The NHL Awards Show is Wednesday, June 20th at 7 p.m. ET. There are many close races, but perhaps none more neck-in-neck than for the Norris Trophy.
This year's Norris Trophy candidates are Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara and Erik Karlsson.
Right now, it appears to be a toss-up, as any of them is capable of pulling out the win, but for Karlsson (restricted free agent on July 1) and Weber (restricted free agent on July 1), the Norris Trophy means more than just prestige.
It could mean a substantial raise for either player.
So what are the odds looking like for the closest Norris Trophy race in recent memory?
Zdeno Chara is a top-five defenseman in the NHL and has been for quite some time now.
The past two seasons, Chara has been a plus-33 and this season Chara had 12 goals and 52 points.
He averaged 25 minutes a game and set an NHL record for hardest slap shot ever recorded at this year's All-Star game.
But Chara has started to show his age, and though he can still throw his 6'9", 255-pound self around (166 hits) and will occasionally step in front of shots (87 blocked shots), he has started to hurt his team in the turnover department (28 takeaways to 68 giveaways).
Chara could not lead his Boston Bruins to repeat as Stanley Cup champions this year, as his Bruins fell to the Capitals in the first round of this year's playoffs.
Chara is a 2009 Norris Trophy winner and was a runner-up to Nick Lidstrom in last year's Norris Trophy race with eight less points than this season.
No offense to Mr. Chara, but I believe he will finish third in the voting.
Shea Weber is simply one of the best in the business. I'm not talking about just defense, though, but rather hockey in general.
Weber is likely the best two-way defenseman in the game right now, excelling offensively with 19 goals and 49 points this season (10 power-play goals) and a very respectable plus-21.
He also had 177 hits and 140 blocked shots while averaging about 26 minutes of ice-time per game.
Weber excels at shutting down opponents' top lines, but sometimes he takes his game a little bit too far physically and gets himself in trouble on the ice, or in the media.
The Norris Trophy defines the potential winner as one who "demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position."
Weber may have the greatest all-round ability at the position, but there's a young phenom defenseman standing in the way of Weber winning his first ever Norris Trophy.
That young phenom (and your Norris Trophy winner) is Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators.
When Karlsson finished the season, he had done something that no NHL defenseman had done since the 2005-06 season: collected 78 points in a season.
Erik Karlsson was the backbone for the Ottawa Senators franchise this season and led all defenseman in scoring with 78 points, 25 more than the next defenseman in the NHL and good for 11th in overall NHL scoring in the regular season.
Karlsson's 19 goals were the same as Weber's, but he had 59 assists, good for 29 more than the Nashville captain.
Karlsson really matured this season, not only in terms of where his offensive game has gone, but where his defensive game is right now.
After posting 45 points and a minus-30 rating last year, Karlsson posted his 78 points and a plus-16 under a greatly improved Ottawa Senators franchise.
The Senators were picked by many (myself included) to miss the playoffs and be in the running for another high lottery pick.
But they kicked their season into another gear, reaching sixth place before eventually settling for eighth place and a seven-game first-round playoff loss to the New York Rangers.
Karlsson is a restricted free agent this season, and after having a cap hit of just $1.3 million over his entry-level contract (via CapGeek.com), one can expect Karlsson to get a huge raise.
At the season's end, Senators team owner Eugene Melnyk asked Karlsson to "be reasonable" (via Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun), but how "reasonable" does Karlsson have to be if he wins the Norris Trophy?
Seventy-eight points, a Norris Trophy, the future captain of the franchise when Daniel Alfredsson retires...
The $6.5-7.5 million range sounds about right. But the young Swedish defenseman is just 22 years old, so it would be worth signing him long term to get a lower cap hit instead of worrying about his status as a possible UFA in a year or two.
When it comes down to selecting a Norris Trophy winner, there is another factor that electors could factor into their decision.
If a player is removed from their current team, how successful will their current team be without them?
The answer is simple—Ottawa would have the most to lose if Karlsson was removed from the equation. Nashville would be a close second without Shea Weber, and Zdeno Chara's Bruins would suffer a little bit, but they have a lot of talent on the back end in general.
Karlsson might not have as many blocked shots or hits (60 and 65, respectively), but his offensive abilities put him closer to the Bobby Orr-type of defenseman and give him a distinct advantage over both Weber and Chara.
The things that Karlsson did offensively won the Ottawa Senators a lot more games than the things that Chara or Weber did defensively for their respective teams, and that is why I have Karlsson winning the Norris Trophy for the 2011-12 NHL season.
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