given a chance to shine more in a shutdown role alongside partner Michal Kempny with Matt Niskanen, who formed the Capitals’ previous shutdown pair with Dmitry Orlov, off to Philadelphia.

Carlson doesn’t quite grade out as elite defensively, however, as he actually set a career worst in team high-danger shot attempts against per 60 last season, and he had his lowest defensive zone-start percentage since 2010-11 at 5-on-5. Still, he’s as well-rounded as any blueliner in the game and a lock to produce huge offensive numbers again.

4. ERIK KARLSSON, SAN JOSE SHARKS

Some online narratives told us Karlsson had a “bad” year, that he had a tough time adjusting to life as a San Jose Shark. But it just wasn’t true. The under-the-hood numbers tell us he was the same old Karlsson for the most part – and that injuries aren't slowing him down when he's actually on the ice.

We all know Karlsson was elite as an Ottawa Senator. Look at, for instance, his last three seasons with Ottawa pre-ankle surgery, 2014-15 through 2016-17, in which he finished first, second and second in Norris voting. During that stretch, he led all defensemen in assists, points, power-play points and even ranked top 10 in shots blocked. Among the 231 defensemen who logged 1,000 or more minutes 5-on-5 during that period, he generated the fourth-most individual shot attempts per 60 minutes, the fourth-most scoring chances per 60 and attempted the eighth-most rushes per 60 minutes. He accomplished that on Senators teams which, from 2014-15 to 2016-17, ranked 22nd in total Corsi. He elevated his allies like few other players in the league, ranking fourth in Corsi relative to teammates.

That establishes the baseline for Karlsson at his most dominant. Now let’s look at what he’s done in the two seasons post-surgery to see if the advanced data support the visual cues that he’s “not the same player.”

During his 71-game final season as a Senator, among 133 defensemen with 1,000-plus minutes 5-on-5: 11th in individual shot attempts per 60, 26th in scoring chances per 60, 128th in rush attempts per 60 and sixth in Corsi relative to teammates. He was still highly productive playing on a terrible team, though he rushed the puck far less often than before.

During his injury-shortened 2018-19 campaign with San Jose, he didn’t reach 1,000 minutes 5-on-5, but if we drop the sample to 800: second in individual shot attempts per 60, 16th in scoring chances per 60 and 34th in rush attempts per 60. He obviously keeps far better company on the Sharks, but Karlsson ranked second among all NHL blueliners in Corsi relative to his teammates. He good. His biggest obstacle is his ability to stay healthy, which, at 29, is a legitimate concern.

5. ROMAN JOSI, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Josi boasts a floor as high as any other Norris candidate’s. He’s scored between 12 and 15 goals for six straight seasons, he’s topped 50 points four of the past five seasons, he’s logged at least 25 minutes a game five of the past six seasons, and he’s finished inside the top seven Norris vote-getters four of the past five seasons. With P.K. Subban off to New Jersey and his partner, Mattias Ekholm, likely breaking in a rookie in Dante Fabbro, the Predators and coach Peter Laviolette may rely on Josi and partner Ryan Ellis even more. Does that mean Josi, at 29, sets career highs in ice time and points? It’s not impossible to imagine.

What’s easy to imagine is Josi, a slick puck-mover who handles all situations, again performing as one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, often functioning like a fourth forward. That said, his defensive work is arguably a bit overrated in that he’s not a true shutdown guy.

6. MARK GIORDANO, CALGARY FLAMES

Giordano deserves a higher rank. He’s been the best defenseman on the planet at least the past season but maybe even the past two. In his Norris year, among 124 defensemen with 1,000 or more minutes played at 5-on-5, Giordano was third in shot attempts against per 60 minutes and eighth in shot attempts for, good for the second-best overall Corsi ratio in the league, while racking up more points per 60 at 5-on-5 than any other blueliner. On top of that, Giordano could not have been less insulated, ranking top-20 in the league in defensive zone start percentage. He logged 2:39 per game on the penalty kill, too.

