Whoever wins the Norris Trophy this year as the NHL's top defenceman will have to beat out an impressive array of candidates to win the award.
P.K. Subban, who won the award last year, is in the running. Ryan Suter, who was exactly one first-place vote behind him, is also having a tremendous year. So too is Erik Karlsson, who won in 2011-12. And the scary thing is that there's a case to be made that none of those three is the front-runner for the award.
It's a field so crowded that truly exceptional players like Alex Pietrangelo, Dan Boyle and Ryan McDonagh aren't in the top 10 today.
Who is the most likely winner if things continue as they are? Read on for our take.
Stats line: 32GP - 4G - 11A - 15PTS, minus-two
Why he's in the mix: The Florida Panthers are a terrible hockey team, and that's why Brian Campbell is confined to the far edges of this list. Yet the state of the Panthers is also one of the reasons Campbell should be considered, because when he's on the ice they are an entirely different team.
In an average hour with Campbell on the ice this year at five-on-five, Florida has out-shot the opposition 30.0-27.8, and given that he averages over 27 minutes per game (in all situations) is awfully respectable. It certainly isn't Campbell's fault that the team's poorly constructed or that the goaltending has been either Tim Thomas or terrible.
Odds: "Never tell me the odds."
Stats line: 27GP - 7G - 8A - 15PTS, minus-seven
Why he's in the mix: Shea Weber is facing a brutal up-hill battle every night, starting in his own end of the ice more often than not and being tasked with shutting down the opposition's top offensive line. It's a task that would wear on any player, and it's especially difficult in Weber's skates because of how green the Nashville blue line is.
He's done about as well as can be expected, but his Norris hopes are probably sunk by the weaknesses in the team around him.
Odds: Faint hope.
Stats line: 32GP - 6G - 10A - 16PTS, plus-seven
Why he's in the mix: Drew Doughty's speed, ability to move the puck and strong two-way game make him one of the top defenders in the league every year, and this season is no exception to that.
Like a lot of the complete No. 1 defenders on this list, the problem with Doughty is that the Norris typically goes to a guy scoring at a high rate. So Doughty was more of a contender in 2009-10 (when he posted 59 points as a sophomore) than he's likely to be this year, as he's only on pace for 41 points.
Essentially, he's a perennial candidate, but he needs a hot scoring run to move into the upper echelon in the minds of voters.
Stats line: 32GP - 7G - 6A - 13PTS, plus-three
Why he's in the mix: No Norris candidates list is complete without the guy who year-in and year-out is probably the most dominant defenceman in the NHL today.
And make no mistake, that's what Zdeno Chara is. No other defenceman in the game can match his size and strength, and those physical gifts are married to smarts and puck-moving ability. He plays the best opponent players every night and despite that, the Bruins dominate with him on the ice.
Whether he records enough points to get votes or not, he belongs in the conversation.
Stats line: 31GP - 3G - 18A - 21PTS, plus-13
Why he's in the mix: With Niklas Kronwall, the Detroit Red Wings have been a middle of the pack team in the weaker Eastern Conference, but who knows where they would be without him?
Perhaps because he played in the shadow of Nicklas Lidstrom for so many years, or maybe just because he has only cracked 50 points once in his career, Kronwall hasn't collected the kind accolades that his play merits. He can do everything, in all three zones.
On pace for a career-best 55 points, perhaps this is the year that Kronwall finally makes an NHL All-Star team.
Stats line: 31GP - 4G - 17A - 21PTS, plus-nine
Why he's in the mix: Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been thrown to the wolves this year, handed the best possible opponents and asked to start in the defensive zone and claw his way out. Despite that, he boasts a solid plus/minus and gaudy scoring totals.
The trouble is that the strain is starting to tell. The Coyotes are actually out-shot with Ekman-Larsson on the ice, but thanks to the team making its shots (11.4 shooting percentage) and solid goaltending (0.933 save percentage) when he's on the ice, it hasn't impacted Ekman-Larsson's stats line yet.
If it does, he'll fall out of the top-tier in Norris voting.
Odds: Not bad.
Stats line: 33GP - 8G - 21A - 29PTS, minus-seven
Why he's in the mix: It is impossible to entirely ignore the NHL's defensive scoring leader.
Unfortunately for Erik Karlsson, that "minus-seven" next to his name is going to cost him votes, because it feeds into the perception that he is a guy who cheats for offence.
That isn't fair—he presently has a 0.901 on-ice save percentage at five-on-five, and blogger Vic Ferrari has previously demonstrated that defencemen don't have much control over that—but simplicity is a great friend of narrative and "minus-seven" thus carries a lot more weight in many minds than on-ice save percentage gobbledygook.
He's a tremendous player, and if the team in front of him (and the goaltending behind him) can pick up the pace a little, his odds will improve immensely.
Odds: Not bad.
Stats line: 34GP - 0G - 17A - 17PTS, even
Why he's in the mix: Ryan Suter's most distinguishing characteristic this season doesn't show up in the stats line above. It is the 29 minutes and 26 seconds he averages per game, a total that leads all defencemen and goes a long way toward showing how vital Suter is to the Wild.
He plays every second shift, in all situations and against the best opposition the other team can offer.
Stats line: 33GP - 4G - 20A - 24PTS, plus-eight
Why he's in the mix: Last year's winner is in the thick of things again, despite some well-publicized skepticism from Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien, and Montreal is a different team when he's on the ice.
Beyond the point totals and defensive concerns and all the rest of it, that's what stands out. With P.K. Subban on the ice this season, in an average hour of five-on-five play Montreal has a 32.6-31.1 edge in shots. When he's on the bench, the Habs are out-shot 29.8-25.0. They go from a plus-1.5 edge in shots per hour to being minus-4.8.
He is a franchise player.
Stats line: 34GP - 2G - 26A - 28PTS, plus-17
Why he's in the mix: The best defenceman on the NHL's best team, Duncan Keith is doing all the things he's always done—driving the play, shutting down top opposition, logging ridiculous minutes—and he's doing them while producing more offensively than he has at any point since 2009-10.
Points get disproportionately weighed in the Norris voting, so it's not a coincidence that Keith won in 2010, the year he posted 69 of them. Keith's always done the rest of it right, and by scoring at a 68-point pace he's generating enough offence to get the attention he deserves.
At this point, his biggest challenge is just maintaining those numbers.
Odds: The favourite.