Erik Karlsson’s Norris Case

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Having listened to a number of Eugene Melnyk’s radio appearances on the Fan 590 over the past few years, it is easy to dismiss much of what the owner says as hyperbole.

Just a few days ago for example, he proclaimed that Erik Karlsson will “go down in history as one of the great defencemen of all time”. Although Karlsson just recently passed Norm MacIver’s record for most assists by a Senators defenceman (47) and tied Niklas Lidstrom’s record for most points by a 21-year old Swedish defenceman (60), it’s far too early in Karlsson’s career to shower him with a distinction of such certainty.

On the other hand, what the young Swede has accomplished this season is nothing short of remarkable and is undoubtedly worthy of Norris Trophy consideration.

As Sportsnet’s Ian Mendes pointed out, Karlsson is running away with the defenceman scoring race. With three more points last night, he leads defencemen in assists (47) and points (60). His thirteen goals also tie him with Florida’s Jason Garrison for the NHL lead. Put succinctly, he’s a Triple Crown threat who is also happens to be amongst the NHL’s top ten leading scorers. To emphasize how rare this is, Mendes tweeted that the last defenseman to finish a full season in Top 10: Brian Leetch in 1991-92.

Relative to his peers, his offensive production is striking. With a 20 point lead over the second highest scoring defenceman, Brian Campbell, assuming that this point margin remains static, it would represent the biggest difference since the 1991/92 season in which Brian Leetch finished with a 16 point lead over Phil Housley. One would have to go back to the 1988/89 season to find a larger point gap when Paul Coffey finished 38 points ahead of former Ottawa Senator Steve Duchesne.

According to Mendes:

There were only two occasions when a player led all defencemen in goals, assists and points and was NOT a finalist for the Norris Trophy: Brian Leetch in 2000-01 and Paul Coffey in 1988-89. But upon further inspection, Leetch was sporting a -18 that season, while Coffey was worse with a -25 rating. Karlsson should be immune to being lumped into that group, considering he currently has a +14 rating.

Despite Karlsson leading defencemen in scoring for the bulk of the season, his cumulative totals haven’t stopped some pundits from lazily critiquing or espousing beliefs that Karlsson’s offensive contributions haven’t been enough to overshadow whatever defensive shortcomings he may have. These same people have championed the notion that the Norris Trophy that is awarded to the ‘league’s best defenceman’ should be awarded to some more well-rounded candidate like whose offensive pedigree may not match that of Karlsson.

According to the NHL’s website:

The James Norris Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.

The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association at the end of the regular season.

Two of the more popular names being bandied about are Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber. For the purpose of this piece, I will contrast what Karlsson has done relative to these two players this season while also distinguishing Karlsson’s 2011-12 season with players who posted impressive offensive totals like Duncan Keith (2009/10 season), Drew Doughty (2009/10) and Lubomir Visnovsky (2010/11). As the poster child for offensive defencemen, I also included Mike Green’s best offensive season (2008/09) as well.

Here is a look at their fundamental numbers:

Player

G

A

Pts

+/-

PIM

SH

SH%

Chara

8

24

32

21

61

168

4.8

Weber

12

26

38

18

32

170

7.1

Karlsson

13

47

60

15

30

201

6.5

08/09 Green

31

42

73

24

68

243

12.8

09/10 Keith

14

55

69

21

51

213

6.6

09/10 Doughty

16

43

59

20

54

142

11.3

10/11 Visnovsky

18

50

68

18

24

152

11.8

Relative to the last four names on the list, with the exception of Green’s 31 tallies, Karlsson has an opportunity to best every offensive mark. For what it’s worth, Keith won the Norris Trophy for the 2009/10 season. Green was the runner up in 2008/09 and 09/10 while Doughty finished with the third most votes in 2009/10. It’s almost criminal that Visnovsky was not a finalist for the 2010/11 Norris. He ultimately finished fourth in balloting behind Lidstrom, Weber and Chara.

With almost twice as many points as this year’s competition, Karlsson would have to have some glaring defensive weaknesses for him not to receive some significant consideration for the award.

For those who wish to poke holes in Karlsson’s case, one of the more popular assertions of is that he does not play enough short-handed minutes to warrant proper consideration for the award.

Here is how each player’s respective ice-time breaks down:

Player

ES TOI/G

SH TOI/G

PP TOI/G

TOI/G

Chara

19:19

2:55

2:51

25:06

Weber

20:04

2:30

3:45

26:20

Karlsson

20:41

0:35

4:00

25:17

08/09 Green

17:54

2:28

5:22

25:45

09/10 Keith

20:48

2:58

2:48

26:35

09/10 Doughty

18:32

2:01

4:25

24:58

10/11 Visnovsky

19:42

0:26

4:08

24:17

In fairness to these critics, Karlsson does play significantly less on the penalty kill than either of Chara or Weber. On a per game basis, he averages less than 2 minutes of shorthanded time on-ice than either of these players. Nonetheless, one serious question needs to be asked – if Karlsson is a 170 lb defenceman whose defensive game is predicated on positioning, speed and an active stick, why would Paul MacLean use him in a shorthanded situation that: a) necessitates playing without the puck; b) needs strength to outmuscle opponents in physical battles down low or to clear the front of the net; or c) needs a bulkier frame that is more susceptible to blocking shots?

Please note that I’m not stating that Karlsson is incapable of being an effective penalty killer. Last season Karlsson under Cory Clouston, he averaged 1:35 of shorthanded ice-time per game and Ottawa finished with the ninth best penalty killing rate in the NHL. Instead, by restricting this situational ice-time, MacLean is effectively managing his personnel and allowing Karlsson to conserve his energy and play more even strength minutes where his puck possession skills are more impactful. (As emphasized by his relative Corsi metric that you’ll see in a table later.)

