Defense wins championships, right? Well, in that case, this is a pretty important event. The Norris Trophy is awarded to the top defenseman, and the importance of having a top defenseman is undeniable. We have seen great defensemen such as Alex Pietrangelo, John Carlson, and Kris Letang, win the Stanley Cup in recent years as the clear-cut top defenseman on their respective teams, so the value of an elite defenseman appears to be enormous. Furthermore, let’s dive into our analysis of the top defensemen in the NHL today in order to give out the Norris Trophy.
The NHL’s Finalists: John Carlson, Victor Hedman Roman Josi
Who Will Win:
What is the most important quality in a defenseman? Well, the ability to prevent opposing rushes or to shut down offensive-zone possessions may be the first ideas to come to mind. That said, it is clear that the voters prioritize point totals more than anything else when casting their ballots for the Norris Trophy. In fact, since the last time the Islanders were in the Stanley Cup, almost 40 years ago, only one defenseman has won the Norris Trophy while scoring fewer than 50 points. Thus, it seems evident that this is John Carlson’s award to lose. Carlson has a whopping 75 points, which is ten more points than any other defenseman. Although his defensive impact is subpar, voters seem to care far more about point totals than defensive impact. Although Josi, the second-highest point scorer among defenseman, has a legitimate case that resides on his two-way ability, we expect most voters to be too swayed by Carlson’s point totals to vote for any other defenseman.
Who Should Win the Norris Trophy:
Aidan’s Finalists: Roman Josi, Alex Pietrangelo, Jared Spurgeon
Aidan’s Winner: Roman Josi
If the NHL ever plans to award co-winners for any award, this would be a perfect place to start. It is truly unbelievable how minuscule the difference between Roman Josi’s impact and Alex Pietrangelo’s impact is. Nonetheless, there must be a winner, and after careful consideration, I deemed Josi the most worthy candidate. What ultimately moved the needle in favor of Josi instead of Pietrangelo was Josi’s play in transition. I cannot remember the last defenseman who has been as effective as Josi in transition. Per Corey Sznajder’s transition data, Josi ranks twelfth among all skaters in carry-ins into the offensive zone. Just for some perspective, no other defenseman ranks inside of the top 75 skaters. The idea of Josi’s unmatched ability to create offensive opportunities is further supported by Josi’s Corsi For (CF), as it ranks first among all skaters in the NHL. However, merely saying it ranks first is an understatement; the difference between Josi’s CF and the second-highest CF is greater than the difference between the second-highest CF and the eighth-highest CF among NHL skaters. Josi plays the game like a forward, yet he positively impacts the defensive side of the ice like a top defenseman as well. Josi’s two-way dominance has allowed him to establish himself as arguably the best defenseman in the National Hockey League, and he has definitely put up a Norris-worthy campaign this season.
This award would be a no-brainer if it were not for Pietrangelo’s excellent season. Pietrangelo’s impact ever-so-slightly exceeded Josi’s impact in terms of Expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR) and Goals Above Replacement (GAR). Compared to Josi, Pietrangelo excelled most on the power play, as his Expected Power-Play Offense Goals Above Replacement ranks second among all defensemen, only behind Kris Letang. Pietrangelo has portrayed his skill set in all facets of the game, and the only reason he falls behind Josi is because of the quantity and quality of chances that Josi creates for his teammates.
Jared Spurgeon is a distant third, but that is not to detract from his spectacular season. Spurgeon has paced all defensemen in xGAR this season, and his impact has come in a very well-rounded fashion; this season, his Expected Offensive Goals Above Replacement (xOff) ranks eighth among defensemen, and his Expected Defensive Goals Above Replacement (xDef) ranks sixth among defensemen. On the defensive end of the ice, Spurgeon has comfortably outplayed both Josi and Pietrangelo. The main reason that Spurgeon falls behind the two defensemen for this award is because of the magnitude of the minutes played. Whereas Josi’s Time On Ice (TOI) ranks 2nd among skaters, and Pietrangelo’s TOI ranks 8th among skaters, Spurgeon’s TOI ranks 71st among skaters, and fourth among Minnesota Wild defensemen. His relative lack of ice time puts the importance of his minutes into question. Is it possible that Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, and Jonas Brodin draw more important offensive and defensive assignments than Spurgeon? Perhaps, and this uncertainty sets him comfortably behind Josi and Pietrangelo. Nonetheless, Spurgeon’s positive impact on the Wild is undeniable, which is why he warrants consideration as a Norris Trophy finalist.
