The Department of Defense: Norris Trophy Preview

Courtesy of Wikipedia

SoHo, NY. – The James Norris Memorial Trophy is awarded to that one defenseman whose all-around play surpasses that of his contemporaries–a Hart trophy for said position, and an exercise in laud equivalent to the demarcation found in the Oscars that set apart Best Foreign film versus Best Animated Film versus Best Film (I mean, they’re all films right, but not really) so that there’s fairness among candidates’ chances of taking home the gold, but more importantly, to isolate the importance and unique abilities/talents needed to excel within said ‘category’.

If inspected closely, the defenseman’s position is the locus to where most hockey scholars look when making claims that the game is bigger, better, and faster than its humble origins.  Thus, with the likes of Bobby Orr, Nicklas Lidstrom, Raymond Bourque, and Denis Potvin you have the adjective of ‘offensive defenseman’ who aren’t only interested in holding the blueline and/or punishing forwards crossing blindly through the neutral zone, but rather, defensemen who are scorers and playmakers, deftly masquerading as a fourth man on a forward’s line.

So, with the evolution of the defenseman, other positions, especially the netminder, follow suit: goalies are forced to be a bit more aggressive in their crease, coming out further to prevent a pinch, a late and deep 2-on-1 opportunity, etc. Moreover, the need to play a hybrid-style to account for the overall surge in speed and skill, prove that goalies must take into consideration all players potentially crashing toward them or firing missiles their way. So, let’s add goaltenders to that list of loci that people use to take the pulse of hockey’s state of being at present. Why not?

Forwards will always find ways to be faster and stronger, but it’s due in large part to the bulk and speed amassed on the ‘back end’ of things: the force facing them as they whisk down the ice; the ferocity pummeling them into the boards or into the net or shoving them aside while attempting a screen.

And only a defenseman can ever be equated to a quarterback, the single most important secular position in any sport, second to a pitcher in baseball.

So, in order to gauge a player’s worthiness for this most prestigious hockey award, voters balance scoring and assists with production value*, the one category that sets this position apart from the others. And unless you’re absolutely brand-new to the game, PROD and TOI/G (Time on Ice per Game) is only achieved by playing gargantuan amounts of ice time that go unnoticed (I know I’m exaggerating, but so what) as most eyes are on the flair synonymous with forwards, until of course, there’s a power play or penalty kill. Then attention is turned toward your ‘General’ to organize the troops into battle.

And one last note: in my opinion, the “C” should always be worn by a defenseman. Two reasons: 1. his ability to clock significant ice time; 2. his ability to gauge his opponent properly, especially on special teams, because of reason #1.

Take the New York Islanders where Mark Streit is Captain. If you’re an Isles’s fan, how would categorize and characterize his play? Is he a definitive playmaker? scorer? quarterback? Is he a leader among men? Is he a nasty checker? grinder? Is he a brooding force on the ice? However you answer this question, your response will color in the Islanders defense as a whole, for however the winds blow for Streit affects the overall defensive scheme for his club.

[*Production value is calculated as follows: average ice time per every point recorded. So, take a d-man’s ice time on a given night, as an example, and divide that number by the amount of points produced: 30 minutes and 3 points, PROD would equal 10. The quotient is then converted into time, thus 10:00 in this case. Higher the quotient the more production value for said player.]

Previous Five Winners

Here Are The Nominees

Feb 11, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Montreal Canadiens defenseman PK Subban (76) retrieves the puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Canadiens beat the Maple Leafs 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Pernell Karl “P.K.” Subban,  Montreal Canadiens, 1st Time Nominee

42 GP: 11 G — 27 A: 38 Pts (+12) – TOI/G: 23:15 and PROD: 25:41

After sitting out the first 4 games to an already truncated season due to a contract dispute (eventually signing a two-year deal worth 5.75 million) PK Subban took little time to announce his arrival, notching 2 G (both on the PP) and 4 A within his first four games.

He comes to redefine tenacity and nastiness at the position, as his size and speed often pose difficulties for forwards attempting to sneak by on a chip and chase/dump and chase scenario, and the physical edge attached to his game helps to clear lanes and the crease for his netminder. Never one to shy away from an altercation, Subban has amassed 300 PIM in his last 3 seasons, which doesn’t bode well for the Habs, whose PK unit finished 23rd in the NHL.  But it should be noted, at least in part, that Subban’s penalty minutes have decreased as he’s increased his prominence and role on the club, for in 2010-11 he recorded 124 PIM, 119 the following year, and down to 57 for this year. Some would argue that had the season been longer, PK would have easily surpassed his previous minutes; quite honestly at 57 PIM with 42 games played, the point can be made that he was at the halfway mark for PIM at the normal halfway point for a regular season. But, that’s neither here nor there at this juncture. 57 it is.

But suffice to say that for all his lack of restraint, if you will, Subban is my choice for candidate who is steadily reworking the Power Play Quarterback model, perhaps not as consistently as Michel Therrien would like, but as long as he tempers his passion, he’ll come to embody the cliche: A Force to be Reckoned With.

