Ranking the Top 10 Candidates for the 2013-14 Norris Trophy

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IMarch 22, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Candidates for the 2013-14 Norris Trophy

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Who will win this year's Norris Trophy? It could wind up being a simple coronation for Chicago's Duncan Keith, but a dozen games could be enough for some of the other leading candidates to catch up.

    We have been watching the Norris Trophy race closely all year. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Willis took an initial look back in December and another look at the Olympic break, and now I'll take over for one final look before the season ends.

    What is perhaps most surprising is how many strong defensemen are not listed. In addition to the 10 selected here, cases for Norris consideration can and have been made for many others like Andrej Sekera, Matt Niskanen (Elias Piccirillo of Puck Rant), Victor Hedman (Scott Cullen of TSN), Mark Giordano (Kent Wilson of FlamesNation) and Niklas Kronwall (Christian Neubacher at SBNation).

    Analytics were used to help sort out a highly competitive field. The offensive statistics are straightforward enough (and come from NHL.com), but defensive contributions are harder to measure.

    For those we looked at the team's overall success, combined with that player's portion of the ice time at both even-strength and while shorthanded, along with the average quality of competition each defenseman typically faces. All of this information is available at Extra Skater.

    Using the lens of hockey analytics, which defensemen are most likely to challenge Keith for this year's Norris Trophy? Turn over to begin.

10. Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    In 70 games Ryan McDonagh is sixth among NHL defensemen with a career-high 12 goals and is tied for 10th with 161 shots.

    His 38 points are tied for 16th among the league's blue liners, and his 22 points at even strength are tied for 12th. McDonagh leads Ranger defensemen by eight goals and 18 points.

    Norris Credentials

    Before the Olympic break, Bleacher Report's Tom Urtz Jr. argued that McDonagh should be a "no-brainer" for the Norris, barring for the fact that "the award has turned into a celebration of the league's more potent offensive defenders."

    That might be overstating his case a little, but the Rangers have allowed just 175 goals, the seventh fewest in the league, and for once the credit doesn't go entirely to Henrik Lundqvist.

    Instead the credit goes mostly to one of the league's best top four, and their leader McDonagh. He plays 37.5 percent of the team's even-strength minutes, which is tied for 22nd in the NHL, and 56.1 percent of killing penalties, which is 12th among defensemen. He also plays the tough minutes, ranking in a tie for 10th among defensemen in quality of competition.

    Norris Odds

    Although Ryan McDonagh is certainly on the radar, he has no realistic chance of even being named among the three finalists.

9. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    Drew Doughty is tied for 10th among NHL defensemen with 162 shots but tied for 25th with just eight goals.

    After 70 games, Doughty has scored 34 points, which is tied for 24th among the league's blue liners.

    Norris Credentials

    Finding the league's best defenseman can sometimes be as simple as finding the league's best defensive team and identifying its key defensive force on its blue line.

    Los Angeles has allowed just 149 goals this season, tied for the fewest in the entire league. It would make a lot of sense if its top shutdown defenseman gets some Norris consideration. In fact, two of the analysts at Puck Daddy, Sean Leahy and Ryan Lambert, pegged Doughty as one of the three Norris finalists in their midseason review this January.  

    Although he hasn't been a leading offensive force (just like most Kings), Doughty has been highly effective leading the Kings blue line defensively. He has played 39.5 percent of available even-strength minutes, which is ninth in the NHL among defensemen.

    Norris Odds

    Is there a chance Doughty could actually win the Norris Trophy this year? No, not really. Doughty did not produce enough offensively, and his tremendous defensive contributions are too hard to measure and/or prove.

    Doughty has nevertheless arrived among the elite echelon of defensemen who will be closely watched in the future. Whatever eyes weren't already opened by him during the Kings' 2012 Stanley Cup run were certainly opened at the Olympics.

    Doughty was a Norris finalist in his 20-year-old sophomore season, and he finished in the top 10 in two of the three seasons since then. He most likely will do so again.

8. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    Among NHL defensemen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson's 11 goals in 68 games is tied for seventh, on a tied-for-10th-best 162 shots.

    His career-high 38 points is tied for 16th among NHL defensemen, including a tied-for-11th-best 18 with the man advantage. The underrated Coyotes defender is also one of only eight defensemen with a shootout goal this season.

    Norris Credentials

    Most of the attention in Phoenix goes to Keith Yandle, an offensive force who is tied for fourth among NHL defensemen with 49 points and for first with 28 on the power play. So why isn't he on this list instead?

    The truth is that a lot of Yandle's scoring is largely due to the opportunities that are left to him thanks to Ekman-Larsson taking on all the tough minutes. Yandle gets to start most of his shifts in the offensive zone and against secondary lines, and often on the power play, because Ekman-Larsson is doing the opposite.

