With about a month left in the season, the top three or four candidates for every major individual award except one are pretty clear.
That one is the Norris Trophy, and this might be the most wide-open race of any individual award in the past several seasons. Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames was considered a favorite by many prominent pundits, but his injury has left as many as 15 or 16 defensemen with a case to be in the conversation.
There is no clear-cut favorite. If someone says there is, that someone isn't paying nearly enough attention to the data available to judge defensemen.
More than the other two positions on the ice, it is extremely difficult to judge a defenseman's play by just watching the games, and even viewing every game a defenseman plays doesn't provide enough context in an argument involving guys from 10 other teams.
Let's take a look at the top 14 defensemen that could be in the discussion for the Norris (apologies to Anton Stralman, Ryan Suter and anyone else who just missed the cut). Below is a table with lots of relevant information, followed by three player usage charts generated at Rob Vollman's website, www.hockeyabstract.com.
|*scoring chance percentage and scoring chance percentage relative to team average, from www.war-on-ice.com
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After looking over all of that data, does any player stick out like an obvious frontrunner for best defenseman?
Here's the case for (or against) each of the viable candidates, presented alphabetically by team:
Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins: Hamilton has had a great season and deserves to be on the fringe of this discussion. He has played well with and without Zdeno Chara. He might be the most likely guy to not breach the top 10 in the voting in this group.
Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames: It's going to be almost impossible for him to win after missing a quarter of the season. He might still deserve to be in the top five or so of the voting in a month.
TJ Brodie, Calgary Flames: His case, at this point, is not as strong as Giordano's but he has a real chance to strengthen it in the final month. His possession numbers are almost certain to suffer depending on his partner.
Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes: The most underrated performance of the 2014-15 season in the NHL. Faulk's traditional numbers could be even better if his shooting plus save percentage (SPSv%) wasn't so depressed. Players on bad teams don't typically win major awards, but there's a strong case for him to finish in the top five or six of the voting.
Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: He doesn't have the gaudy point total, but the 2014 winner has still been great this season. Not playing against tougher competition might hurt him this time (along with teammates not shooting as high a percentage as they did last season).
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: No one has played better in more minutes than Doughty. Pretty much any non-analytical argument for Shea Weber is actually a better argument for Doughty, and Doughty's advanced stats are clearly superior.
Jake Muzzin, Los Angeles Kings: Muzzin has seen more ice time away from Doughty this season and continued to excel. Any notion he's not an elite defenseman is simply folly at this point. Could he finish ahead of Doughty in the voting? Probably not.
P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens: Subban isn't getting enough credit for Montreal's success, because Carey Price has been incredible. When Subban is on the ice, the Canadiens are a competent possession team. At this point, he deserves to be a finalist and could make a move to the top with a big final month.
Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: There are plenty of people who think Weber is going to win the Norris. There is almost no statistical basis for arguing Weber has been the best defenseman in the NHL this season. His point total and plus-minus are inflated by a high SPSv%.
There is almost no statistical basis for arguing Shea Weber has been the best defenseman in the NHL this season. (Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI)
The advanced statistics can be wrong. Some of Weber's problem could be usage. That said, the numbers have to be really wrong and that is much harder to believe. In years past, the Predators were a middling possession team, so Weber's numbers didn't look so out of place. This season Nashville has been a great possession team, and it's hard to accept his numbers compared to the other top Norris candidates.
Roman Josi, Nashville Predators: Josi is hard to separate from Weber. If Weber gets a lot of first-place votes, maybe Josi cracks the top 10. If not, he's in Hamilton's territory with this group.
Nick Leddy, New York Islanders: If Leddy played more, there could have been a strong argument for him to win. Jack Capuano hasn't let any of his defensemen play 22 minutes per game though, and now the injury isn't going to help. He's been fantastic this season, and a huge part of New York's turnaround.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: He could end up with the most goals and points, and that's typically good for at least an invite to Las Vegas. He's better defensively than some pundits still think, and the Senators' recent surge has probably pushed his name back into the group of top contenders.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: An incredible story given what he's gone through, Letang has thrived with new coach Mike Johnston. His relative numbers look great as well, though some of that is because of more sheltered usage compared to some of the other top candidates.
