Predicting the Top Candidates for the 2015-16 Norris Trophy

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistAugust 4, 2015

Predicting the Top Candidates for the 2015-16 Norris Trophy

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    Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images

    Who will catch the eye of the voting contingent at the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and be named the NHL's best defenseman during the upcoming 2015-16 season.

    The Norris Trophy fraternity has been a pretty closed club for the last several years. Over the eight seasons since 2007-08, as the Nicklas Lidstrom years started to wind down, just 11 different players have been named top-three finalists and only five have won the award during that span—Lidstrom (twice), Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith (twice), P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson (twice).

    Bearing those facts in mind, while predicting the landscape for the upcoming season, you'll see a lot of familiar names in this slideshow. Most of the usual suspects are in or approaching their playing prime, so the top performances will most likely be determined by whose team catches fire and which players stay healthy.

    Other veteran candidates to watch next year include Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames—who'd been a Norris favorite in 2014-15 until his season was derailed by a biceps injury in February—perennial ice-time leader Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild and Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, who dazzled in Team Canada's gold-medal win at the IIHF World Championships back in May.

    Among the young guns, watch for more big things Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, who led all defensemen in 2014-15 with 23 goals, as well as Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. Another big step forward from any of these emerging talents could end up earning them a VIP ticket to the NHL Awards show next June.

    Norrs Trophy candidates are ranked based on their past performance, potential for improvement in 2015-16 and the past level of favor they seem to have curried with the voters in the PHWA.

6. Kris Letang: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Stats: 69 GP, 11-43-54, plus-12, two power-play goals

    2014-15 Norris Voting Results 

    Kris Letang finished eighth in Norris voting in 2015 with 80 points and one first-place vote, per NHL.com. He was named a Norris finalist in 2012-13 and finished third in voting with 38 points in 35 games in the lockout-shortened season.

    Making His Case 

    Letang's tumultuous 2013-14 season ended midway through the year with his hockey career in jeopardy after the discovery of his heart condition.

    The determined blueliner came back as strong as ever in 2014-15.

    Letang scored a career-high 54 points while serving as an anchor for a Pittsburgh Penguins defense that was wracked by injuries and saw plenty of personnel changes over the course of the season.

    In 2014-15, Letang suffered a season-ending concussion on March 28, leading Penguins fans to wonder what might have been if the man who had arguably been Pittsburgh's team MVP for the season had been available for the stretch drive and the playoffs.

    No longer simply an offensive threat but with the team around him still in flux, expect to see the well-rounded 28-year-old Letang lead the Pittsburgh defense again next season at both ends of the ice.

5. Shea Weber: Nashville Predators

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    2014-15 Stats: 78 GP, 15-30-45, plus-15, five power-play goals; playoffs: 2 GP, 0-1-1, even plus/minus

    2014-15 Norris Voting Results

    Shea Weber finished fourth in Norris voting in 2015 with 614 points and 26 first-place votes, per NHL.com. Weber's a three-time Norris finalist, finishing second in voting in both 2011 and 2012 as well as third in 2014.

    Making His Case

    About to turn 30 years old in mid-August and starting to battle injuries more frequently, it could be now or never for Nashville Predators sharpshooter Shea Weber to stake his claim on the Norris Trophy.

    In their first season under new coach Peter Laviolette, the Nashville Predators enjoyed great team success, but Weber himself didn't dominate like we've seen in previous seasons. Despite his booming slap shot, his shooting percentage dropped to a disappointing 6.3 percent, and he scored just five times all season on the power play compared to 12 goals with the man advantage in 2013-14.

    Weber also struggled with a lower-body injury late in the season. His injury in Game 2 of Nashville's first-round playoff series against the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks may have been the difference in a series that looked like it could have gone either way.

    If the Predators can replicate their hot start from last season and Weber is fully healed from the surgery to repair his dislocated kneecap, expect to see him back in top form as a Norris contender in 2015-16.

