Race for Norris Trophy is wide open FREE to subscribers
WINNIPEG, MB, Apr 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ – It has been said, and rightly so, by the people who know these things, that the toughest position in the game of hockey in which to become proficient is defence.
It’s always hard to be good, and the experts have long said that it’s even harder for young players to be good.
But I would humbly suggest that was in the old days. Today, the best defencemen in hockey are, more often than not, 25 or younger – Drew Doughty and P.K. Subban are 25, Dougie Hamilton is 21, Nick Leddy, Erik Karlsson, Travis Hamonic and Roman Josi are 24 and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is just 23. Playing defence at a high level in the NHL isn’t for old men anymore.
However, as we sit down to select our 2015 Norris Trophy winner, we like a lot of the veterans. The Norris Trophy is handed out each year to the best defenceman in the NHL and it’s difficult for so many good players to impress the voters. After all, the voters are members of the Hockey Writers’ Association and most of those guys have never put on a pair of skates, let alone played an actual game. To impress them, you have to stand out, and in many cases, you need to have an elite reputation.
This year is one of the toughest seasons in recent memory to impress any voter. The list of outstanding defencemen has never been longer. Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang has been outstanding, but a late-season concussion might have derailed his Norris Trophy dream. Ryan Suter is obviously happy to be playing in the Twin Cities and he’s logging almost 30 minutes a night. And Shea Weber has been truly sensational on a truly outstanding team in Nashville.
There have been a boatload of defencemen who have been impressive this season. In fact, this is a wide-ranging group: Suter, Weber, Subban and Doughty are earning every penny of their big contracts while Dustin Byfuglien, the 270-pound monster on the Winnipeg Jets defence (he’s played a lot of right wing, too), has made some remarkable plays and has almost single-handedly won three or four games for a Jets team that’s battling for its playoff life.
Must admit, I’ve been impressed with a number of great NHL defencemen this season, but here are the 11 players I believe should be considered for the 2015 Norris Trophy (in order):
THE TOP FIVE for the Norris Trophy
- Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: According to Toronto Maple Leafs professional scout Mike Penny, “the best, most consistent defenceman I’ve watched all season is Weber.” We would agree. The Predators have 47 wins and 104 points for a lot of reasons. The biggest? They’ve allowed only 200 goals. A lot of that has to do with goaltender Pekka Rinne, but it also has to do with a solid defence that includes Weber and young stars Seth Jones and Roman Josi. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound 29-year-old Weber has 15 goals and 30 assists and is plus 15 in 77 games. He also averages more than 26 minutes a game. He’s our No. 1 choice.
- P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens: One of the best skaters and most productive offensive defencemen in the game today, Subban won the Norris Trophy during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Tied with Kris Letang at fourth in scoring among defencemen this season, this 6-foot, 210-pound product of the Toronto minor hockey system has become a better defensive player with every season he’s played in the NHL. He has 15 goals and 58 points and is a rock solid plus 19. He’s fourth in the NHL in power-play goals with seven and is averaging more than 26 minutes per game (Subban has never averaged as many as 25 minutes per game in the NHL). Just 25, Subban is a better player today than he was in 2013 when he won the Norris Trophy.
- Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: The past five Norris Trophy winners have finished either first or second among defencemen in scoring – three times the winner led all defencemen in points (Duncan Keith in 2013-14, P.K. Subban in 2012-13, and Karlsson in 2011-12). Obviously, scoring makes a huge difference. Right now the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Karlsson leads the NHL in scoring among defencemen with 21 goals (first) and 66 points (first). He is a gifted offensive player, but the reason we like Weber at No. 1 and Karlsson at No. 3 is that Weber has made a good team in Nashville, one of the best teams in the game while Karlsson and his Senators might not make the playoffs.
- Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: Doughty has had a terrific season, but like the rest of the Los Angeles Kings he has nights when he looks tired. Of course, that might have to do with the fact he’s likely going to play more total minutes than any defenceman in the NHL this season after carrying the Kings to the 2014 Stanley Cup last spring. He’s played a lot of hockey in the past year. Good thing he’s young. Doughty has seven goals and 38 assists and is plus four on a team that is only plus nine overall. It’s been a long, hard season and Doughty and the Kings might not make the playoffs. Regardless, he’s been terrific all season.
- Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: The Norris Trophy winner in 2010 when he led the Hawks to a Stanley Cup and in 2014 when he was simply the best in the game, Keith has once again been very good this season. He has 10 goals and 35 assists in 79 games and is a solid plus 12. This year, playing on defence on one of the best teams in hockey (the Hawks have 102 points with two games to play), Keith has been a rock, while averaging about 23 minutes a game. At 31, he’s still among the very best defencemen in the NHL.
THE SECOND FIVE
- Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: The 27-year-old from Montreal was having a remarkable campaign, but then he suffered a concussion and he fell on our Norris Trophy list from first in February to sixth in late March. He has 11 goals and 54 points and is tied with Subban for fourth in scoring among defencemen. He’s 6-foot, 200-pounds and was a third round draft pick (62nd overall) of the Penguins in 2005 who has developed into one of the best players in the game. Up until his injury, he was playing 26-27 minutes a game and is a plus-12 on one of the best teams in hockey. When you are one of the best players on one of the best teams, you’re pretty good. Before his concussion, Letang had my No. 1 vote for this year’s Norris Trophy.
- Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild: He got the big contract from Minnesota a couple of years ago and, for a while, the experts wondered aloud if he would respond with a vengeance or a whimper. Chalk one up for vengeance. Suter’s Wild have become one of the best teams in the NHL, thanks in no small part to the play of goalie Devan Dubnyk – and the defence. A former first-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators, Suter has two goals and 36 assists in 76 games and is currently averaging almost 30 minutes a game, among the highest TOI in the NHL.
More to the story: Wild’s Devan Dubnyk should be an MVP candidate
- Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: It hasn’t been a great year for the Sharks, but it’s been a superb year for Burns. He averages more than 24 minutes a night and is second in scoring among defencemen in the NHL with 16 goals and 59 points. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder from Barrie, Ont., has been one of the best players in the league this season despite the fact his highly-regarded Sharks team will miss the playoffs.
- Travis Hamonic/Nick Leddy, New York Islanders: Both of these young Islanders’ defencemen have been good for different reasons. Chicago Blackhawks Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations, Scotty Bowman, calls Hamonic, “Maybe the most underrated defenceman in the NHL. He’s a leader on an Islanders team that has really improved. He’s not offensively gifted, but he can get the puck out of his own end quickly, can make good plays, passes well, is a great skater and has a big shot. He’s one of the most important players on that team.” He has five goals and 28 assists but it’s what he does in his own end that counts. He’s become a huge shot blocker and is one of the most devastating hitters in the league. He also plays 23 minutes a night. Leddy is an offensive minded defenceman who has 10 goals and 34 points in 76 games. He’s a plus 14 and plays 22-23 minutes a night. Together, they give the Islanders their best one-two defensive punch since the glory days of the early 1980s.
- Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets: Big, strong, fast and exciting, Byfuglien used to be a power forward and then moved to defence after he left the Chicago Blackhawks – the year after Chicago won a Stanley Cup. He is all of 6-foot-5, 268-pounds and was an eighth-round draft pick out of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars in 2003. He has developed into what one Eastern Conference scout called, “the most exciting player in the NHL.” He can rush the puck, has a huge shot and is not afraid to spend entire shifts behind the opposition’s net. He has 18 goals and 27 assists, three game-winning goals and five power-play goals and on seven occasions has either set up the winning goal or scored it. The guy can play, but because he’s in Winnipeg – even though the Jets are in a huge Western Conference playoff race – he won’t ever get the votes from the Eastern writers that are necessary to win a major NHL award.
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues; Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers; Jake Muzzin, Los Angeles Kings; Roman Josi, Nashville Predators; John Carlson, Washington Capitals; Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes; Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings; Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins; Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens; Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay Lightning; Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames.
Scott Taylor is a Troy Media writer/editor based in Winnipeg and Orlando. His has written countless newspaper columns for the Winnipeg Free Press and the National Post.
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