This Habs defenseman scored 7 PPG this season, while leading all nominees with 19 PPAs, 7 more than Letang and Suter. Add to that 2 more goals and assists during the playoffs (which obviously doesn’t matter but it does) and the argument can safely be made that no one is playing this position at the level of intensity and success as this young burgeoning star.

YOUR WISH WHEN PLAYING THIS GUY! May 19, 2013; Ottawa, ON, CAN; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman

Kris Letang

(58) picks up his broken stick and the end of the first period in game three of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1st Time Nominee

35 GP: 6 G — 33 A: 38 Pts (+16) – TOI/G: 25:38 and PROD: 23:37

Kris Letang is a jerk.

No, I’m kidding. I just. It’s just. I mean he scored 2 G and had 6 PTS against the Isles in the postseason. He’s just. Just. Just. ARGH!

I’m sure most teams and coaches are line with my sentiments regarding this amazing young man’s talents and prominent role on an equally prominent team. If ever there was an argument to be made for most resilient and crafty of defensemen in today’s NHL, Letang’s your guy. (Ugh, I need a drink.)

Although missing a total of 13 games to the regular season, Letang still managed tallying 33 A in that span, and no, it’s not because he plays with Crosby specifically, because, if you remember, Greg Louganis I mean Sidney Crosby too met with injury that removed him from the lineup for a considerable amount of time. No, it’s because the Pittsburgh Penguins are a phenomenal hockey team that blind you with speed and talent unmatched by anyone anywhere today. Let’s face it, Letang is Crosby at the defensive position, only sturdier on his legs than his forward counterpart.

Although a bit nasty himself, he hasn’t the edge of a Subban, but then PK doesn’t have Letang’s restraint, as the Pens’s d-man clocked in an anemic 8 PIM for the entire season. Guess it’s because he’s too busy being a true offensive-defenseman and playmaker.

And I wouldn’t necessarily call this man a PP quarterback either, that job goes to Sid or Chris Kunitz or Paul Martin, or any combination therein, in my estimation, but he’s definitely an important component to this world-class powerhouse. In all honesty, you can have superstars upfront but without quality D, those forwards will end up doubling-back and forced away from scoring opportunities.

Credit is given where it’s due: I would love to have Letang on my team.

Oh, PS: Letang has 16 pts in the postseason as of Sunday, 26 May: 3g and 13A. Just pointing out some facts. That’s all.

Apr 30, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Wild defenseman

Ryan Suter

(20) moves the puck against Chicago Blackhawks defenseman

Brent Seabrook

(7) during the third period in game one of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan SuterMinnesota Wild, 1st Time Nominee

48 GP: 4 G – 28A: 32 Pts (+2) – TOI/G: 27:17 and PROD: 40:55

Ryan Suter is hard-nosed, gritty defender on a good team who’s only getting better with time. Brought over from the Nashville Predators, leaving fans in Tennessee bitter and grumbling, Suter took some time to adjust to the Wild’s system, but as March rolled along, he gelled incredibly well with his defensive corps, doubling his points total from the previous month to 16. For me, Suter’s slow start had everything to do with the lack of training camp, but I say that next season, beware Western Conference: the Wild are team destined to wreak havoc upon thee.

Harking back to the PROD numbers mentioned earlier, Suter is at a league leading 40+ minutes, that’s twice as many as the other two candidates. Simply put, when Suter’s on the ice, he’s putting up significant points for his team. And he hasn’t a plethora of superstars to help cycle the puck as Letang does, or the speed and creativity upfront to bolster through defensive coverage as PK has. This emerging presence in the West is using Suter to rebuild as all teams should, from the bottom (meaning defense) up. Of the three d-men, Suter is Captain material, in my opinion. Won’t WOW you to death, won’t POW you to death, but will wear you out until you’re blue in the face, as this man has the stamina and strength of a horse.

And don’t let his lack’ of goals and/or assists in comparison to say, Letang, fool you: Suter plays an almost old-school type of defensive style– a truly defensive-defenseman who’s also incredibly poised with regards to staving off penalty minutes, while guarding the blueline with perseverance.

Although he would finish the postseason with no points to his record, rest assured that this player will continue leaving his mark on the game.

And The Award Goes To (drum-roll please)

If the voters consider the PROD numbers then it’s an easy choice, if you will. If the voters were to also consider that defensemen should be measured by their physical presence on the ice, which includes total ice time (now granted Michel Therrien sat Subban for considerable moments at a time for whatever reasons) then the choice becomes even that much easier. And lastly, if the voters consider the talent with which each nominee has at his ‘disposal’ and rate that accordingly, then you’d be remiss not to chose the obvious. Subban should be the choice according to the voters.

Eyes Selection

Ryan Suter. Assists don’t impress me as much as health and stamina. But if you couple the aforementioned and throw in assists, you now have my attention, not to mention have a stellar workhorse defenseman who can lead the charge deep into a game. PK Subban is my close second because, as I mentioned earlier, with his size and speed and edge, he’s evolving the position to the point where the likes of Ryan Suter may be all but ‘obsolete’ to a degree (never completely, obviously, because there’s always room for a player with fortitude).  But that which PK lacks is most prominent in what Suter imbues moreso at present (just a touch and half more): courage, grit, and teamwork. He’s a leader of this pack and my choice for the Norris.