Norris Trophy Top 8: Who's Leading the Race as the NHL's Best Defenseman?

Abbey MastraccoContributor IFebruary 28, 2021

Norris Trophy Top 8: Who's Leading the Race as the NHL's Best Defenseman?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    There was a long period when the Norris Trophy race wasn't exciting. The candidate pool for the NHL's top defenseman was somewhat limited, as a class of elite defensemen separated themselves from the rest of the competition.

    Nicklas Lidstrom won it a record seven times with the Detroit Red Wings. Duncan Keith won it twice as the Chicago Blackhawks built a dynasty, Erik Karlsson won it twice with the Ottawa Senators and Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings) and Brent Burns (San Jose Sharks) won one apiece, highlighting the strong play of the West Coast teams.

    There has always been an aspect of an East Coast bias when it comes to the NHL Awards. The award is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and with the large media contingents in East Coast in Canadian and U.S. cities, that's only natural.

    Once Karlsson was traded to the Sharks, the running joke among the voters was Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman, the 2017-18 winner, would continue to win the award each season. But as it turns out, the voters did stay up to watch the West Coast games because Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames won in 2018-19. 

    The Nashville Predators' Roman Josi took home the honors for the pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 season, a long-awaited honor for someone who had long been in the conversation for the Norris Trophy but had never won it.

    Most of those players are still in contention for the award annually, but the pool of candidates has grown as another class of NHL defensemen has risen to the top. Young, exciting blueliners have added significant intrigue to the Norris race, and a few late bloomers are showing that 30 is the new 25 when it comes to playing defense.

    Here is an early look at eight candidates for the Norris Trophy.

Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Hughes brothers, Quinn and Jack, are two of the future faces of the NHL, and you might be able to make the argument for the youngest brother, Luke, as well. The eldest, Quinn, seems destined for a Norris Trophy, but will that come in 2021?

    The Norris Trophy is awarded to the defenseman player who, "demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position." While exceptionally talented, Quinn may not be an all-around defenseman just yet.

    Hughes has been the top offensive defenseman in the league this season, leading all players at the position with 21 points (two goals, 19 assists). He quarterbacks the power play and orchestrates it well, with 11 of his assists coming with the man advantage. His quickness makes him a one-man breakout machine.

    He's great with the puck, but without it, it's a different story.

    Hughes a minus-14 on the season, and while plus/minus is a somewhat outdated stat, it can help tell the story. It shows that Quinn has been on the ice for quite a few goals against. He's only 21, and defense is often the last part of a defenseman's game to come around the NHL. Some say it takes about 150-200 games before for a defenseman to develop their defensive abilities.

    His defense doesn't seem to be up to Norris level yet, but voters have demonstrated that they will vote for a high level of production in the past because big numbers are difficult to ignore, especially for a 21-year-old.

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Boston Bruins are one of the best shot-suppressing teams in the NHL, which is somewhat surprising since they parted ways with Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara in the offseason. But Charlie McAvoy has been key to the Bruins' success on the blue line. He leads all Boston defensemen with 13 points (two goals, 11 assists), which is tied for 14th in the NHL, but it's about more than just point production.

    Boston's expected goals for percentage drops significantly without McAvoy on the ice at five-on-five. His 57.31 corsi-for and 52.52 percent offensive zone starts indicate a positive trend for the Bruins when McAvoy is on the ice. They are playing more in the offensive zone with their No. 1 defenseman.

    McAvoy has also assisted on four power-play goals, so his value to the Bruins is extremely high. That is important to voters when it comes to most individual awards, but it's especially important when it comes to voting for the Hart, Calder and Norris Trophies.

Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    Surprisingly, Shea Weber has never won a Norris Trophy despite the fact that the 35-year-old has been among the NHL's best defenseman for a decade. Weber recently skated in his 1,000th NHL game, which is no mean feat considering the way he plays the game. He blocks a lot of shots, he finishes his checks and has a cannon of a shot on the power play.

