Assessing the Norris Trophy field

Trying to decide who will win the Norris Trophy for best defenseman this season is an unbelievably difficult task. It is much more difficult than guessing the Hart Trophy (MVP) winner, which is a virtual lock to be Sidney Crosby.

Paring down the list to six candidates required leaving off some star defensemen, including Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Ryan McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Niklas Kronwall. And although Mark Giordano is not a star, he too is having a terrific season. So, again, this was a really, really hard process.

The Norris Trophy is intended to recognize the defenseman who demonstrates the best all-around acumen, as well as consistency. That was the criteria used to pick the following six candidates.

Duncan Keith

Why he will win the Norris Trophy:

Keith is tied for second in points per 60 minutes among all NHL defensemen, and is first in points among the Norris Trophy candidates discussed here. He is leading all NHL defensemen in assists, and logs well over 24 minutes a game. His Relative Corsi and Relative Fenwick are both outstanding. He is second among NHL defensemen in GVT.

Keith has excellent acceleration, and can jump into a rush without the puck and — like a dangerous forward — demand to be accounted for by opposing defensemen. And if that play fails, he can use his recovery speed to get back and break up the opposing scoring chance. What Keith does with his stick is analogous to what the protagonist does with a sword in a Quentin Tarantino movie: He wields it swiftly and with calculated efficiency.

The Blackhawks are first in goals per game and fourth in five-on-five scoring, and while it is easy to chalk that up to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and the rest of the gang, that is oversimplifying things.

To succeed in the NHL, a defenseman needs to be fast and efficient when moving the puckout of his zone, and Keith and his defensive partner, Brent Seabrook, are as good as any at jumpstarting the transition. Chicago is the model for playing with pace and tempo, and their speed complements their puck skills beautifully, but Keith is the lynchpin to the defensive corps. No defenseman in the NHL is better at stopping-and-starting and using his edges than Keith.

Why he will not win the Norris Trophy:

Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya take on the hardest assignmentsfor Chicago. Keith’s offensive statistics are awesome, but not the best in the NHL. Ice-tilting savant Erik Karlsson has slightly less assists and many more goals. Keith is unbelievable defensively, but his deployment and competition are not as tough as some of his counterparts. Sometimes, he can get bullied in one-on-one-battles by bigger, stronger players. But honestly, there are not many reasons why he will not win, because he is favored to collect his second Norris this season.

Drew Doughty

Why he will win the Norris Trophy:

Doughty has the highest Relative Corsi and leads this group in primary assists. His deployment is pretty difficult, and he is positioned against the Kings’ toughest opponents. The trophy is awarded to the “defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position,” and, from beginning to end, Doughty was phenomenal this season.

Los Angeles has struggled to score all year, and Doughty’s 1.12 points per 60 minutes are crucial to why the Kings will make the playoffs. His ability to lead the breakout with an on-the-tape first pass, or to skate it out of the zone, allows Los Angeles to achieve its NHL-leading Corsi and Fenwick Close. Doughty’s decision-making is great, and he has a heavy slap shot, which makes the Kings a little more potent on the power play.

Stylistically, Doughty looks more premeditated in his choices with the puck. He never looks like he is moving that fast. Still, he can weave his way through the defensive zone to the offensive zone without much protest. In the offensive zone, Doughty can walk the blue line, showcasing his exceptional lateral mobility while looking for a shooting lane. Sochi was a reminder of how well he plays against top competition; his continued dominance on the biggest stages of the sport will likely net him a Norris soon, if not this season.

Why he will not win the Norris Trophy:

Doughty can take dumb penalties, and sometimes he would be better served attacking the opponent by leading with his stick instead of his body when trying to disrupt. Possibly because of his heavy workload, he can be a little complacent – he almost seems too calm. Moreover, he is the youngest of this group, and the sentiment might be that he is an enduring powerhouse and will have more opportunities to win the trophy.