The 2019 Norris vote was the easiest in many years, and Giordano deserved more love the season prior, when he graded out as arguably the best shutdown blueliner in the league. Yet I have him ranked outside the top five. How?! I’m merely betting against the age. Decline has to set in eventually. We’re not talking about a 32-year-old, here. Giordano is 36. Regardless of how well conditioned he is, he just won the Norris as the 10th-oldest defenseman in the NHL. Doing it once was a remarkable feat. Doing it twice is a lot to ask of anyone. He’d be higher if this was a list of the 10 best defensemen in the league, but it’s a list of the 10 best bets to win the Norris.

7. SETH JONES, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

On one hand, Jones’ offensive numbers could take a hit with the Blue Jackets losing crucial forwards in Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. There won’t be as many guys converting Jones’ outlet passes into goals. But with those two stars gone and franchise cornerstone goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky also out of town, the Jackets are Jones’ team now. He’s their star. They already lean on him a ton, as evidenced by the 28 minutes he averaged in the playoffs, and they will need him even more now. If Columbus surprises at all this coming season, it will be on the strength of Jones’ play. He’s a monster who moves the puck as well as anyone and uses his 6-foot-4 wingspan to thwart attackers. At just 24, he’s also ready for his peak years. Working against him is the likelihood his team takes a massive step backward in the standings. The last Norris winner on a non-playoff team was…no one. It’s never happened in the award’s 65-season history.

8. MORGAN RIELLY, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Rielly busted out for 20 goals and 72 points as the driving puck-rusher behind a powerhouse Toronto attack. The eye-popping offense caught Norris voters’ eyes and landed Rielly a fifth-place finish in the vote. He should remain part of the discussion for the next several seasons given he’s only 25 and plays for a team that should keep scoring a lot of goals.

The knock, of course, is defensive play. Last season, the Leafs allowed more than 37 shots on goal per 60 minutes with Rielly on the ice. But he doesn’t get enough credit for carrying around inferior partners, as his most common tandem mates over the past three seasons were Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. Early reports on the 2019-20 lineup have Rielly playing with, gulp, Cody Ceci, who might be the most maligned player of the past two or three seasons among the analytics crowd. It’s thus tough to imagine Rielly improving enough defensively to win the Norris. He’ll still play a ton and post all-star-caliber offensive numbers, however, so he has a shot to be a finalist.

9. P.K. SUBBAN, NEW JERSEY DEVILS

For my money, Subban should’ve won the Norris two seasons ago, when he posted great numbers despite playing much of the season with a cement block tied to his legs, a.k.a. Alexei Emelin for a partner. Last season, Subban had the luxury of full-time work with an elite shutdown artist in Mattias Ekholm, but injuries cost Subban games and suppressed his stats, keeping him out of the Norris hunt.

It will be fascinating to see what he can do as a Devil. He won’t have the help he did in Nashville, but he did some of his best work pre-Ekholm. Subban will also be asked to do a lot more in New Jersey. He won’t be sharing the ice with three other star defensemen in Ekholm, Josi and Ryan Ellis. There’s a decent chance Subban sets a career high in minutes. Given the all the Devils’ exciting offensive editions, they could field a deadly power play, giving Subban a chance to set career highs across the board.

If the Devils surprise this season, Subban will be a major part of that narrative, and his story will attract a bushel of Norris votes.

10. MIRO HEISKANEN, DALLAS STARS

I had to do some projection for at least one guy on this list, just for fun. And Heiskanen, still just 20 but about 30 mentally, has the makings of a breakout Norris threat. He has the reach, the skating, the off-the-charts intelligence, and the ability to generate offense while also playing in all defensive situations. He was already good enough to earn an All-Star Game invite last season, and he’s nowhere near his prime yet. The Stars already trusted him enough to play him 23:07 per game last season, giving him the highest TOI of any rookie NHL defenseman in the past six seasons. His most common partner was Roman Polak, but Stephen Johns appears ready to return after missing all last season and should slot in as nice upgrade in the top four, elevating Heiskanen’s performance. Look out.

Other Norris Trophy candidates to consider: Mattias Ekholm, Kris Letang, Rasmus Dahlin, Dustin Byfuglien, Aaron Ekblad, Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Pietrangelo, Zach Werenski, Ryan Suter, Drew Doughty, John Klingberg, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Ellis, Thomas Chabot, Jaccob Slavin

Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com

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