John Carlson, Washington Capitals: A fascinating case, Carlson has the worst possession and scoring chance numbers of anyone here besides the Nashville duo. He also has the most even-strength points and has played with noted possession suppresser Brooks Orpik the entire season. He feels like a wild card, like he could have the widest range of placement on voters' ballots of anyone here.
So who deserves to win the Norris? That remains an unanswered question. There could be a half-dozen candidates with a strong case, and a half-dozen more who could be deserving of a top-five or top-six finish.
It says here, on March 13, that Doughty, Subban and Giordano are the three best candidates, with Karlsson, Faulk and Letang not far behind and Weber, Muzzin and Brodie the three just off the pace that could make a late surge.
DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks have been one of the best teams at preventing goals all season, and losing Patrick Kane didn't stop that. Adding Antoine Vermette and especially Kimmo Timonen might even help in that department. Chicago has allowed 10 goals in the past six games (when Kane was injured) and they are 4-1-1 in that span. The Blackhawks are second in the League in goals-against per game to Carey Price.
2. Los Angeles Kings
In each of the two seasons when the Kings won the Stanley Cup, their team shooting percentage was low before they starting pouring in goals near the end of the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Are the Kings going to score in bunches deep into the spring this year?
Los Angeles' shooting percentage at even strength on Feb. 4, the day before the start of the eight-game winning streak, was 7.2 percent at even strength. That's a little low, but not comically so like last season. Since then, the Kings are 11-3-1 and they're shooting 9.4 percent at evens. Right now their SPSv% for the season is sitting at 1001. Expecting them to average three goals per game for another 16 games plus a playoff run might be a stretch, but they should continue to score more than they were earlier in the season.
3. Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings have forged nearly a quarter-century of consecutive playoff appearances in large part because of their ability to mine later rounds in the NHL Draft for elite talent. From Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and many others, Detroit finds players (especially in Europe) later in the draft better than anyone else.
That has continued in recent seasons. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have joined Datsyuk and Zetterberg among the Red Wings' top four scorers this season. Tatar, at No. 60 in 2009, is the earliest any of the quartet went in the draft.
There are 24 teams with at least one top-10 pick (by any team, not just homegrown players) among their current top four scorers. The other five teams (Nashville, St. Louis, Buffalo, Anaheim and Montreal) all have at least one first-round pick among their top four. Montreal's Max Pacioretty, at No. 22, is the lowest in the League other than Tatar at 60.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Whether someone prefers to call them "The Triplets" (there are T-shirts with that name available in the team store at Amalie Arena) or "That Line," the trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov has been a revelation this season for the Lightning. They have combined for more points while on the ice together than any other forward trio, and by a significant margin as the graph with data from www.dobberhockey.com shows.
Some coaches don't like to stick with lines. Some teams just can't because of injury or poor performance. These three have been fantastic together all season, and the chemistry is evident. Palat will miss 2-3 weeks with a lower-body injury, the Lightning announced Thursday, but that should have him back before the playoffs begin. What should be terrifying for other teams in the Eastern Conference is that second graph. Not only has it been the best line in the League this season, it's easily the youngest of that group.
If Jonathan Drouin develops into a trusty sidekick for Steven Stamkos, the Lightning could roll out two frightening lines for years to come.
5. St. Louis Blues
The Blues have clearly benefited from stability with their top two lines (see the graph above). That makes Paul Stastny the best No. 3 center in the NHL, and a real advantage in a playoff series provided Jori Lehtera holds up. Once St. Louis gets healthy on defense, it is still possible the two best teams in the West will meet in the first round.
6. New York Rangers
The Rangers are a pretty strong advertisement for college hockey these days. Seven of their top 11 scorers are NCAA alums. Some are homegrown, like Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, and others have been added through free agency and trades. Even the star of the moment, backup goaltender Cam Talbot, is an NCAA guy. He might be the most famous Alabama-Huntsville alum, but he's not the most accomplished (yet). Jan Davis went into space three times and John Hendricks created the Discovery Channel.
7. Anaheim Ducks
Speaking of No. 3 centers, Rickard Rakell has earned that role with the Ducks, fending off fellow prospect William Karlsson (since traded) for a spot in the middle behind Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. Except he's not really getting No. 3 minutes. It's more of a 3A/3B situation with Nate Thompson than a true 3/4 split.