For anyone who believes that John Carlson deserves this award, I invite you to look beyond Carlson’s point totals. One of the main reasons points is a flawed statistic is that it fails to distinguish between a player with an isolated offensive positive impact and a player who benefits from a surrounding offensive positive impact. While Carlson is undoubtedly a skilled offensive player, the primary reason his point total is significantly higher than Josi’s and Pietrangelo’s is the talent around him. His xOff is only approximately one goal higher than Josi’s and Pietrangelo’s, and Josi and Pietrangelo each have a higher Offensive Goals Above Replacement (Off) than Carlson. While Carlson, Josi, and Pietrangelo all produce at a similar level offensively, the defensive impact of Carlson is far worse than the defensive impact of Josi and Pietrangelo. In fact, Carlson has been a below-replacement-level defensive defenseman this season, which is a colossal red flag for his Norris campaign. As much as I hate to contradict the motive behind Alex Ovechkin’s #Johnny4Norris, it is almost essential that the winner of the Norris Trophy is at least replacement-level on both ends of the ice. For these reasons, I would undoubtedly place superstars such as Victor Hedman, Shea Theodore, Ryan Ellis, and Charlie McAvoy ahead of John Carlson on my Norris Trophy rankings.
Kush’s Finalists: Victor Hedman, Roman Josi, Alex Pietrangelo
Kush’s Winner: Alex Pietrangelo
The James Norris Memorial Trophy awards a defenseman who excels both offensively and defensively. In the 2019-2020 season, Roman Josi and Alex Pietrangelo were phenomenal, and after research into specific micro-statistics, I chose Pietrangelo as the recipient of this award. The main reason for my pick is Pietrangelo’s offensive value on the power play and at even strength. Pietrangelo was a top-seven defenseman on the powerplay in terms of Goals For (GF), whereas Josi did not crack the top ten. Also, defensively, Pietrangelo was a top 15 defenseman in terms of Goals Against (GA), whereas Josi did not crack the top 30. Pietrangelo and Josi had similar ice times this season, but little discrepancies in numbers moved the needle in favor of Pietrangelo. As far as on even strength, both Josi and Pietrangelo rank as top four among all defensemen in GF, and in expected goals for, Pietrangelo is top eight amongst all defensemen, whereas Josi is top 20. Due to Pietrangelo’s offensive dominance both on the power play and at even strength, he is my pick to win the Norris Trophy.
Although I picked Pietrangelo, Josi has had a fantastic season as well. Josi has been an extremely significant two-way player, highlighted by his CF, where he ranks first amongst all skaters. Also, in terms of defensive capability, he ranks top four amongst all defensemen in goals against. As mentioned before, the reason I chose Pietrangelo is because of his value on the power play and at even strength. That said, Josi had more success defensively and in transition. As this award is granted to the best defensemen, it was extremely difficult to pick between them, as they were successful in different aspects of the game. The other finalist chosen was Victor Hedman. Hedman has been a top-tier defenseman for the past few years, and this year was no different, as he was top five among all defensemen in GF, also with true excellence on the power play. Due to both Josi and Pietrangelo’s dominance, he falls at number three on my list.
Others include Shea Theodore, Ryan Ellis, and Jared Spurgeon. Theodore statistically had one of the best seasons of all defensemen, where he excelled both at even strength and on the power play. Ellis and Spurgeon are both incredible defensive defensemen who definitely deserve some recognition as well. It will be extremely difficult to choose between Josi and Pietrangelo due to how close their impact was this season, and Hedman is also another nominee who has had a fantastic season.
The defensive talent in the NHL is simply remarkable. As the hockey community dives deeper into advanced analytics, it will be pleased to recognize the outstanding two-way impact of some defensemen in the NHL. The hockey rink is 200 feet long, and when a player excels at any place within this rink, he deserves recognition, as shown in our Norris Trophy selections.
This article was written in collaboration with Kush Malhotra
All stats are from Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise indicated