I’m new to this part of town, so here are two things you should know about me: I am a fan of good, defensive hockey, and I love analytics. You will see both in this article.
What a Norris Means
The Norris Trophy is awarded to the best defenseman in the NHL during the regular season. Given the nature of this award, one would think it was meant to be earned by the player with the strongest defensive play in the leauge. However, history has shown that this is not the case.
Looking at the past three Norris Trophy winners shows us how much voters weigh offensive prowess in their decision making. Below are the victors from 2013, 2014, and 2015, along with their rankings among defensemen in a number of statistics.
P.K. Subban (2013; Lockout) – Second in points (38); 18th in plus/minus (plus-12); 14th in corsi-for relative (5.4 percent)
Duncan Keith (2014) – Second in points (61); Eighth in plus/minus (plus-22); 60th in corsi-for relative (-.04 percent)
Erik Karlsson (2015) – First in points (66); 66th in plus/minus (plus-7); 10th in corsi-for relative (4.9 percent)
Those are not typos; Karlsson was 66th in plus/minus the year he won the Norris, and Keith had a negative corsi-for relative percentage when he was awarded the trophy. On top of that, Subban didn’t place in the top-10 of the plus/minus category when he earned the honor, despite being on a Montreal Canadiens team that won its division that year.
Based on recent winners, it appears the Norris is not given to the best defenseman, but rather the most offensive one. This has prevented top-tier shutdown defensemen from earning the award, such as San Jose Sharks blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
The Fiasco of 2014
Not that one, a different one…
Prior to the playoffs, the Sharks were playing lights-out hockey in 2014, and Vlasic was at the heart of it. He finished the season ranked second among all defensemen in plus/minus, fourth in corsi-for percentage, and 11th in corsi-for relative percentage. That’s all on top of his astronomical 60.6 goals-for percentage.
Those numbers are quite good, but it’s important to see how Vlasic compared to the other Norris Trophy possibilities that year to see exactly how good he was. Here is a chart made by Fear the Fin during the 2014 playoffs that shows how the defensemen stacked up against each other.
When Vlasic was on the ice, the Sharks dominated play and scored goals; he had a bigger impact on his team than any other defenseman in the game.
But who won the Norris that year? Duncan Keith: the player who had the easiest competition, the most offensive zone starts, and a negative relative corsi in all even-strength situations. He likely won the vote because he had the second most points from the blue line, while the point leader, Karlsson, had a horrific minus-16 rating.
No. 44 was robbed in the Norris conversation that year—not necessarily because he didn’t win, but because he wasn’t even one of the finalists. If he had more offensive abilities rather than defensive ones, he may have won the trophy in 2014.
The Real 2016 Norris Candidate
Let me preface everything I am about to say with this: I am incredibly happy Brent Burns is a finalist for the Norris Trophy this season. He has really stepped up his game defensively in the past year, and his offensive numbers are a big reason San Jose has been so successful thus far.
In terms of being a better defender, Vlasic is still the best in teal, and his defensive numbers are competitive with all of the Norris candidates this year, Burns, Karlsson and Drew Doughty. This is shown on the following chart (the axes, sizes, and color are explained in the caption).
Vlasic faces the toughest competition of the four players, yet he is on the ice for the highest percentage of high-danger scoring chances for his team. Additionally, he starts 56.4 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, making him the only one to begin over half of his shifts in his own end.
Doughty may lead the possession category, but that could be because he faces the weakest opponents of the four and starts the majority of his shifts in the attacking zone.
Vlasic is a juggernaut defensively, even when he’s compared to the 2016 Norris finalists.
However, San Jose’s prodigy blueliner wasn’t even in the conversation for the best defender, even though he had a career year in points. He was, once again, snubbed for his emphasis on defensive play and overshadowed by his more offensively gifted teammate. This is a folly that has left Vlasic’s trophy case empty throughout his career (except for a gold medal from the 2014 Olympics).
The award for the best defenseman should go to the best defenseman, not the one with the most points. If the league wants to reward point-producing blueliners for their skills, that’s fine, but it should make separate accolades for defensive defensemen and offensive defensemen.
Because there is a serious problem when you reward defensive forwards more than you reward defensive defenders.