Rakell has superior possession numbers, scoring chance numbers both for and against (based on data from www.war-on-ice.com) and offensive production. The gap between his play and Thompson's cannot be explained away by zone starts (Thompson sees more in the defensive zone, but it's not an extreme difference) or quality of competition (Rakell faces tougher, actually). It seems like a veteran versus youth trust issue for the Ducks. There's easily 2-3 minutes per game in Thompson's workload that could be going to Rakell.
8. Nashville Predators
The goals have dried up of late. Nashville has 24 in the past 11 games, and only one regulation win in that span. Filip Forsberg has had a marvelous rookie season, but he has three points in his past 13 games. Johnny Gaudreau has closed the gap to three points in the rookie scoring race, but more importantly it could mean more voters consider Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad for the Calder Trophy.
In better news, here is a graph of the top scoring defense partnerships to accompany the forwards earlier. Calgary's Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie might have run away with this if not for Giordano's injury, but Shea Weber and Roman Josi have been a consistently productive pairing. As discussed earlier, the analytics-friendly crowd is less impressed with their overall body of work though.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins
While the Penguins appear to be a longshot to win the Metropolitan Division given how well the Rangers are playing, their schedule might give them a chance to get on a run. Their game Thursday against the Edmonton Oilers started a stretch in which 12 of the final 16 are against teams in the bottom 12 of the NHL standings, and after this weekend it is 11 of the final 13. Pittsburgh's four games against top-18 sides are also all at Consol Energy Center.
10. Minnesota Wild
In the first 42 games of the season, the Wild allowed four goals or more 16 times and went 2-13-1 in those games. In the 25 since Devan Dubnyk took control of the crease, the Wild have allowed four goals once, and still earned a point in that contest.
11. Montreal Canadiens
In Price's past four starts, the Canadiens have managed to score three goals and lose three times despite the Hart Trophy favorite making 127 saves on 135 shots. Price could carry the Canadiens deep into the postseason, but an offensive outage would certainly mean an early exit.
12. New York Islanders
Nick Leddy, as previously mentioned, is a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate and maybe the most important addition any team made from the end of last season until opening night. The Islanders are set for a nice boost from the return of Kyle Okposo, but Leddy has become arguably their second-most important player. With him, the Islanders can win the East. Without him, they would be hard pressed to advance, especially considering how tight the Metro is.
13. Washington Capitals
Brooks Orpik missed a game Wednesday. This was significant because it was the first game a member of Washington's top two defense pairings has missed this season. Nashville is the only other team with three defensemen who have played in every game, and the Predators' fourth guy, Mattias Ekholm, has missed two games. Also, Orpik's place on that list of potent defense pairings above is another reason John Carlson deserves Norris Trophy consideration.
14. Winnipeg Jets
It's a really, really small sample size, but it's been a month since the big trade with the Buffalo Sabres. Before the trade, Zach Bogosian's shot attempts percentage (SAT%) relative to his team's average was minus-2.7 percent. Since arriving in Buffalo, it is 2.7 percent. Tyler Myers' SAT%rel with the Sabres was minus-4.9 percent and with the Jets it is minus 4.7 percent.
Myers is facing about the same level of competition and actually seeing more offensive zone starts with Winnipeg. He also has a much better partner (Tobias Enstrom) than he did in Buffalo (Josh Gorges).
It's still early, but the Jets need Myers to help them into the playoffs for the first time since moving to Winnipeg, and it's hard to say he's been much of an upgrade from Bogosian at this point. He does have nine points in 11 games, but defensive scoring, especially assists, can fluctuate because of a lot of factors beyond said defenseman's control.
15. Boston Bruins
The Bruins lost their second-best center to injury, then traded for some offensive help and that guy got hurt as well. The Florida Panthers added Jaromir Jagr and the Ottawa Senators started playing a goaltender who suddenly went from average at best in the American Hockey League to Carey Price-like in the NHL.
Things were bleak in Boston, and not because of the snow banks. A week later, the Bruins suddenly look safe. They won the games in hand on the Panthers and won a game in regulation against the Senators. They are six points up on Florida with 16 games to go. That's a pretty good place to be, with possibly a chance to play the underdog role against the rival Canadiens looming as well.
16. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks are pretty much the opposite of the Capitals. None of the defensemen have played more than 60 games. Vancouver also doesn't have a defenseman with more than six goals. The only other teams who don't are the Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils.