by PuckStopsHere on 06/21/12 at 03:27 PM ET
Of the NHL Awards announced yesterday I think the biggest mistake the voters made was the Norris Trophy. Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators won the award, Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators was the runner up and Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins finished third. These three players were far ahead of the other vote recipients and were clearly the class of the 2011/12 defencemen. I think the order that they finished in the voting is reversed from the way it should have been. I picked Chara to win the award, with Weber as the runner up and Karlsson finishing third.
Erik Karlsson was the top scoring defenceman in the NHL. His 78 points clearly led all defencemen offensively. This tied him for tenth in the league scoring. The best of the rest of the defencemen were closer to 50 points. Karlsson had about 50% more points than any other defenceman in hockey. It is hard to not notice that number. The simplest most obvious statistic is the point total of a player. Voters could not overlook this number even though playing defence is a significant part of being a top defenceman. Defensively there is no reasonable argument to be made that Karlsson was the best defender in the league, though he clearly led offensively.
Karlsson’s defence improved significantly over the 2011/12 season. He was a defensive liability in the 2010/11 season but in this past season he wasn’t. However Karlsson was significantly beaten in his defensive play by the best defensive defencemen in the league. The two who had offensive ability to go with their superior defensive play were Zdeno Chara with 52 points and Shea Weber with 49 points. I argue that their defensive play was enough to overcome the offensive differences. I also argue that there is more to offence than point totals and thus the difference offensively is not as big as point totals might suggest.
When we compare Karlsson’s numbers to those of Chara and Weber we see that their goal totals are essentially equal but the difference comes from assists. Primarily these assists are second assists. In general these assists are less responsible for a goal being scored than the goal scorer or the primary assist recipient. In Karlsson’s case they show a choice that Ottawa made. When they broke out of their zone and carried the puck up the ice Erik Karlsson often carried it. He was capable of handling this role but it was more of a choice in how Ottawa set-up their attack than it was evidence that Karlsson is the best defenceman in the NHL.
Defensively Karlsson did not play in as tough a role or in the same defensive situations that Chara or Weber did. These defencemen played in the toughest defensive situations and against the toughest opponents that their teams faced. As a result of playing more defensively focussed shifts they tended to have lower offensive totals but this does not make them worse defencemen. In fact it makes them better defencemen because they play in tougher situations and still succeed.
It is clear that Chara and Weber succeeded in tougher roles than Karlsson played. This is shown in part by their adjusted +/- ratings. Both Chara and Weber are in the top 20 in the league and Karlsson is not. In fact Zdeno Chara has the best Corsi rating in the NHL. Karlsson also does well in terms of puck possession numbers and ranks 11th by Corsi but he does this in a more offensive role with less defensive responsibility.
The fact that Zdeno Chara can play a more defensive role than Karlsson and still post better puck possession numbers shows he had a better season. He is the deserving Norris Trophy winner. He was largely overlooked because Chara is such a good player. This season was no better than the seasons Chara has had in recent memory. He is seen as a perennial Norris Trophy candidate but this particular season was just another good season. It wasn’t a career best year for Chara. It was a career year for Weber and Karlsson (at least based on their careers so far). Chara has been an elite defenceman for years and has won the Norris Trophy in the past. Voters often make irrational decisions in these situations. They come up with reasons to pick a new award winner instead of the established star. It is not uncommon for established stars to lose awards to upstart players who are having career years. This is what happened in 2011/12. There is another effect due to nostalgia at the end of a career when voters often give declining stars one more award that they did not deserve but Chara is not there yet.
Weber does not equal Chara. He is not as good defensively and he is not as good offensively. He had a slightly lower point total and weaker puck possession numbers. He does play a more high profile game as he is a more consistent big hitter - though it is false to suggest Chara is not also a big hitter. Weber and Chara are both more valuable to their teams than Erik Karlsson is. They were more valuable this season. Chara was the most valuable defenceman this year. Voters were fooled by offensive numbers. This often occurs and has led people to suggest that the NHL needs an award for the best offensive defenceman and another for the best defensve defenceman. I think that misses the point because it is possible that the best defenceman could wind up with no awards as it is possible that the best defenceman is neither the best defensively or offensively but has more overall value than the offensive specialist and defensive specialist who might win the awards.
Voters made a mistake in the 2011/12 Norris Trophy voting. They were fooled by offensive numbers. They underrated Zdeno Chara because he is such a good defenceman that it no longer seems as impressive as it is and they are looking for new upstarts to vote for instead. Chara should have won the Norris with Weber as runner up and Karlsson third. The voters got that backwards.
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