Ranking the Top Candidates for the Norris Trophy in 2015-16 NHL Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2015

Ranking the Top Candidates for the Norris Trophy in 2015-16 NHL Season

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    As the 2015-16 NHL season heads into the Christmas break, the league's top defensemen are making their cases for award consideration at the end of the year.

    The Norris Trophy for the NHL's best defenseman is awarded based on votes by members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Each writer submits his top five choices, which are assigned a numeric value. The winner is determined by the player who gets the highest total score when all the ballots are counted.

    In mid-November, my colleague Steve Macfarlane offered up his assessment of the top Norris candidates in this article.

    As we head into the Christmas break, let's take a look at how the landscape has changed.

Honorable Mentions

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Duncan Keith: Chicago Blackhawks

    Duncan Keith has been a beast since he returned to the Chicago Blackhawks lineup in mid-November after missing four weeks with a torn meniscus in his knee. Keith immediately vaulted back into his all-situations roles and has accumulated 16 of his 18 points this season in the 19 games since he rejoined the lineup.

    Here's a good indication of how important Keith is to the Blackhawks' machine. When he returned from his injury, Chicago sat 17th overall in the NHL standings. In just over a month, the team has gone 12-4-3 and has climbed into a tie for third place overall.

    Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews still get the lions' share of the attention, but Keith is the engine that makes his team hum.

    Shea Weber/Roman Josi: Nashville Predators

    Three-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber has been widely regarded as one of the best defensemen in the NHL in recent years—and with a cap hit of more than $7.8 million a season until 2025-26, according to General Fanager, he's being paid like one. 

    This season, Weber's second in scoring on the Nashville Predators, but he might not even be the best defenseman on his team. His 25 points are one less than his 25-year-old defense partner, Switzerland's Roman Josi.

    Last year, Weber and Josi finished four-five in Norris voting, respectively, though there was a significant gap in the number of points they received. So far this season, their contributions to the Predators have been pretty equitable. Vote-splitting may mean that neither player will receive the recognition that he deserves in year-end Norris voting.

    Oliver Ekman-Larsson: Arizona Coyotes

    Steven Macfarlane included Ekman-Larsson on his list of contenders in November, but the Coyotes have now fallen back to earth in the Pacific Division standings as they deal with a long-term injury to starting goaltender Mike Smith.

    Once Airzona breaks through as a legitimate playoff contender, the Norris votes will come for Ekman-Larsson.

6. Ryan Suter: Minnesota Wild

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Previous Ranking: Third

    2015-16 Stats to Date: 31 GP, 5-19-24, plus-six, 28:17 of ice time per game

    Norris Pedigree: Best finish—second in Norris voting behind P.K. Subban in his first year with the Minnesota Wild in 2012-13.

    Why He's Here

    Since signing a huge free-agent deal with the Wild, Ryan Suter has proved he can play more minutes than any other player in the NHL and be one of the NHL's best defensive defensemen.

    Suter's Norris case is hurt by the fact that he doesn't get as many points as his rivals. This year, he's still not Erik Karlsson, but he's on pace for a very respectable 60 points, which would be a career high.

    Worth noting, however—Suter has just three points in his last nine games. If his production continues to dip, he'll be hard-pressed to earn a spot among the top three Norris candidates in a highly competitive season.

5. P.K. Subban: Montreal Canadiens

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Ranking: Fourth

    2015-16 Stats to Date: 35 GP, 1-23-24, plus-nine, 25:14 of ice time per game

    Norris Pedigree: Won Norris Trophy in 2012-13, finished third in voting in 2014-15.

    Why He's Here

    P.K. Subban isn't among the NHL's defensive leaders in points or ice time, but his dazzling personality and role on Canada's best hockey team keeps him in the Norris Trophy spotlight.

    Subban's Norris candidacy was stronger earlier in the season, when the Montreal Canadiens were unbeatable. It could surge again if goaltender Carey Price helps solidify the Habs' back end when he returns from his current injury.

    Even as the Habs swoon, don't count Subban out of the Norris race. His vibrant attitude and zest for media attention make him a favorite among hockey writers who cast the ballots for this award. Despite Montreal's current dip on the ice, Subban will get plenty of Norris votes if his team can muster a strong second half this season.

