Making the case for each of the NHL's Norris Trophy contenders

·12-min read

For the second consecutive year, there will be little suspense as to who captures the various NHL awards this season.

Auston Matthews has pulled away from Igor Shesterkin in the Hart Trophy race, it’s a two-man fight for the Rocket Richard, Shesterkin has left his contemporaries in the dust for the Vezina, while Patrice Bergeron has turned back the clock to submit a vintage two-way season as his name will be engraved on the Selke once again.

But the race for the Norris Trophy remains undecided as the regular season veers into the April stretch run and it may come down to the wire. We’ll make a case for each candidate and then submit our fictional (PHWA, let me in!) awards ballot.

*All stats current as of April 1, 2022, all advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick unless noted otherwise

Roman Josi has mastered the art of remaining calm, cool and collected

Sportsnet’s Shayna Goldman recently wrote a definitive breakdown of Josi’s game, which illustrated his puck distribution skills and controlled exits way better than I possibly could. And the most salient points of Goldman’s analysis form a simple entry point into Josi’s case: there isn’t a better defender in the world at advancing the puck into the opposition’s end and Josi isn’t merely an offensive dynamo, he’s also elite at defending in his own end.

Josi’s statistical profile is entering rarified air after a March for the ages, where he recorded four goals and 28 points — only Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey have posted better single-month totals for a defenseman. We haven't adjusted Josi’s totals to account for Orr and Coffey’s ability to thrive in a defense-optional era, either. At the time of this filing, Josi leads all defensemen with 81 points, ranks third with 18 goals and is logging over 25 minutes per game. It would be hyperbolic to suggest that Josi is single-handedly keeping the Predators alive in the playoff race but he’s the central reason why they’re afloat and he’s 13 points up on his team’s next-best scorer, Matt Duchene.

Nashville’s captain doesn’t have to enter the rush to create quality scoring chances, with just three rush chances at 5-on-5 this season. In high-leverage and overtime scenarios, Josi will begin to take more calculated risks — this sequence where he immediately cuts up the ice for a 2-on-1 and feeds Tanner Jeannot for the overtime winner in December against the Blackhawks is a great example. He doesn’t have to force his own offense, knowing the game will naturally come to him.

“He understands that maybe the rush game isn't there every night,” Predators head coach John Hynes told theScore’s John Matisz in February.

“There aren't a lot of gaps, not a lot of free ice today, so how else can he generate it? It might be from offensive-zone play, where he's more active in the (offensive) zone. That's where we think his game is continuing to grow because he's picking his spots better and creating offense in different ways."

Josi’s exceptional skating ability and patience allow him to unlock the Predators’ attack. There are few better instances than this play on March 27 against the Flyers. After receiving the puck outside the blue line, Josi blazes into the offensive zone as Flyers defenseman Kyle Connaughton is careful not to overcommit.

It was not a bad idea in a vacuum from Connaughton but it’s fruitless here as Kevin Hayes’ half-hearted stick-check allowed Josi to make a second read, where Yakob Trenin boxed out his defender and created a screen. Josi tossed a seeing-eye wrist shot towards the net and Trenin deflected it home.

With Josi on the ice at 5-on-5, the Predators control a 51 percent possession share and just over 52 percent of the expected goals. These aren’t whopping numbers but they are better than the Predators’ overall Corsi and expected goals for percentages. With Josi on the ice as an offensive catalyst and defensive mastermind, it’s an indication that he’s mastered the art of remaining calm even as his volume increases.

Is Josi slated to win the Norris for the second time in three years? Standing directly in his way is a player who many thought had the award all but locked up in December.

Cale Makar is a human highlight reel and can truly do it all for the Avalanche

Cale Makar has an excellent case for the NHL's Norris Trophy this year. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Cale Makar has an excellent case for the NHL's Norris Trophy this year. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

If you’re the best player on the best team in the league while acing the eye test with an extraordinary combination of elite speed, puck skills, offensive invention, while logging heavy minutes, the Norris should be yours, right? It often seems that it’s Cale Makar’s world and we’re all just living in it.

Makar has the best highlight reel among any defenseman in the NHL this season and if some want to argue he has the coolest looking tape in the league, we’re not going to argue loudly. The 23-year-old is able to navigate spaces in a similar manner to Brayden Point. He can improvise at the blue line with such clarity and fluency that it causes opposing defenses to panic, subsequently opening shooting lanes for himself and teammates.

Makar can shoot through traffic, he can dart around traffic, he can become a one-man offensive rush if he so desires, and his recovery speed gets him out of trouble when he does choose to take heightened risks. EP Rinkside’s Dimitri Filipovic has compiled the best of Makar’s blue-line moves from this season and it’s almost as if Makar is a one-man offense unto himself.

Makar’s 24 goals are already an Avalanche single-season record for a defenseman — in an organization that once held Ray Bourque and Rob Blake at the turn of the century — and his 75 points only trail Josi among blue-liners. The advanced numbers also fortify Makar’s case as the Avalanche hold a 56 percent possession share when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, with a 64 percent share of the expected goals.