    The young Swede plays the big minutes, 37 percent of available minutes at even strength and 54.5 percent killing penalties, both within the top 30 among NHL defensemen. He is also tied for fifth among the league's blue liners in the average quality of competition—Yandle is tied for 103rd.

    Norris Odds

    Ekman-Larsson is a 22-year-old two-way defenseman playing in Phoenix, so it could be a few more years before he is fully discovered by the voters.

    In the mean time, expect him to continue to place around seventh in the Norris Trophy voting, just as he did last year.

7. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    Offensively, Shea Weber is known for his cannon from the blue line. He is currently eighth among NHL defensemen with 166 shots and tied for second with 18 goals.

    Overall, Weber is seventh among the league's blue liners in points with 46 and tied for third with 24 of those on the power play. Those 46 points lead Nashville's defensemen by 15 points and the entire team by five.

    Norris Credentials

    Weber plays huge and critical minutes on a young and inexperienced blue line and still remains among the greatest offensive blue line threats. He has even made a star out of Roman Josi.

    Weber is leaned on to play 40.8 percent of even-strength minutes, which is tied for fourth among NHL defensemen, and 53.5 percent of those spent shorthanded, tied for 23rd. And those aren't easy minutes, since Weber is ranks in a tie for seventh in quality of competition among that group.

    Nashville's franchise player truly brings everything to the table. Experience, shutdown defensive play, a cannon of a shot and strong physical play—his plus-99 hit differential is the seventh-best among the league's blue liners.

    Norris Odds

    Shea Weber has always been on the Norris radar but on the peripheral. He has received at least some Norris consideration for six straight seasons, including two seasons as the runner-up going into the 2012 lockout.

    His team hasn't had a strong season however, allowing 213 goals, sixth most in the NHL. While that's hardly Weber's fault, it will impact his vote totals. Don't even expect him to place among the three finalists.

6. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    Ottawa's Erik Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen with 64 points, including 36 at even strength and 28 on the power play. He leads the Senators in scoring and has over triple the points of the next highest-scoring Ottawa defenseman (Marc Methot).

    Karlsson is also second among the league's blue liners in both shots (221) and goals (18), and possibly first depending on how you classify Dustin Byfuglien.

    Norris Credentials

    Karlsson is the league's greatest offensive force from the blue line. He is extremely fast and won the Norris in 2012 with 78 points, the most for a defenseman since Nicklas Lidstrom scored 80 in 2005-06.

    Karlsson plays a heck of a lot of minutes, with only Minnesota's Ryan Suter being assigned a larger share of his team's even-strength ice time. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Willis had Ottawa's workhorse ranked third in the Norris race at the Olympic Break.

    Norris Odds

    Not this year.

    No matter how great his talent nor how impressive his offensive totals, the Ottawa Senators have really struggled in their own end. To date they have allowed 234 goals, the second most in the league, and only one other defenseman on this list is playing on a team that's even above the league average.

    This terrible season has done nothing to reverse the perception that their top defenseman, Karlsson, is a defensive liability.

5. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    The defending Norris Trophy champion is currently tied for fourth among NHL defensemen with a career-high 49 points in 71 games.

    Breaking it down further, Subban is tied for fourth with 23 points on the power play and ninth with 26 at even strength. He leads the Habs in scoring and has nine more points than his on-and-off top pairing partner Andrei Markov.

    Subban is also fourth among the league's blue liners with 186 shots and tied for 11th with 10 goals.

    Norris Credentials

    Subban is potentially the best power play specialist in the league, and certainly one of the league's best offensive forces from the blue line.

    Defense isn't considered his strong suit, but it's not considered a liability either. Montreal coach Michel Therrien assigns him 39.5 percent of the team's even-strength minutes, which is eighth among the league's defensemen.

    Norris Odds

    It's a long shot. Subban surprised me with his win last year, so anything is possible. It's at least a reasonable bet that he could be among the three finalists.

4. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    Boston's giant captain Zdeno Chara is tied for fourth among NHL defensemen with 16 goals, despite being tied for only 18th in shots (149).

    At 37, Chara may be slowing down, but his 34 points in 67 games is tied for 24th among the league's blue liners, and his 13 points with the man advantage is tied for 27th.

    Norris Credentials

    Boston is a fantastic defensive team, allowing the fewest goals in the league (tied with Los Angeles).

    Deciding how much of that is Tuukka Rask, how much is Claude Julien's defensive system, how much is forwards like Patrice Bergeron, and how much is their captain and blue-line leader Zdeno Chara will largely determine his Norris fate.

    I personally view Boston's tall defender as far more critical defensively than the voters might realize. As it stands, Chara plays 37.5 percent of the team's minutes at even strength, which is tied for 22nd among the league's defensemen, and is second to only Dion Phaneuf in quality of competition among that group.