4. John Kingberg: Dallas Stars

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Previous Ranking: First

    2015-16 Stats to Date: 33 GP, 5-26-31, plus-13, 23:28 of ice time per game

    Norris Pedigree: None. Klingberg finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting in 2014-15 despite playing just 65 games in his rookie season.

    Why He's Here

    A couple of new players are making a case for inclusion among the pantheon of Norris Trophy-worthy defensemen this year. The first is 23-year-old John Klingberg, who is showing that his outstanding rookie campaign with the Dallas Stars was no fluke.

    Klingberg ranks second in scoring by defensemen and is tied for third with an impressive plus-13 on a Dallas Stars team that has established itself as the class of the Western Conference.

    As a second-year NHL player, Klingberg will likely have more dues to pay before he's considered as a serious Norris finalist. Awards voting happens at the end of the regular season—a high-profile playoff run by the exciting Stars this year could push Klingberg into the elite ranks where he can contend as a finalist during the 2016-17 season.

3. John Carlson: Washington Capitals

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Previous Ranking: Fifth

    2015-16 Stats to Date: 33 GP, 6-21-27, plus-four, 24:26 of ice time per game

    Norris Pedigree: Best finish—10th in Norris voting in 2014-15.

    Why He's Here

    In his seventh NHL season, John Carlson has become the preeminent blueliner on a Washington Capitals team that has become as well known for its defensive responsibility under coach Barry Trotz as it is for the offensive firepower that's embodied by super sniper Alex Ovechkin.

    Carlson's on pace for 66 points this season, which would neatly eclipse his previous high of 55 from last season. More importantly, his team has taken a giant step up in the Eastern Conference. If the Capitals can maintain their current level of play, they'll have a chance to contend for their franchise's second Presidents' Trophy after winning it in 2009-10.

    In January, Carlson will turn 26. He's just moving into his hockey prime. He doesn't log as many minutes as some of the Norris Trophy stalwarts, but he's doing enough this season to deserve consideration as a first-time finalist.

2. Drew Doughty: Los Angeles Kings

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Ranking: Sixth

    2015-16 Stats to Date: 32 GP, 5-14-19, plus-nine, 27:47 of ice time per game

    Norris Pedigree: Best finish—second in voting behind Erik Karlsson in 2014-15.

    Why He's Here

    A workhorse defenseman with two Stanley Cups rings at home, Drew Doughty is one of the biggest names among his generation of blueliners who has yet to take home the Norris. Doughty's Los Angeles Kings are in the midst of a bounce-back season—and tied for the league lead in goals against. The Kings' comeback season fuels articles like this one from Stephen Whyno of the Canadian Press (via CBC Sports), about why Doughty's a deserving Norris candidate.

    Doughty's already in his eighth NHL season at age 26. Even if he doesn't have the very best statistical record among defensemen, he has already amassed a body of work over the course of his career that writers will notice and remember. Doughty is a serious contender to bring home the trophy this season.

1. Erik Karlsson: Ottawa Senators

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    Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Ranking: Second

    2015-16 Stats to Date: 34 GP, 9-28-37, plus-seven, 27:54 of ice time per game

    Norris Pedigree: Two-time Norris winner in 2011-12 and 2014-15.

    Why He's Here

    Erik Karlsson led all defensemen in points during the two previous seasons when he captured the Norris Trophy. This year, he's back on top again, and if he can keep up his current scoring pace, he'll hit a new career high with 88 points. That's better than the 87 points Jamie Benn earned as the NHL's overall leading scorer last season and would be the biggest offensive output by a defenseman in 20 years, since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers tallied 85 points in 1995-96.

    Karlsson's scoring prowess has never been in doubt. This season, the 25-year-old is receiving more recognition for his two-way play. Rob Vollman of NHL.com pointed out that the Ottawa Senators use Karlsson as their top blue-line option whether they're leading or trailing and that his overall ice time per game lands in the same range as the league's other top defenders.

    When he won his first Norris in just his third NHL season, Karlsson was regarded by some as a one-trick scoring machine, but his game has grown with age.

    Heading into the Christmas break, Erik Karlsson is the man to beat in the 2015-16 Norris Trophy race.


    Stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games December 21. Award history from Hockey-Reference.com.

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