The 2011-12 season reaches its mid-point upon the completion of Monday night's game between the Washington Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings. But, NHL.com is going to take all week to look at the significant stories as the League makes the turn and heads toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We'll look at the races for the League's individual awards, while profiling some of the most surprising players and teams as we look ahead to the final three months of the season.
There have been some breakout performers this season on defense, but as the halfway point beckons, the top spots in the race for the Norris Trophy are occupied by the players who have been among the League's elite in recent seasons.
Florida's Brian Campbell has been vital to the Panthers' surprising success, and if there was room for a fourth finalist on this list, it would be him. Ottawa's Erik Karlsson is having a fantastic offensive season, but he's been on the ice for the third-most goals-against at even strength.
NHL.com's top three all have finished in the top two of the Norris voting in the past two seasons. Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom won last season and is one shy of tying Bobby Orr for the most in League history. Chara won two seasons ago, and Weber finished second to Lidstrom this past season.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins -- The case for Chara is pretty simple -- he plays against the opposing team's best players at even strength, and his team dominates. As of Saturday's games, Chara was fourth among NHL defenseman in advanced hockey statistic website Behind the Net's quality of competition rating, behind only Carolina's Tim Gleason and the Rangers' Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh.
Despite the tough competition, Chara has been on the ice for 22 more goals-for than goals-against (39-17). The only other player in the top 15 in quality of competition and who is better than plus-6 is Chara's defense partner, Johnny Boychuk. Chara also has been excellent on the penalty kill -- he leads Boston's defense corps in shorthanded ice time per game (3:19), and has been on the ice for only four more power-play goals-against than shorthanded goals-for (7-3).
Chara also is tied for sixth in goals and tied for seventh in points at his position, but his work against tough competition sets him apart -- especially since Shea Weber's second quarter wasn't as strong as his first.
Shea Weber, Nashville Predators -- Weber missed four games with a concussion, but a bigger reason he has slipped from favorite to finalist is he and partner Ryan Suter have not been as dominant in the second quarter of the season. Weber is second among defensemen in goals, third in points and fifth in average time on ice per game (26:19).
He's also been on the ice for 24 power-play goals, which is tied with Campbell for the most in the League. Weber has been better than Chara on the power play, but the Bruins' captain has been slightly better on the penalty kill (played more and against tougher competition), and definitely better at even strength.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings -- Lidstrom is tied for fourth among defensemen in goals, and hanging around the fringes of the points leaders (tied for 13th). He's essentially the second-best No. 1 defenseman according to the quality of competition numbers at Behind the Net.
Another strong part of his case is the play of partner Ian White. Lidstrom has been on the ice for 86 percent of White's even-strength ice time, and the blueliner, who has played for five teams in his eight NHL seasons, is having a career year (he's been on the ice for 42 goals and only 18 against at even strength).