It’s about that time of the year again. While most players are either growing their playoff beards or hitting the links, the NHL award voters will be pouring over the stat sheets and game footage to figure out who will be honored for their seasons work.
While some of the results are already foregone conclusions (unless everyone collectively shuns Crosby) there are a few races that can be deemed wide open. But there is one race in particular that appears to be more intriguing than any other. Instead of having just a few horses at the head of the pack there are a cavalry of them heading down the straight, and they all have the James Norris Memorial Trophy in their sights.
Amongst those favorites are a few former winners such as Chicago’s Duncan Keith, Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson. There are also those who are searching for their first win such as Minnesota’s Ryan Suter, Nashville’s Shea Weber and St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo. All six have had superb seasons and would be worthy of receiving the award.
There is one name missing amongst the ranks though. He’s a former Norris finalist and widely considered to be one of the best all-around defenseman in the NHL at the ripe old age of 24. He also just so happened to be named the best defenseman at the Sochi Olympics. The man I speak of is no other than Drew Doughty.
So how does a guy who dominates on the Olympic stage and submits a fantastic overall season get completely overlooked in the Norris discussion? Let’s take a look.
What’s Holding Him Back
If we’re going to pin the blame on a single factor it has to be Doughty’s offensive output. In 78 games he’s tallied 37 points which puts his point per game average at .47. When compared to the point per game averages of fellow Norris contenders such as Duncan Keith (.78 p/g) and Shea Weber (.69 p/g) the numbers just don’t stack up very well.
Why is a defenseman’s point total a deciding factor? Outside of the obvious answer of it being an integral part of the game, no one’s really sure why it’s become such a go-to stat when voting is concerned (flashiness maybe?). All anyone knows is that it has become a very telling stat when the Norris is concerned.
Take the previous two winners as prime examples. Erik Karlsson took home the trophy in 2012 after posting 78 points in 81 games, the highest total for a defensemen since Nicklas Lidstrom had 80 in the 2005-06 season. P.K. Subban was handed the award just this past year after having 38 points in 42 games. Both youngsters aren’t exactly known for their defensive skill-set (although Subban knows how to throw his weight around) and both received rather favorable matchups by their coaches (neither player’s quality of competition based on corsi was above -0.270 during their winning season). Meanwhile other favorites, such as Shea Weber in 2012 and Ryan Suter in 2013, had more balanced statistical seasons, played more minutes and faced tougher competition on a game-by-game basis.
What this tells us is that scoring is pretty dang important in the eyes of the voters. In fact, the last time that a defenseman tallied under 50 points and still won the Norris was back in 1984 when Rod Langway won the award with 33 points. That’s a mark that Doughty likely won’t reach considering he has four games (possibly less if he sits out with his upper body injury) to snag 13 more points.
Why That Shouldn’t Matter
Here’s the definition of the James Norris Memorial Trophy: it is awarded to the NHL’s top defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position. Notice how it states ‘all-around ability’ in the definition. That’s what the voters should be focusing on when they cast their ballots at the end of the season.
Yes, Drew Doughty’s offensive production has dwindled since his 59 point outburst during the 2009-10 season, but that doesn’t mean he has lost a step in that zone. Instead it’s the LA Kings organization that has taken an offensive nosedive since that year. In 2009-10 they averaged 2.82 goals per game, good enough for 9th in the NHL. In 2013-14 they are averaging just 2.41 goals per game, which places them 26th in the league. It’s hard to put up the points necessary to compete with the likes of Karlsson and Subban when your whole team in general lacks in that department.
Here’s the interesting part about the offensive production argument; if Doughty was placed in a free flowing system or wanted to put up a ridiculous point total, he absolutely could. He entered the NHL as one of the best offensive-defensemen scouts had seen in years, and he proved that sentiment with his 59 point sophomore season. With his growing skillset he could have been in arms reach of the point per game average within the first five years of his career. So why didn’t he? Simply put, that’s not what the organization needed.
The LA Kings drafted Doughty with the belief that he would one day become a #1 defenseman. And what do you think of when someone says #1 defenseman? A shutdown, ice-eating, time consuming blueliner that join the attack whenever need be. That’s not something Doughty necessarily was when he entered the NHL. He could join the attack and play a solid chunk of minutes, but a shutdown defenseman? Not quite.
Fast-forward a few years and outside of Chara and Weber, you probably won’t find a d-man that is as good as Doughty when it comes to going up against the opposition’s top line. He’s combined his entire skill set (size, speed, tenacity, IQ) together and hos morphed into a defenseman that headlines a team that has the best goals against average (2.05) in the NHL and the 2nd best shots against average per game (26.3).
Even if you ignore his team’s defensive success his numbers alone are enough to catch a few glances. He’s averaging 25:42 of ice time per game (7th amongst D-men), is a +18 (which of course means little, but it’s still impressive), has dished out 180 hits (a part of his game that was a concern when he was drafted) and has 16 power play points. When you switch the stats over to the advanced variety it becomes even more impressive. 54.9% of his shifts end in the offensive zone, his on-ice corsi is 18.37 and his Fenwick for % is at 58.5. Those stats pretty much mean he is a dominant force when he is on the ice.
Does this mean that Doughty should be the overwhelming favorite to win the Norris? Not at all. There are a few defenseman out there with stat lines just as impressive as his. But does it mean that Doughty should at least be in the discussion? Absolutely.