Makar has played the vast majority of the season with Devon Toews, who once again is a down-ballot candidate in his own right and during the 734 minutes and 40 seconds they’ve logged together, the pair boasts a 58 percent possession share, a 58 percent share of the expected goals and a 69 percent share of the actual goals. Not bad, especially when some have floated the idea that Makar isn’t as sound in his own end as his all-star contemporaries.

It’s likely coming down to the wire between Josi and Makar, with the next two players having an outside chance at playing spoiler. But you’ll never want to count the next guy out, especially with his winning pedigree.

This isn’t a reputation pick, Victor Hedman is once again among the NHL’s very best

Hedman used to be the default answer when it came to assessing the best defenseman in the world based on his pedigree and reputation while playing an indispensable role on a Lightning team that emerged as back-to-back champions. Last year, we argued in this column that Hedman didn’t deserve to be in the Norris race, even if the reasons for his declining play were easily understood as he was battling through an injury that was later revealed to be a torn meniscus.

All he needed was some rest as he is back among the NHL’s very best defenders and is having a season that stands out among his first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

The defending champions hold a 54 percent share of the possession and a 56 percent share of the expected goals when Hedman’s on the ice at 5-on-5, while the Lightning star has posted a career-best 19 goals and is on pace for the most points of his career. Playing the vast majority of his minutes alongside Jan Rutta, Hedman has become the team’s ironman once again as he hasn’t missed a game, while trailing captain Steven Stamkos by nine points for the team’s scoring lead.

Hedman has never been a player to force his own offense while his defense suffers, but scoring has become a key imperative for the 31-year-old. He’s jumping into the rush and the slot with increased frequency as the season goes on, leading to five goals in his past eight games.

When Hedman is at his best, as he’s often been this year, the game looks comically easy for him. A recent example: Hedman joins the rush during the power play against the Islanders and is initially unmarked. After receiving a less-than-perfect pass from Brayden Point, Hedman corrals the puck while simultaneously fighting off Islanders veteran defender Andy Greene, and in one motion, he’s off to the races. One quick look up and Hedman has rocketed a wrist shot past Ilya Sorokin that wouldn’t have looked out of place from some of the NHL’s best snipers. It barely looked like Hedman exited second gear and yet he tied the game with one move, as the Lightning then proceeded to stomp out the Islanders.

I wrote about Hedman operating as a deep-lying playmaker for the Lightning during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final and he can certainly operate in that role with fluency this year. There’s nothing he can’t do and he’s won every single award short of the Hart Trophy throughout his career. And while it seems like Josi and Makar have elevated beyond their competition, Hedman is rounding into peak form at the right time during what’s already been a stellar season. Will he have enough time to tip the balance back in his favour?

Adam Fox may be the NHL’s best defensive defenseman but is it enough to repeat?

There is a convenient narrative about the 2021-22 New York Rangers that’s also wildly incorrect: Igor Sheshterkin and Chris Kreider’s performances have single-handedly elevated the Blueshirts back into playoff contention, while the rest of the roster isn’t pulling their weight. If we’re indeed fighting a straw man here, our due apologies — to the strawman, I guess — but Fox not only provides surplus offensive value, he may be the NHL’s best defensive defenseman, and that’s more than a mere footnote. Fox’s 10 goals and 66 points already surpassed last year’s totals where he won the Norris Trophy and are perhaps obscured only because of Josi and Makar’s eye-popping numbers.

Fox’s 49 takeaways at 5-on-5 are tied for fifth-best in the NHL, trailing only Alex Pietrangelo and Mackenzie Weegar among defensemen. He easily has the best takeaways/giveaways ratio among the four genuine Norris contenders and is able to skate the puck out of his zone with relative ease. In a similar vein to Josi and Hedman alike, Fox will increase his risks in high-leverage scenarios and it often pays dividends, as evidenced here:

If anything, Fox may be undone by his advanced numbers, but we assure you it’s not entirely his fault. New York carries a 48 percent possession mark and a 49 percent share of the expected goals when Fox is on the ice, numbers that if read out of context would suggest he’s doing a sub-par job of affecting his team’s overall quality of play. That isn’t the case. New York holds a 46 percent share of possession and a 46 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 as a team, as Fox and partner Ryan Lindgren are doing their all to elevate team-wide mediocrity at even strength.

The 2022 Rangers have been almost defined by their roster imbalance as Sheshterkin should win the Vezina in a landslide. But the idea that Kreider — who trails Fox by one point — has been more impactful than Fox simply isn’t tenable here. You would think that Fox’s Norris campaign would be aided by the Rangers’ team success but it seems unlikely that he’ll repeat, barring an incredible final 10 games of the year. Fox is one of the best four defensemen in the NHL and if that constitutes a down year, the Rangers will be laughing all the way to Wall Street.

So, what’s the verdict?

  1. Cale Makar

  2. Roman Josi

  3. Victor Hedman

  4. Adam Fox

  5. Aaron Ekblad

Honourable mentions: Mackenzie Weegar (Florida), Charlie McAvoy (Boston), Jaccob Slavin (Carolina), Devon Toews (Colorado), Kris Letang (Pittsburgh)

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