Until Nicklas Lidstrom's Norris Trophy dominance (six Norris Trophies in the last seven years) I have always thought you could debate endlessly about who deserves the honor given to the top defenseman in the NHL.
Many variables play into measuring the top defenseman in the league. Several times, the award was given to the most offensively gifted defenseman in the league (see Paul Coffey).
It's possibly the toughest trophy to award accurately of all the hardware the NHL hands out annually each June.
Again, Nicklas Lidstrom is the exception, as he is simply the hands down best all-round defender in the world. That being said, Lidstrom is now 38 years of age, and soon the Norris will be up for grabs.
This is a great time for the NHL, as there are dozens of young defensemen that can deservedly vie for the trophy: Phaneuf has played like a Norris Trophy-level defenseman for the Flames since joining the league in 2005-06. Mike Green leading all defensemen in goals in his rookie season is surely a sign of a future Norris Trophy candidate. The list goes on and on.
But one player quietly making strides in that direction is Braydon Coburn.
Drafted eighth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2003—one pick ahead of Dion Phaneuf—Coburn spent parts of two seasons playing for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Alexei Zhitnik in February 2007. Coburn was eased into a regular role in the NHL with the Flyers, playing about fifteen minutes per game over the final 20 games of the season.
In 2007-08, Coburn had a breakout season, proving he could be a top-four defenseman in the NHL. He was a consistent and solid contributor to the Flyers' turnaround season. Coburn registered nine goals and 27 assists, for 36 points in 78 games. Very solid numbers for a 23-year-old playing his first full season in the NHL.
But to understand why Coburn could some day win the Norris, you need to dig a bit deeper than just his offensive stats or his raw skills—such as his fantastically long and powerful skating strides, his pinpoint rifle-like passes, and his booming shot from the point.
When asked during the season what he thought of Coburn. Kimmo Timonen simply stated "It's scary to think how good he'll be when he realizes what he can do out there". Anyone that watched the Flyers throughout the season could see his confidence and performance improve with every game.
The biggest difference between Coburn and the list of other young defensemen in the NHL is that he seems to get the fewest number of opportunities, because John Stevens is bringing him along at a slower pace. Players like Phaneuf and Green play ample minutes and man the point on their respective clubs' first-unit power plays. Coburn plays second-unit minutes behind Timonen and Mike Richards.
Another factor is Coburn's partner on the blue line. He is paired on a nightly basis with Derien Hatcher. Although a terrific mentor, Hatcher is not an easy linemate to play alongside. Coburn is required to cover a lot of ice and win races that should be his partner's play to make.
Last season Coburn finished 26th among all NHL defenseman in scoring, but was 70th in TOI (Time on Ice). He averaged 2:28 in the power-play time per game (82nd in the league) and registered 15 power play points (37th).
His plus/minus ranking of plus-17 was good enough for 14th in the league, and this stat is once again made more impressive when you factor in his pairing with the slow-footed Hatcher, as well as his spending many nights out against the other team's best offensive players.
Coburn's numbers may not jump out at you yet, but as the Flyers begin to depend on him more often and hand him more responsibility, it is very easy to see Coburn joining the elite defensemen in most offensive categories—and there is no reason to think his solid defensive game would deteriorate.
Coburn is a big man taking quiet steps to become an elite defenseman in the best league in the world. When he is talked about in the same breath as the other Norris Trophy candidates, this writer will not be surprised at all.