The James Norris Memorial Trophy is awarded every year to the NHL’s top defenseman. The requirement an individual needs to meet to receive this accolade is simple: “a player who demonstrates throughout the regular season the greatest all-round ability in the position.”
First given out in 1954, 25 different players have held this esteemed honor. Bobby Orr, who revolutionized the defensive position by utilizing his explosive speed to put up points, won the award a record eight consecutive seasons (1968-1975). Throughout its existence, the Norris Trophy often has been bestowed upon the d-man who has performed spectacularly offensively that year.
This has been particularly evident in the last two years as Ottawa Senator Erik Karlsson and Montreal Canadien P.K. Subban have captured the title as the league’s top blueliner. When Karlsson was awarded the Norris in 2012, he registered a career-high 78 points in 81 games, leading all defenseman in that category. Such an offensive explosion from a player whose job is to stop the other team from scoring was praised, despite widespread criticism from around the league for his defensive play that season. Subban also led his position in points with 38 in 42 games during the lockout-shortened season of 2013. His offensive prowess was enough for the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, as the 24-year-old received 66 first-place votes in the Norris Trophy voting. He narrowly beat out Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter for the award, only receiving one more first-place vote.
This decision was also met with scrutiny as while Subban led offensively, though only by six points over Suter’s 32 that season, the Toronto native averaged 23:14 minutes of ice time per game. Suter, on the other hand, led ALL players in that category with 27:16 minutes with an average of 31 shifts a game. Also, Subban registered 57 penalty minutes during the regular season, while Suter committed only twelve minor penalties. Noticing a trend here?
The Norris Trophy should not be given out to a defenseman who has the most talent from an offensive standpoint, because that is not the award’s entire purpose. A defenseman is simply that, a defender; one who shuts down the opposition with great poise, as well as leading the organization in which they represent both on and off the ice. As time has passed, more and more defensemen have succumbed to implementing a higher standard of offense into their playing style. In the end, preventing scoring chances and creating turnovers is just as vital to hockey as scoring goals.
If people disagree, why not add a new “Bobby Orr” award (which The Hockey News gives out every season) that honors an individual’s prolific scoring from the defensive position? That way, we can reward both offensive and defensive-minded defenseman for their respective play. Until then, we must decide who the award will be distributed to by judging stand-out two-way performance, not just one aspect of their game.
As the 2013-2014 regular season comes to a close in the next coming weeks, we will have a better understanding of who will be recognized as the NHL’s top defenseman. Here are my top three candidates for who will take home the James Norris Memorial Trophy in June:
3. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues (8G, 42A, 50P)
Nobody has contributed more to the dominating St. Louis Blues defense than Alex Pietrangelo. The 24-year-old has certainly ushered himself into the upper-echelon of blueliners throughout the National Hockey League thanks to his terrific transition game. Averaging just a little over 32 shifts a game (2nd in the NHL), Pietrangelo has found himself in the top 10 for both plus/minus and ice time among d-men. The individual statistics speak for themselves, but what is more impressive is the impact he has on his team. With Pietrangelo at the helm, the Blues have amassed a defense which allows the second fewest shots per game as well as boasting a penalty-killing unit that is ranked number two in the NHL. Head coach Ken Hitchcock turns to Pietrangelo in a variety of scenarios for St. Louis.
Whether it is on the power-play, killing a penalty, or simply at even strength, “Petro” is one of the most reliable defenseman in today’s game. He is able to take up the puck with ease, utilizing his excellent vision to find his teammates as well as keep the puck away from oncoming forecheckers. His pinching ability along the end boards has also paid dividends. Each and every night, the King City, Ontario native is matched up against the opposition’s top forward lines and does a brilliant job hindering defensive miscues along with his partner Jay Bouwmeester. The Blues are in a race for both the Western Conference title and the President’s trophy, and Pietrangelo’s play is a direct cause of that fact. He won his first Olympic gold medal with Canada in Sochi, but whether he captures his first Norris Trophy this offseason remains to be seen.
2. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild (7G, 31A, 48P)
For a team that has lost both its starting goaltender (Niklas Backstrom) and backup netminder (Josh Harding) to injuries for an extended period of time, the Minnesota Wild has played excellent defensively this season. Assistant captain Ryan Suter has had to play big for his hometown team as they attempt to qualify for the playoffs for the second consecutive season, literally. The 29-year-old leads all skaters by playing an average of over 29 minutes of ice time a game; he leads the league in shifts/game with 32.2. Despite his plethora of playing time, the U.S. Olympian has become a disciplined defenseman over the past few seasons. During his seven-year tenure with the Predators, Suter racked up more than 70 PIM in two straight years.
This season, Suter has only registered 30 penalty minutes. This is a player who sees the most ice time out of anyone in the league, but manages to stay out of the box while playing a physical game. Although he isn’t surrounded by superstars on the blue line like St. Louis or Chicago, Suter has molded a young defensive core into a mature group. Suter has been a dominant force in all three zones his entire career, and he is gaining respect from around the NHL. The Wild are 6th in the NHL in goals-against average this season and are fighting down the stretch for a wildcard spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. Ryan Suter has the opportunity to become the first American Norris Trophy winner since Brian Leech back in 1997. However, I don’t believe he will do it this season.
1. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks (6G, 51A, 57P)
Blackhawks fans have been spoiled with the presence of Duncan Keith in their lineup. After winning the Norris Trophy back in 2010, his production diminished slightly. Now in 2013-2014, he has returned to his top form. Keith is the true definition of a defenseman in today’s NHL. Leading d-men in assists, the 30-year-old is also among the league leaders in takeaways. He is arguably the hardest defenseman in the league to play against, and let me tell you why.
Take him one on one into the zone, and he is going to use his terrific poke-checking ability to knock the puck away. Dump it down into the corner boards, and he boxes you out and takes control of the play. One of the most dominating facets of his game is that Keith doesn’t waste any time when the puck is on his stick. While rushing up the ice, the eight-year d-man sets out on finding an open Hawk streaking, and hits him in stride beautifully. The Winnipeg native doesn’t need to look at his intended pass recipient, he’s that efficient.
What sets Keith apart from the rest is his impeccable two-way play. No other defenseman in the league is able to match his combined offensive and defensive supremacy. He is one of the most composed defenders on the ice and will do anything for his team in order to seal a victory (that includes stopping a puck and losing seven teeth in the process). He’s won two Olympic gold medals, two Stanley Cups, and there is no reason why Duncan Keith won’t win his second Norris Trophy this year.
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