4. Drew Doughty: Los Angeles Kings

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    2014-15 Stats: 82 GP, 7-39-46, plus-3, one power-play goal

    2014-15 Norris Voting Results

    Drew Doughty finished second in Norris voting in 2015 with 889 points, per NHL.com. His 53 first-place votes were the most of any candidate.

    Making His Case 

    Though his Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs in 2014-15, Doughty's second-place finish in the Norris voting was his highest ranking to date. The two-time Stanley Cup winner's previous best showing was a third-place nod back in 2009-10.

    Doughty's ice time rose to 28:59 last season, second in the NHL, and the 25-year-old's defensive play grows more and more solid with each passing season.

    If the Kings can bounce back next season from their playoff miss and offseason issues, expect to hear Doughty's name once again bounced around as a top Norris contender.

3. P.K. Subban: Montreal Canadiens

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    Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

    2014-15 Stats: 82 GP, 15-45-60, plus-21, eight power-play goals; playoffs: 12 GP, 1-7-8, plus-1

    2014-15 Norris Voting Results

    P.K. Subban finished third in Norris voting in 2015 with 801 points and 24 first-place votes, per NHL.com. He won the Norris Trophy in 2012-13.

    Making His Case

    When P.K. Subban won his first Norris Trophy after the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he led all defensemen with 11 goals and tied Kris Letang with 38 points.

    Last season, Subban hit several new career highs. His 60 points were enough to tie him for second place among defensemen with Brent Burns. Perhaps more importantly, Subban's plus-21 landed him among the league's top 10 defensemen in that category—a sign that a young player who used to like to go rogue is slowly taking his defensive responsibilities more and more seriously as he enters his hockey prime.

    Along with his great offensive flair and his showmanship, Subban's hockey sense is growing with each passing season. If the Canadiens play more of a team game next season instead of relying so heavily on otherworldly goaltender Carey Price, Subban should once again find himself back among the Norris Trophy finalists.

2. Erik Karlsson: Ottawa Senators

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    2014-15 Stats: 82 GP, 21-45-66, plus-7, six power-play goals; playoffs: 6 GP, 1-3-4, minus-2, one power-play goal

    2014-15 Norris Voting Results

    Erik Karlsson won his second Norris Trophy with 964 points, including 44 first-place votes—a margin of victory of 75 points, per NHL.com. He also won in 2011-12, receiving the award just after his 22nd birthday.

    Making His Case 

    Karlsson locked up the latest Norris Trophy win by outscoring all other defensemen and finishing third among blueliners with 27:15 of ice time per game while his Ottawa Senators stormed into a playoff position down the home stretch. Karlsson's also a shooting machine—his 292 shots on goal were more than 10 percent greater than second-place Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who had 264.

    Karlsson's production picked up as the year went along, hitting double-digits for the first time with 10 points in the month of January, then 12 points in February and peaking with 15 points in 16 games during the month of March.

    If the Ottawa Senators can start the new season by building off their torrid finish last season, Karlsson could become the first defenseman to win the Norris in consecutive seasons since Nicklas Lidstrom took it home three straight times from 2006 to 2008.

1. Duncan Keith: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Stats: 80 GP, 10-35-45, plus-12, three power-play goals; playoffs: 23 GP, 3-18-21, plus-16, three game-winning goals

    2014-15 Norris Voting Results

    Duncan Keith finished seventh in Norris voting in 2015 with 134 points and one first-place vote, per NHL.com. He's a two-time Norris Trophy winner—in 2009-10 and 2013-14.

    Making His Case

    After a so-so regular season with the Blackhawks, relatively speaking, Keith turned up the juice in the playoffs. He led all defensemen with 21 points and a plus-16 while logging 31:06 en route to his third Stanley Cup championship and first Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs.

    Keith's seemingly unflagging energy became one of the most compelling stories of the long postseason grind. Once all was said and done, his name was the one on fans' lips as the most extraordinary defenseman of last year.

    Expect to see some of that high-profile goodwill seep into the voting next season—quite possibly enough to earn him a third Norris nod as the Blackhawks work to establish their team's dynasty status in the annals of hockey history.

    Stats courtesy of NHL.com. Award history from Hockey-Reference.com.

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