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Trophy Thursday: James Norris Memorial Trophy

The seven-decade history of the NHL's defenseman of the year award features a 25-year-old female Detroit team president and her 'all-time great' Canadian dad

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Every NHL trophy has a history that goes beyond the admirable and, yes, cool tradition of a one and only authentic trophy, no copies handed out. The history of the James Norris Memorial Trophy, awarded to the league's best defenseman of the season, is refreshing.

Here's why. When James Norris died in 1952, he was widely praised as "one of the great Canadians of all time" for his role in building the Detroit franchise into winning entity. During two decades as owner, the Red Wings won five Stanley Cups. 

Norris' rep gets even better: He had trained his daughter Marguerite in the business of hockey and stoked her avid sports fandom from a young age. At 25, Marguerite was named president of the team, a first for women in the NHL. Remember, this is the early 1950s.

Under Marguerite, the Red Wings secured two more Stanley Cups and, along with her siblings, successfully lobbied (it wasn't hard) the NHL to name the defenseman of the year after their father. In 1955, she reluctantly handed the presidential duties to her brother. 

The "Norris" was first awarded at the conclusion of the 1953-54 season. Happily for Detroit fans and the Norris family, Red Wings defenseman Red Kelly was the first player with his name engraved on the trophy. Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer Doug Harvey won in 1955, then again six of seven possible seasons through 1962. Harvey's seven etchings on the Norris nameplate was eclipsed by the legendary Bobby Orr, who won the award eight seasons during the last 1960s and mid-1970s. In an appropriate full cycle, Detroit Red Wings long-time captain and multiple Cup winner Niklas Lidstrom notched seven Norrises of his own from 2000 to 2011.

The award goes to "the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position." The winner is selected in a vote of the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the end of the regular season. Orr dominated the Norris because of his extraordinarily rare trait as a high-scoring defenseman, including one season scoring 139 points. 

Other years, the award goes to a defenseman who is known for defense first and yet still positive on the offensive end. These Norris winners often "quarterback" a team's powerplay or man-advantage situations by controlling the puck near the blue line in back of the offensive, then choosing where and which teammates to pass the puck. 

Defensemen with a strong shot from that position on the ice (aka, 'the point") get Norris votes because those hard shots can be deflected by teammates in front of the net for goals. Or sometimes those lasers from the point get past a goalie "screened" or blocked from seeing the puck by players scrumming in front of the goal.

It wouldn't be "Trophy Thursday" if there is no mention of this season's NHLers who look to be candidates for the award of the week. Here's a guide to who might end up sitting in the NHL awards night audience in June.

 

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

You've heard this one before. But the current Norris voting trends offer a peculiar history note. Last season's three finalists were Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman, San Jose's Brett Burns and, the eventual winner, 36-year-old Mark Giordano, the first-ever Calgary Flames defenseman to win the honor. 

Giordano was a sentimental choice of sorts, actually playing his best hockey in his mid-30s as the league's 10th oldest defenseman. His upward mobility is not the usual statistical arc for professional athletes (unless you are a golfer). He was third in the NHL in shot attempts against his team when he was on the ice and eighth best for shot attempts by the Flames. That's a superior combination.  

More history connections: 2019 finalist Hedman won the Norris in 2018 and fellow 2019 finalist Burns was the winner in 2017. Pencil in all three players as possible winners for this season. 

 

ATTENTION, ATTENTION

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson finished fifth in the voting last April, which confused any number of hockey insiders. Carlson has been overlooked for too long, particularly since he logs an arduous 25-plus minutes of ice time per game and only the aforementioned Sharks' Burns has scored more points in the last two seasons. He blocks an above-average number of shots and is a critical part of the penalty-killing or man-down unit for Washington. 

No matter, Carlson has taken matters into his own talented hands, stick firmly on the puck. He has scored five goals and 15 assists in his first 11 games. Those are Bobby Orr numbers for October. Write him down as at least a Norris finalist.

 

NORRIS FUTURES

Clearly, this four-man logjam will crowd the election by the professional hockey writers. Add former Norris winner Erik Karlsson, then with Ottawa and now injury-free with San Jose, plus P.K. Subban now in Jersey racking up big minutes, and it's tempting to think about young defensemen who are worthy finalists-in the future. It will require a monster-season from a younger defender to make the cut. 

Here are defensemen to watch for Norris races, including a likely winner during NHL Seattle's first season in 2021-22: Miro Heiskanen, Dallas (he's still 20); his Stars teammate John Klingberg (fun to watch on both ends of ice); Carolina's Jaccob Slavin (raised awareness last postseason when former Hurricanes GM, now current Seattle GM, Ron Francis extended his contract at team-friendly value); Boston's Torey Krug (ditto on lifting his national profile last post-season) and Ottawa's Thomas Chabot (less visible without playoff time but won't be denied elite status). 

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