Ryan Suter

Why he will win the Norris Trophy:

No one logs more ice time than Ryan Suter in the NHL. He plays virtually half of every NHL game. He is a marvelous passer, and Minnesota pairs him with anyone and everyone they dress on their back end. The Wild struggle to score, and even though Suter’s Relative Corsi and Fenwick Corsi are a little underwhelming, he is the fulcrum of this team. He contributes offensively and has mobility; his composure and vision benefit his teammates because he provides good breakouts from their defensive zone.

Why he will not win the Norris Trophy:

Suter’s advanced statistics are not dominant, and Hockey Prospectus’ GVT metric has him ranked 101st overall. While a very good player, he can get beaten by skilled opponents, and sometimes suffers from the same affliction as Drew Doughty in that he can act too calmly — thus losing inside positioning on the opposing forward.

It must be mentioned again that, with all of these players, this evaluation process is like splitting hairs because they are all fantastic, franchise-altering defensemen.

Shea Weber

Why he will win the Norris Trophy:

Weber has the highest goals per sixty minutes of any defenseman in the group. He is unstoppable on the power play and leads the NHL in PP goals for defensemen. Among this group, he tallies the most blocked shots – and by a significant margin. He helps buttress a lackluster offense in Nashville. Weber’s quality of competition is brutally tough, and players have cited their distaste for playing against him. He is a big, physical mauler with a cannon for a slap shot and underrated mobility.

Why he will not win the Norris Trophy:

Would anyone suggest Weber has played better this year than he did in 2011, when he lost to Nicklas Lidstrom by nine votes? From 2009-2012, Weber finished fourth (2009), seventh (2010), second (2011), and second (2012) in the Norris Trophy voting. In 2013, he fell all the way to eighth. Potentially, Weber could tie his career-high in goals and assists, but it is hard to discern why this season he is more deserving than in other seasons. Has he really separated himself from his peers in a dominant way?

Zdeno Chara

Why he will win the Norris Trophy:

Chara has the highest Relative Fenwick of any defenseman in the group and, at 37, still faces the highest quality of competition. The fundamental goal of a defenseman is to eliminate time and space and disrupt offensive pressure. Chara’s loping stride and legendary reach allow him to swallow opposing skaters whole. With 16 goals and 19 assists, he is amassing another impressive resume for the Norris Trophy that has the requisite boxcar statistics the voters like to see.

Why he will not win the Norris Trophy:

From 2004 to 2012, Chara finished top four in the Norris Trophy voting six times. Last season, he placed fifth in Norris Trophy voting, but the Hockey Prospectus season preview Robert Vollman argued that he’d had the advanced statistics to win it. This season, his quality of competition and Relative Corsi and Fenwick are wonderful again, and he is logging a ton of minutes, but one wonders whether voter fatigue will cause him to get overlooked again.

Alex Pietrangelo

Why he will win the Norris Trophy:

He is first among defensemen in GVT and has the dream package of size, skating, vision, and power. His slap shot is blistering, and his offensive game is increasingly formidable. Among the listed candidates, only Doughty has a higher Relative Corsi. Pietrangelo and his defensive partner, Jay Bouwmeester, take on the highest quality of competition and their deployment is difficult. Pietrangelo averages 1.59 points per 60 minutes. He is a very skilled distributor who logs the most minutes of any player on St. Louis.

Why he will not win the Norris Trophy:

Like Doughty, Pietrangelo is 24 and voters may think he will win the trophy in the future. Though he has tantalizing gifts for his size, he still has flaws in his offensive and defensive game. He can be beaten in the individual battles, and sometimes makes poor decisions along the blue line. Sometimes he does not close out, allowing enemy attackers to get inside position and into the slot.

Whereas Doughty seems like he has unlocked all of his gifts and will get better as he accrues more game experience, Pietrangelo has a much bigger frame and is likely still learning his body. It seems like he is still discovering the full breadth of his abilities. The Bouwmeester component is interesting as well. It should be compelling to see if Pietrangelo’s very skilled partner steals votes from him and prevents him from obtaining the Norris Trophy in future years.

Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.

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