The Norris Trophy nominations are ones that always invite lots of spirited debate. After all, in today’s NHL, defensemen are expected to do it all – play high minutes, suppress shots, kill penalties, quarterback the power play, and score tons of goals. So when looking to evaluate who’s in the running at midseason, I did what I usually do, and turned to data.
The hardest part of any analysis is to narrow the playing field. The first cut-off I applied was for time on ice – the defenders had to play at least 17 minutes per game of 5-on-5. This left some promising defenders, like Aaron Ekblad, off the short list.
Then, I used a weighted standard deviation of relative Fenwick, Fenwick For and Fenwick Against per 60 minutes to eliminate any defenders who had a negative impact on their teams (that is their weighted standard deviations were less than zero), which eliminated favorites like Shea Weber. And finally, they had to have a Primary Points per 60 of at least 80 percent of average (say goodbye to Matt Niskanen).
This left me with a list of 17 names. I then did a ranking of 11 different categories trying to capture the qualities described above. Time on ice, shot suppression, high danger shot suppression, shot generation, points, quality of teammates, special teams effectiveness, all of these were included.
The three finalists were a little surprising, but all can be argued that they’re deserving of the trophy.
#3 – Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
A popular pick to win it all, Karlsson came in third on my ranking.
There’s a ton to like about Karlsson’s game – he’s fast, sneaky with the puck, an elite shooter, and he’s leading all defensemen in points as of February 3. However, there are some notable weaknesses in his Norris campaign.
First, he really doesn’t kill penalties. Karlsson ranked last amongst all 17 defenders in shorthanded goal differential per 60 minutes (-11.42), in large part due to his extremely low penalty kill time on ice (1.13 minutes per game, good for 15th place). Only two defenders logged less time with the penalty kill, fellow Swedes Oliver Ekman-Larsson (0.42 minutes per game) and John Klingberg (0.17 minutes per game).
Second, despite having very high power play minutes per game (ranked 3rd), Karlsson’s goal differential per 60 with the man advantage actually came in at No. 12. Part of this is that Ottawa’s power play has been largely ineffective, which means that since Karlsson is on the ice so often, his production is deflated.
There are a lot of reasons to recommend him for the Norris – high playing time, high points, and being leaps and bounds better than anyone else on his team – but the overall picture had him landing third.
#2 – Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
Coming in second according to my rankings, Keith lands just shy of completing his Norris Trophy trifecta. I’m sure he’ll cry into his three Stanley Cups about it.
For the first time in recent memory, the stalwart defenseman missed extended time due to injury, needing knee surgery in October. While he did miss significant time, since he returned on November 14, he’s been the same Keith the Blackhawks have always relied upon.
While he came in mid-pack in the three “all situation” categories (time on ice per game, primary points per 60, and the low-weighted blocked shots per 60), Keith posted some outstanding numbers in both 5-on-5 shot suppression categories.
Keith ranked 6th in High Danger Scoring Chances as a weighted standard deviation, meaning he’s far better than both the league and his teammates in preventing shots from near the crease. He also did very well in the Fenwick weighted standard deviation, coming in 2nd, which looks at all unblocked shots.
Overall, Keith is posting another all-around complete season, but he happens to lack the flash of Karlsson’s point scoring and have some of the very best teammates of all my finalists. I would be surprised if we see Keith on the final ballot.#1 – Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
The shaggy-bearded defenseman came in number one on my list, and it wasn’t even particularly close, with almost half a point separating him from Duncan Keith. For context, there was a quarter of a point between Keith and Karlsson, and only a hundredth between Karlsson and #4, Drew Doughty.
Much like Keith, Burns’ all-around game is quite good. He only came in first in one category (all situation Primary Points per 60 minutes), but he never ranked lower than 11th, something no other defender on the short list can claim. He particularly excelled on the power play, with similar time on ice as Karlsson, but a similar Goal Differential per 60 as Duncan Keith.
Burns was mid-pack in both shot suppression categories (11th in High Danger, 8th in Fenwick), but his offensive prowess, both on 5-on-5 and on the power play, is what really put him over the top.
Being well rounded may not be as easy to discern as a player who literally carries his team (PK Subban had the worst teammates of all candidates), or a player who is on the ice for nearly the entire game (like Karlsson), or even one who is a perfect fit for their coach’s system (like Drew Doughty), but that’s why Brent Burns would earn my Norris Trophy vote.
All the rankings – as well as their weighting – can be seen on the chart below.