At the very least, this variation in shorthanded ice-time certainly adds to some of the ‘real-time statistics’ that the NHL records.

Player

Hits

BkS

MsS

GvA

TkA

Chara

114

64

60

52

19

Weber

123

98

72

36

37

Karlsson

49

50

79

60

52

08/09 Green

86

110

95

95

49

09/10 Keith

46

143

89

59

45

09/10 Doughty

157

76

76

73

20

10/11 Visnovsky

52

116

79

45

30

(As an aside, considering the discrepancy in SH TOI/G, it seems somewhat odd to see the Chara be credited with only 14 more blocked shots than Karlsson.)

Below is a table that indicates the on-ice situations in which each respective was on for a goal for or goal against. (Note: TG refers to total goals. TGA reflects total goals against. PPGF refers to power play goals for. PPGA refers to power play goals against. ESG refers to even strength goals. SHG refers to shorthanded goals.)

Player

TG

TGA

PPGF

PPGA

ESGF

ESGA

SHGF

SHGA

Chara

81

58

19

17

58

40

4

1

Weber

95

50

38

11

54

37

3

2

Karlsson

105

63

32

5

73

53

0

5

08/09 Green

145

145

62

7

74

47

5

8

09/10 Keith

128

102

26

21

93

79

9

2

09/10 Doughty

122

70

52

20

68

46

2

4

10/11 Visnovsky

146

76

55

3

91

68

0

5

If Karlsson’s defensive inefficiencies are as significant as some portray, surely there would be some blatantly transparent results that could be seen in the underlying figures above. Although Karlsson has been on for 13 more even strength goals than Chara and 16 more than Weber, it’s worth noting that he averages more even strength ice-time than either player.

To listen to some denounce Karlsson’s candidacy because he doesn’t play enough shorthanded minutes, I hope to see a countering phenomenon in which Karlsson proponents allude to the strength of Chara’s Bruins or the benefits that having a defensive partner like Ryan Suter will have on Weber when handicapping the Norris Trophy field.

Player

Corsi Rel

QoT

Corsi Rel

QoC

Rel Corsi

O-Zone Start %

O-Zone Finish %

On-Ice

Sv%

On-Ice

SH%

PDO

Chara

3.252

0.994

12.2

47.9

49.9

.922

9.01

1012

Weber

1.789

1.341

13.3

44.2

47.8

.932

9.46

1026

Karlsson

0.723

0.751

13.3

56.4

49.6

.920

9.80

1018

08/09 Green

1.127

-0.108

11.6

62.2

53.0

.926

9.52

1021

09/10 Keith

1.400

1.405

4.8

52.4

53.0

.889

9.02

979

09/10 Doughty

0.072

0.932

5.5

56.2

49.7

.921

8.92

1010

10/11 Visnovsky

3.908

0.907

15.4

45.0

46.8

.913

11.23

1025

Looking at the Relative Corsi Quality of Teammates (Corsi Rel QoT), it’s easy to see that Karlsson and Drew Doughty have not benefitted from being surrounded by the kind of talent that the other defencemen on the list have enjoyed.

More importantly, although the Relative Corsi Quality of Opposition (Corsi Rel QoC) is lower than some of the other names on the list, relative to every other skater on the Senators, it’s the second highest mark on the team – trailing only defensive partner Filip Kuba. In other words, Karlsson and Kuba are being relied upon to play against the toughest matchups at even strength and they’re flourishing.

Add to the fact that Ottawa, Nashville and the 2010/11 Ducks were the only teams to average less shots per game than shots allowed, it makes Karlsson, Weber and Visnovsky numbers all the more impressive.

The “defensive liability” tag can be hard to shake early in one’s career. Alluding to hit totals or shots blocked is an easy visual confirmation of what critics may have seen, read or heard. Truth be told, Karlsson more than holds his own. In fact, his percentage of on-ice even strength goals allowed is relatively proportionate to what reputed ‘defensive stalwarts’ like Chara and Weber provide.

Player

% of On-Ice Even Strength GF

% of On-Ice Even Strength GA

Chara

41.4

41.6

Weber

49.0

33.9

Karlsson

56.2

40.5

08/09 Green

45.4

31.5

09/10 Keith

47.7

51.0

09/10 Doughty

44.2

32.6

10/11 Visnovsky

59.1

41.7

With Duncan Keith having posted similar offensive totals to Karlsson in 2009/10 and having been ice for a significantly worse percentage of his team’s even strength goals (probably due to his decidedly average Corsi rating), if voters have no qualms voting for Vince Vaughn’s boy, then there’s absolutely no reason not to vote for Karlsson. (Albeit, both Green and Karlsson have been aided slightly by higher offensive zone start percentages.)

At the very least, these kind of figures underscore the fact that the reason why Karlsson’s offensive game overshadows his defensive aptitude isn’t because he’s a sieve out there. He’s not. There is nothing egregious about his defensive metrics or anything to suggest that he’s incompetent. No, the reason why his offensive game eclipses what he does within the defensive zone is because it’s that damn good.

Of course I’m not naive enough to believe the voting process will be purely meritocratic. The PHWA can be sure of that. Every trophy has as much to do with reputation as they do with statistics that can be found on the back of a hockey card. Having endured an All-Star break in which Steven Stamkos remarked he never knew how much Daniel Alfredsson meant to the city of Ottawa; I believe his comments reflect the reality of playing within a smaller city that does not benefit from much (if any) league-wide coverage.

As a ‘rebuilding organization’ that entered the season with little to no expectations, it’s probably reasonable to assume that few voters will have watched the Senators much to this point. But if anything, maybe pieces like this will encourage others to take notice of a historical scoring pace by a 21-year old defenceman on a playoff team many had pegged for dead last.

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