NHL: Norris Trophy Candidates Excelled Under Varied Circumstances

Zdeno Chara
Timothy T Ludwig USA TODAY Sports

The Norris Trophy is handed out each year “to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.” This year, the three final nominations were Boston’s Zdeno Chara (his sixth top-three nomination), Chicago’s Duncan Keith (his second), and Nashville’s Shea Weber (his third).

The value of a defenseman is always difficult to measure. There are are so many variables to consider that it may actually be more difficult to parse out players for this trophy than any other (Selke possibly excepted). Also, different individuals will place different weights on these variables. Here are just a few of the considerations that need to be made when assessing “the greatest all-around ability”

  • Are second pairing defensemen necessarily eliminated from contention?
  • How much does offensive production factor?
  • Does a team’s success affect the success of the defenseman?
  • Can usage rates – zone starts, line matching – be used as tie-breakers?
  • Does the defenseman play in front of a poor goaltender?

These are just some of the questions to ask and sometimes there isn’t an easy (or at least objective) answer.

With that said, here is the case for each of the three nominees.

Zdeno Chara

The most dominant defenseman of the last few years, Chara put up his ninth consecutive non-lockout 40-point season with 17 goals and 23 assists. Of course, that goal total of Chara’s should be taken in to a bit of context. Chara was used frequently as a front-of-the-net presence on the power play and this led to 10 power play goals for him. Those 10 goals were his highest total for a season since 2008-2009. The 17 goals were because he shot a career-high 10.1-percent even though his shot-per-game rate was its lowest (2.18) for any season since 2001-2002. In fact, of the five defensemen in Boston that played at least 1000 minutes, Chara finished ahead of only Johnny Boychuk in points/60 minutes at 5-on-5.

Of course, it’s not offensively at 5-on-5 where Chara makes his living anyway. It was the third year in a row that Chara finished top-15 among regular NHL defensemen in CorsiFor-percentage (all shot attempts on the ice that belong to Boston), this year was 13th at 55.2-percent. That 55.2-percent is against top competition and with the worst offensive/defensive zone start ratio for any defenseman on his team. By top competition, I mean his two most common opponents were Thomas Vanek and Sidney Crosby. There were 16 players that faced Chara for at least 30 minutes at 5-on-5 this year, among the names besides the two just mentioned: James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Steven Stamkos, Chris Kunitz, Martin St. Louis, Max Pacioretty, Eric Staal, Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Claude Giroux. It was all top lines, all the time for Chara. Despite this, Chara was on the ice for just 37 goals against in 1384+ minutes played, or a little better than one goal every two games.

It really shouldn’t matter how he got his goals, especially considering how well Chara performed preventing them. There’s no doubt that having Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask helps, but Chara still performed very well without either of them.

Duncan Keith

Keith has one Norris Trophy already on his mantle (2009-2010) but surprisingly, this will be just the second time that he finishes in the top-3 in voting. I say it’s surprising because since 2008, Keith leads all defensemen in points (286) but he also is second among all defensemen in traditional plus/minus (106, Chara at 147). There could be a number of reasons why he doesn’t get the recognition of others, goals (hasn’t broken double digits since he won the Norris) and valuation of teammates like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane could be a couple of those reasons. Frankly, he’s been as most defensemen in hockey for a while now.

Keith was one of two defensemen to crack 60 points this year (61, Erik Karlsson had 74) and led all defensemen in assists (55). Keith also finished sixth among regular defensemen in CorsiFor-percentage (56.6). There are flaws in his season, though.

For the season at 5-on-5, Keith was on the ice for 58 goals against. A lot of those goals (25/58 or 43.1-percent) were scored in a non-score close situation (within a goal through 40 minutes, tied in the third period), though, despite playing just about 36-percent of his time in these non-score close situations. I would give him a break for the goals against in these types of situations were it not for his usage; Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya were used primarily against the top competition of the other team. Their top five opponents include Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, David Backes, and Zach Parise/Ryan O’Reilly, respectively. Keith’s top five opponents included Patrik Berglund, Cody Eakin, and Kyle Brodziak.

His possession ratings were elite and he was probably the victim of some shoddy goaltending behind him at times this year. With that said, being used in a secondary role on defense doesn’t help the cause for “greatest all-around ability.”

Shea Weber

Speaking of surprising Norris track records, Shea Weber has yet to win one. He finished second in back-to-back years in 2011 and 2012, losing to Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson. Not exactly getting the shaft, but he’s been elite for several years now.

Weber finished first in goals by a defenseman (23) and tied for third in points by a defenseman (56). While like Chara, many of his goals came on the power play (10/23), he was used in a more traditional defenseman’s role on the power play. He did have a spike in shooting percentage at 11.8-percent, but it’s not surreal, seeing as he’s had a season of 11.2-percent before. Offensively, Weber was phenomenal.

The usage/deployment rates from Weber are what is normal for a true top pairing defenseman; he had the worst offensive/defensive zone start ratio of all Nashville defensemen and faced the toughest competition of all defensemen. He didn’t have a very good CorsiFor-percentage at 48-percent. In fact, it ranked 106th out of 142 defensemen that played at least 62 games and got much worse when he didn’t play with teammate Roman Josi. The goals against (69) aren’t really his fault as Nashville finished with a lower 5-on-5 save percentage as a team (.910) than the New York Islanders (.911).

Weber’s case is a little tough to figure out. He put up great offensive numbers and was used in a true number one pairing situation. He didn’t really drive the play from the back end, though, at 5-on-5 and that may not have helped the rookie goalies Nashville was forced to use for over two-thirds of the season.

Predicted Winner: Zdeno Chara

Each player has their own flaws. Chara has excellent teammates to help out at times; Keith was used against secondary competition; Weber didn’t drive the play the other way to help his goalies (but also didn’t have a great team beside him). It’s all nit-picking among elite talents, obviously.

Chara, though, was so dominant at 5-on-5 that even his teammates can’t be held against him. He was used consistently against nothing but the toughest competition while in his own zone frequently yet was on the ice for nearly half the goals (37) of Weber (69). He did everything that could be asked in every facet of the game for a defenseman.

Alternate Nominee: Drew Doughty – Los Angeles Kings

It was really a magnificent season for Doughty. Sure, he had just 10 goals and 37 points, both of which would rank outside the top-15 for a defenseman, but they are still solid and it’s not like his team scored very much either; Los Angeles was 26th in goals for/game this year and 27th in power play efficiency.

Doughty was second in the NHL among defensemen in CorsiFor-percentage at 58.5-percent (frequent defense partner Jake Muzzin was first). In fact, the Kings were so good at limiting shots with Doughty on the ice that he was on the ice for 1.05 fewer shot attempts per 20 minutes of ice time than Zdeno Chara and his impenetrable fortress. This led to Doughty being on the ice for just 39 goals against at 5-on-5 in 1389 minutes of ice time.

There’s an argument to be made that Anze Kopitar had a big effect on Doughty and the Kings but Doughty drove the play almost as well without him, regardless.

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