Frozen Pool Forensics: The Norris Debate

by Cam Robinson on April 8, 2016

Frozen Forensics looks at the major contenders for this year's Norris Trophy. 

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The NHL Awards have come a long way in recent years. From low-budget shows in theaters with maximum capacities of about 1500, to the now-major extravaganzas that are hosted by celebrities in Las Vegas – and have been since 2009.

This season, most of the major award winners are pretty easy to spot: Patrick Kane is all but assured an Art Ross and Hart Trophy, Alex Ovechkin is probably going to win a fourth consecutive Rocket Richard (his sixth overall), and despite some of the Connor McHalf-season chatter, Artemi Panarin should win the Calder.

But asking who this year’s best defenseman is… well, that’ll garner a whole satchel’s worth of responses and often with some teeth, free of charge.

There are a probably a dozen defensemen who have had seasons worthy of a stick tap or two, but the real cream of the crop comes in the form of four outstanding blue liners: two-time Norris winner and Ottawa Senators captain, Erik Karlsson; LA Kings stalwart Drew Doughty; San Jose’s volume shooting Brent Burns; and oft-injured but high-flying Kris Letang.

This week on Frozen Pool Forensics we will dig into these four gentlemen’s seasons by using Dobber’s Frozen Pool tools (and few others), and let you know who truly deserves the honour of being anointed this year’s recipient of the James Norris Trophy.

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** All stats are current as of the morning of April 7 **

Let’s start with Kris Letang.

It has been a tale of two seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and many of their stars. Under former coach, Mike Johnston, the Pens appeared to lack offensive cohesion, and Letang was no exception. Through the first 25 games of the season, Letang owned a dismal minus-14 rating, and just 14 points. However, since December 12th – the day Johnston was replaced by Mike Sullivan, Letang has taken off. The 28-year-old has 52 points and is a plus-21 in the 45 games since the coaching change, and his role in the turnaround of the floundering Penguins’ squad cannot be overstated.

Using Dobber’s Report Generator, we can see that the numbers he’s produced are good for fifth-best in the entire league during that span.

Top 10 Point Categories Dec.12-Present

                                     

Playing 27 minutes a night and having produced 66 points in 70 games, this has certainly been Kris Letang’s best season to date. Any other year he’d be a slam dunk finalist… this year, he’ll likely end up fourth.

Now how about that big bearded man in SoCal…

Burns has had quite the season. He has shot the puck at a near-historic rate, has scored more goals (27) than any defensemen not named Mike Green since Al MacInnis netted 28 back in 1993-94, and his 29 power play points lead all defensemen. Not to mention he is currently sitting in the top 10 for total points with 74.

Burns sees nearly half of his team’s time shorthanded (44.8 percent), and despite the notion that he’s an offensive player first and foremost, he starts just 50.5 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone – the least amount of the Norris candidates.

The so-called knock on him may be that his quality of teammates is high and that his SAT Rel% sits at just 2.4 percent, meaning his teammates don’t suffer too much when he’s on the bench compared to someone like Karlsson who makes the Senators look like a contender when he’s on the ice and a basement-dweller when he’s not.

Burns has been magical for San Jose, and together with Big and Little Joe, has been the main cogs in propelling the Sharks back to the postseason. Similar to Letang, if this was most other years, he’d be a lock for at least a top-two finish in Norris voting, but he may be in tough to sneak out of the three-hole this year.

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Next up, the ‘guy who deserves it most’, Drew Doughty.

Doughty has accomplished an incredible amount in his short professional career: Two Stanley Cups, and two Olympic Gold Medals by the time he was 25. However, the Norris trophy has eluded him thus far – he has a second and third place finish on his resume.

Doughty has had a very strong 2015-16 season; his 51 points are good for a share of eighth-most by a blue liner, and represents his second-highest output ever (he had 59 in 2009-10). To further emphasize his efficiency, Doughty sees the fewest minutes on the power play (3:06) compared to the other three candidates, while seeing the most time shorthanded (234:23).

However, Doughty’s worth goes far beyond offensive production. His skating, smarts and stick work are world-class. He holds a CorsiFor percentage of 58.3 which is tops for all blue liners and the fourth best mark in the league. This means that when Doughty is on the ice, his team is controlling the play a whole heck of a lot more than they’re chasing it. His SAT% of 59.0 represents the highest of the ‘big four’ and is a representation of shot attempts during five-on-five play.

Voters must take into consideration that Doughty gets to play a large chunk of his time with perennial all-stars Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter while also having a world-class goaltender in Jonathan Quick watching his six. They must also find a way to reward a player who despite having a very nice offensive season, is not in the same class (numbers-wise) as the other candidates.

The thought that Doughty is the most complete defender in the game has been around for sometime and this belief appears to be the driving force behind the push to get him a Norris. But the question remains, is a very strong season coupled with reputation, and a lack of official recognition enough to warrant the award?

With so many other qualified candidates this season, the answer is no.

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Finally, we look at the front-runner and reigning Norris winner, Erik Karlsson.

As mentioned earlier, Karlsson already has two Norris’ to his name and this season is by far his most impressive. His 64 assists lead the league and if he can hold off Joe Thornton (three back), the 25-year-old would be the first defenseman to top that category since Bobby Orr accomplished the feat during the 1975-76 season.

His 80 total points are fourth best in the league and represent the first time a defender has topped that mark since Nicklas Lidstrom’s 80 in 2005-06. With two games remaining, the smooth-skating Swede has a shot at surpassing Ray Bourque’s total of 82 from 1995-96.

Historically, one of the knocks against Karlsson has been his lack of short-handed play – this season he’s only seen 26.7 percent of his team’s ice time when down a man. Despite that, Karlsson plays more than any other NHL player, averaging 29:03 per game.

On the topic of deployment, a coach using his best offensive weapon in situations that may provide offense, rather than sticking him deep in his own end, seems like a fairly rational thought process. Besides, situational deployment should not come has a hindrance in voting, as all players are at the mercy of their coach’s deployment decisions.

Not only does Karlsson produce more than any other defender (and most forwards for that matter) voters need to ask themselves which team needs that offence most? Karlsson’s SAT%Rel (the percentage of shot attempts when on the ice, relative to teammates when off the ice) is a staggering 7.3 percent. That is miles ahead of the other three candidates and reflects just how important Karlsson is to the Senators, and how poor of a possession team they are without him on the ice.

Karlsson also does not have the luxury of playing next to an established superstar centre (or two in some cases), and many nights without even competent goaltending. In fact, Karlsson’s on-ice save percentage this season is .913 – the worst he’s received since 2010-11. Stat courtesy of Scott Cullen’s piece over on TSN.

While most years an 80-point season would be more than enough to start engraving Karlsson’s name on the trophy early, but as we know, this season’s Norris race has been anything but a consensus.

Here is a statistical breakdown of some of the major aspects that these four blue liners will be judged on come voting day.

                                
 

So when the lights dim low and Howie Mandel (or whoever) is opening that envelope to reveal the recipient of the 2015-2016 James Norris Trophy and his runners-up, this is how it should shape up:

4th place – Kris Letang

3rd place – Drew Doughty

2nd place – Brent Burns

Norris Winner – Erik Karlsson

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Thanks for reading and feel free to follow me on twitter @CrazyJoeDavola3 where I mostly retweet other people’s witty comments and occasionally add my own.

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Previously from Cam's Frozen Pool Forensics:

Brayden Schenn

Brent Burns