“The James Norris Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” When trying to decide who the best recipient of the award is, it’s important to refer to the trophy’s definition. A common misconception is that the award should go to the player who plays best defensively. Yes, a defensemen needs to be able to play defense, but the award is decided on greatest all-round ability in the position.
The two names that are most prominent in the 2016-17 Norris debate are Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. Your name doesn’t get tossed around in defensemen of the year debates without good reason. Both of these players are well deserving of the award for different reasons. Both of these players leads their teams in points, which for a blueliner is an incredible feat on its own. Not surprisingly, they are the top two defensemen in points in the entire league as well. Burns leads the pack with 27 goals, 43 assists, good for 70 points. Burns has already matched his goal total of last season. Karlsson sits at 14 goals, 52 assists, only four points behind Burns.
So for arguments sake, neither should win the Norris based on points alone. That being said, there are some differences between the two. Beard length aside, here are a few key categories comparing the two.
Time on Ice
Defensemen log the most ice time in the NHL. Their teams rely on them to play the most minutes. A good look at a defensemens importance to his team is his ice time. Karlsson is fourth in the league averaging 26:50 minutes per game. Burns is 11th at 24:55/game. It’s no secret that the Ottawa Senators team revolves around Karlsson. He broke the franchise record for consecutive games played (311) and is now at 321. For a guy that plays nearly half a game each game, that is incredible. Karlsson is second in the league in shifts per game at 31.7. Burns is 37th at 28.1. So Karlsson’s team relies on him being able to log heavy minutes. For a player to do that at his skill level and for as many consecutive games without injury really helps his Norris argument.
A blocked shot can be a player deliberately making sure he gets in front of a shot, or can just be a result of the puck hitting a player. Regardless, a blocked shot benefits a team simply because that is one less opportunity for that shot to end up in your own net. Even if a player doesn’t deliberately sacrifice his body to block the shot, a puck hitting him means he was in the right spot at the right time, and that opponents were’t able to find a better lane.
Karlsson leads the league in blocked shots with 197, that’s 19 more than the next two players. Burns is 36th with 125. Now this is not a slam dunk category that assures Karlsson the Norris. However, over the years Karlsson has been labeled as a pure offensive defensemen that lacked in defensive ability. Leading the entire league in blocked shots shows that he has put a conscious effort into making sure he is in the shooting lanes in his own zone. No longer is he a liability for poor choices joining a rush and leaving his team mates out to dry. He is in position in his own end and making it difficult for teams to get shots through.
Blocked shots prevent opponents from hitting the net. Karlsson was the winner there. How about getting shots on the opponent? Well Burns has a huge lead in this category. He actually leads the league in shots on goal with 287, nine more than Alex Ovechkin. Karlsson is 35th with 201. Leading the league in shots on goal is a huge achievement, and it has helped Burns hit 27 goals again. That translates to a 9.4% shot success. Karlsson’s is even lower at 7%. No defensemen is expected to shoot at a high percentage due to the nature of the position.
A defensemen is similar to a point guard in basketball in the sense that they generally are the ones starting the play and take their shots from a longer range. Missed shots category leaders tend to be defensemen for that reason, majority of their shots come from way back at the blue line increasing the likelihood that the shot will miss the net.
Burns also leads the league in missed shots with 142. So not only is he the guy getting the most shots on net, he is also the guy sending the most shots high or wide. Ovechkin is naturally right behind him in this category too. Karlsson is fourth in this category with 108. That’s high considering how much lower he was in shots total. So if you combine Burns shots on net and missed shots (429), 33% of his shots that don’t get blocked will end up missing. If the same is done for Karlsson, 35% of his shots end up missing. Very close. Don’t assume that the missed shots leader is just blindly firing the puck, volume of shots will likely increase this stat.
A defensemen needs to be able to protect the puck. Another category where Burns leads the league is giveaways. His 137 is more than any other player. Any guess who is right behind him? Erik Karlsson. However, he sits at 96 giveaways. Giving the puck away is a coaches worst nightmare and leading in that category certainly is a hit to Burns’ Norris chances.
When looking at giveaways it’s important to analyze takeaways too. A player can make up for turning the puck over all the time by generating offence and his ability to get the puck back. Burns is 36th in the league in takeaways with 49, Karlsson is 17th with 56. Karlsson may have learned a thing or two about takeaways from his team mate, Mark Stone, who leads the league with 88. Although the difference between the two Norris candidates is only 7, putting the turnover categories together gives the edge to Karlsson.
This is just a scratch on how many different areas you can compare the two great defensemen. They are close in some areas and far apart in others. Each guy brings something different to their team. No matter who ends up actually winning, it is clear that both are Norris caliber defensemen.