    The Habs have had a strange season. At times, they have looked like the best team in the league. But they recently fired coach Claude Julien and assistant coach Kirk Muller, naming Dominique Ducharme the bench boss in the interim. After winning seven of 10 to start the season, they lost six of eight, including two straight to the league's worst team, the Ottawa Senators, one in overtime and one in a shootout.

    What stands out about Weber is his expected-goals rate (xG%). It's almost 60 percent, which is impressive considering the type of minutes he gets. If you're not familiar with the stat, it's a measurement of shot quality at five-on-five strength and how likely the shot attempt is to go into the net. It helps determine a player's impact with and without the puck.

Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Jeff Petry has had a hot start to the season with 18 points in 19 games. He has gotten better in his 30s, and he may be in the midst of his best season yet at age 33. During his 12th NHL season, he has made strides in his defensive play and taken some advice from baseball great Roger Clemens to improve his mental approach.

    Petry's six goals have him tied for the most among all defensemen with Edmonton's Darnell Nurse and Florida's Aaron Ekblad, and his record of 18 points is the third-most. His production has been consistent when the rest of the Habs have not been. The Habs have more high-danger chances with Petry on the ice than ones they have given up. His 57.56 expected-goals percentage is nearly as high as Weber's and shows the type of impact he's making on the ice.

Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The upstart Florida Panthers are at the top of the Central Division in one of the more unexpected developments in a season full of surprises. Much of this hot start can be attributed to the defensive play. Florida does not give up a lot of high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five.

    Ekblad has blossomed into one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL. He's used to playing big minutes in big situations and he's producing in those situations. The first overall pick in the 2014 draft has three power-play goals on the top unit, and he's been involved in more for the league's eighth-ranked power play. His six goals are tied for the most among all defensemen.

    Ekblad has been consistently good since he was drafted, but his game has always lacked in certain areas. He's shown flashes of being a complete defenseman, and this might be the year when he puts everything together.

Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers

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    Larry MacDougal/Associated Press

    The Edmonton Oilers were dealt a big blow when they lost Oscar Klefbom for the season but Darnell Nurse has stepped up in his place. The 26-year-old has taken on a leadership role in the locker room and on the ice as a top-pairing defenseman.

    With 16 points in 22 games, Nurse has been in the conversation for Canada's 2022 Olympic team. His numbers may get a boost from playing with one of the best players in the game in Connor McDavid, but it's tough to play with elite players. There's a lot of pressure to produce every time elite players are on the ice, but Nurse has not backed down to the challenge.

    Does it make him a good candidate for the Norris Trophy? In this case, the answer is probably yes. Nurse has clearly made himself an invaluable player for the Oilers.

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Every time the 2018 Norris Trophy winner is on the ice, he's the best player out there. Victor Hedman was the best player for the best team in hockey last year, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hedman has few flaws offensively or defensively, and even at 30, there is nothing to indicate that he's about to slow down anytime soon.

    Hedman does everything you want a No. 1 defenseman to do and does them better than almost every other blueliner in hockey's greatest league. He skates better than most people of his size (6'6"), uses his body to his advantage, has tremendous shutdown ability, logs big minutes, is a great passer and can drive the play.

    He's the most complete defenseman in the league, and the Norris Trophy is awarded to the most complete defenseman of a given season. So Hedman will be in the conversation as long as he's healthy.

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Cale Makar has had an incredible career trajectory. The UMass product won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player in 2019, he was the Calder Trophy winner as the NHL's best rookie in 2020 and he's a favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.

    He's producing at close to a point-per-game pace while averaging 24:08 on the ice. His ice time, which leads all Colorado Avalanche skaters, shows that the Avs aren't sheltering their second-year star. Makar drives the offense, and he's been a big part of the shot-suppression effort of one of the league's best teams in that regard. His expected-goals differential is more than 60 percent, which is an incredible number for someone his age and relative inexperience (72 regular-season games played).

    Makar has struggled with injuries this season, but unless he spends significant time on injured reserve, it's unlikely to damage his resume. If the Avalanche and Makar keep playing the way they have been, then he should run away with the award.


    All stats via Natural Stat Trick.