    Chara is also tied for ninth among the league's defenders in playing 57.1 percent of the team's shorthanded minutes and is 10th in plus/minus.

    Norris Odds

    Personally, I think Chara should have won the Norris Trophy last year, as I wrote in more detail in Hockey Prospectus 2013-14.

    Given that he only finished fifth last year with roughly as strong a season and within an arguably weaker field, he's unlikely to place any higher this season.

    Chara has received Norris consideration for 10 straight seasons, winning in 2008-09 and finishing among the three finalists on four other occasions.

    Quite frankly, his offensive totals just might not be high enough to capture the Norris again, no matter how effectively Chara and his team play defensively.

3. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    Alex Pietrangelo is fourth among NHL defensemen with 30 even-strength points, tied for 17th with 16 on the power play and sixth overall with 47 points in 69 games, four back of his career high.

    Among Blues defensemen, Pietrangelo leads Kevin Shattenkirk by seven points and veteran partner Jay Bouwmeester by 13. He is also tied for 25th among the league's blue liners with eight goals.

    Norris Credentials

    St. Louis has allowed the third-fewest goals in the league with just 156, and their blue line is largely to thank.

    Pietrangelo is the player to whom Ken Hitchcock consistently turns in tough defensive situations. He plays 38.6 percent of even-strength minutes, which is 14th among the league's defensemen, and against an average quality of competition that ranks 11th among that group. And yet, Pietrangelo is tied for 10th among the league's defenders in plus/minus. Pietrangelo also works 54.6 percent of penalty-killing minutes, which ranks 18th.

    Everybody in St. Louis benefits from Pietrangelo's incredible play. Kevin Shattenkirk is also having a great year offensively, and it's largely thanks to the space Pietrangelo makes by handling those tough minutes. And look what Pietrangelo has done for Jay Bouwmeester's reputation since they were paired up together late last season!

    Norris Odds

    Alex Pietrangelo will most definitely win a Norris Trophy, the only question is whether it will be this season or not. Either way he will certainly improve on his fourth-place finish in 2011-12.

    Bleacher Report's own Jonathan Willis ranked Pietrangelo as the runner-up in his evaluation at the Olympic break, and the 24-year-old has done nothing but continue to build his case since then.

2. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    Ryan Suter's 22 points at even strength is tied for 12th among the NHL's defensemen, his 15 points with the man advantage 20th, and his 38 points in 70 games places him in a tie for 16th.

    He is currently eight points back of his career high and leads all Minnesota Wild defensemen by 17 points.

    Norris Credentials

    Nobody carries a heavier share of his team's defensive load than Minnesota's Ryan Suter.

    He plays 46.1 percent of the team's even-strength minutes, leading the league by 3 percent. And that's against the top opponents, as Suter also ranks tied for 23rd among NHL defensemen in average quality of competition.

    And what does Minnesota get in return? It has allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league, tied with Pittsburgh at just 172.

    Minnesota's goaltending has obviously been invaluable, but Suter doesn't get much help on a young and inexperienced blue line. And why should he? He's paid more than the rest of them combined. The Wild are doing very well this year, and that huge contract is actually looking like a bargain.

    Norris Odds

    Ryan Suter's two-way play is finally commanding the utmost respect, which is why he was the runner-up last year after three seasons where he finished no higher than eighth in the voting.

    Other than the player coming up next, Suter was the only player for whom I could find a published analyst arguing for the Norris (Sarah Kwak of Sports Illustrated).

1. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Bill Boyce/Associated Press

    Key Stats

    The consensus choice for the Norris Trophy is second among the league's defensemen with 55 points in 70 games. That includes 34 points at even strength, which is also second, and 20 points on the power play, which is tied for ninth.

    Duncan Keith is also sixth among the league's blue liners with 176 shots but, as usual, has scored on just 2.8 percent of them for just five goals.

    Norris Credentials

    While Keith is unquestionably deserving of the Norris Trophy, both his team and his partner Brent Seabrook deserve a lot of credit for his success, too.

    After all, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya do handle a lot of the tough minutes, which frees up Keith to work his magic in all kinds of situations with elite NHL talent like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.

    If there were any case to be made against Keith, it would be the argument that any of these other top defensemen would be just as accomplished if they were given the same opportunities. The only problem is that such an argument is pure speculation, and the Norris Trophy voters must make their choice based on what is real.

    Norris Odds

    It's hard to imagine any scenario where Duncan Keith fails to win the Norris Trophy this year.

    Keith has received Norris consideration for six straight seasons, winning it in 2010 but otherwise finishing no higher than sixth.

    Other than Nicklas Lidstrom, Keith will become the first two-time Norris trophy winner since Brian Leetch back in 1998.

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted (above or otherwise).

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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