Norris Trophy: Picking the NHL's Best Defender

Matthew HoganAnalyst IApril 1, 2008

With less than one week left in the NHL season, the Norris Trophy race for the NHL’s best defenseman has heated up, with several players aiming to win. Let’s look at those who are serious contenders.

There are several players who almost made the cut, but I feel do not posses all of the qualities of a Norris Trophy nominee. If Brian Campbell had been playing on San Jose the entire season, then perhaps he would have gotten stronger consideration. Since Campbell joined the Sharks at the end of February, they are 15-0-2. However, to be considered for the Norris Trophy, a player needs to have a serious impact on his team for the entire season, not just 17 games; that’s not to say Campbell’s time in Buffalo was a waste, but imagine the possibilities if he had played on San Jose the entire season: 75-0-7? Well, maybe not. But it would have been fun to watch.

Another player who came close to making the final cut was Mike Green (Washington). His 18 goals are good for first among defensemen and his 51 points are an improvement from the 12 he put up last season. But his defensive stats aren’t as impressive as the finalists.

The combination of Andrei Markov and Mark Streit has had the Canadiens saying, “Sheldon who?” Unfortunately it is tough to differentiate who has had more of an impact on the Canadiens. If I had to put one into the final grouping it would have to be Markov who has become an elite defenseman in the NHL. A statistic that works against Streit is his -9 +/- rating. Markov is a great defender, but the top four have become household names in terms of defense.

The four defensemen on my radar are Zdeno Chara (Boston), Sergei Gonchar (Pittsburgh), Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit), and Dion Phaneuf (Calgary).

Chara has picked up his game this year and is having the best season of his career. Chara currently has 49 points and 33 assists, both personal bests. He currently leads the Bruins in penalty minutes with 112, an important stat for a 6’9” captain; it shows he can protect his teammates, as well as lead them. Chara is third in the NHL in ice time at a whopping 26:51 per game. To top things off, Chara’s Bruins might make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.

A lot of credit gets paid to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, but Gonchar is having another incredible season at the blue line. While Gonchar is +15 on the season, he also leads the NHL in power play assists (36) and leads all defensemen with 43 power play points. Gonchar’s Penguins also sit atop the Eastern Conference. On a team with Crosby and Malkin it is easy to get overlooked, but offense alone can’t get you into the playoffs (ahem, Tampa).

Playing defense, for your Detroit Red Wings, five-time Norris Trophy winner, Nicklas Lidstrom! Lidstrom will go down as if not the best, one of the best, defenseman of all-time. He currently leads all defensemen in points (66) and is fourth in the NHL in ice-time (26:50). Before getting hurt in late February, Lidstrom was on pace for a +70 season. Unfortunately, he has fallen off to a mere +41 (that’s sarcasm), leading the NHL in that department along with teammate Pavel Datsyuk. Oh, and his Red Wings are perched on top of the NHL, where they’ve been all season.

Dion Phaneuf has matured even more this season, and if he continues on this pace, he will have some amazing numbers in seasons to come. Phaneuf has a career-best 58 points this season and is a +9. He leads NHL defensemen in a few categories: game-winning goals (4), shots (255), and penalty minutes (173). Shots are important because it is a defenseman’s job, especially on the power play, to get the puck to the net; and with 255 shots, Phaneuf is certainly doing his job. Penalty minutes, as the case was with Chara, are important with Phaneuf because it shows he can drop the gloves if somebody goes after him or one of his teammates. He also hits harder than anyone in the league.

This year’s race for the Norris Trophy is a great one; it is apparent that the average NHL defenseman has grown in leaps and bounds this season.

Now for the winner. Gonchar is having another amazing season, but a lot of the credit in Pittsburgh will not go to him, instead it will go to Crosby, Malkin, and even Ty Conklin. Phaneuf, although having the best season of his young career, is not at the Norris level…yet. That leaves the race down to Chara and Lidstrom. Chara has had a major impact on the Bruins and their winning ways this season. However, Lidstrom is consistent and always knows how to win the game. He is a captain in true form and his veteran leadership allows the Red Wings to win year-after-year. There is no doubt in my mind that Nicklas Lidstrom will win the Norris Trophy, again.