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FJMing Some Erik Karlsson Norris Noise

In today’s USA Today, Kevin Allen examined the intrigue surrounding Erik Karlsson’s Norris Trophy candidacy. To read the original article, you can follow the link by going here. For the purpose of this piece, it’s been re-posted below. As always, my comments are in bold. Bottoms up.

Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson has been dazzling enough this season that any discussion of his impact seems to include a comparison to the two most accomplished defensemen in NHL history.

Karlsson, 21, has been compared to a young version of Swedish countryman Nicklas Lidstrom because of the way he sees plays unfolding. Also, he has a chance to be the youngest player to win the Norris Trophy since 20-year-old Bobby Orr won it in 1968.

Damn. I was hoping that the two most accomplished defensemen in NHL history were the recently immortalized Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton.

“His speed, vision, puck carrying, and passing skills make him one of the more gifted offensive players in the league,” said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, a former NHL coach. “He is also just scratching the surface of his skills, too.”

Pierre McGuire has never been known to gush or spews superlatives about a hockey player in the history of ever.

Karlsson is seventh in the NHL in scoring with 67 points and he’s 23 points ahead of No. 2 defenseman Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers.

Per CBC, here are the average total of goals scored per game :

  • 2005-06 – 6.11
  • 2006-07 – 5.82
  • 2007-08 – 5.50
  • 2008-09 – 5.68
  • 2009-10 – 5.55
  • 2010-11 – 5.52
  • 2011-12 – 5.36

With scoring down and given the dearth of high-production players at not just his position, shouldn’t this make his production from the blueline even more impressive?  

“I think he plays a little bit like Nick did early in his career,” said Senators general manager Bryan Murray, who coached Lidstrom in Detroit years ago. “Nick took chances early in his career, but he knew how to get his body back in good position. And Karlsson is very fast about getting back.”

It’s also noteworthy that Ottawa coach Paul MacLean spent many years as a Detroit assistant coach. Murray said MacLean understands when he needs to let his Thoroughbred run and when he needs to pull on the reins.

Incidentally, this is exactly how Paul MacLean manages his moustache.

“Paul understands that in order for Erik to be a real good offensive player, he has to have some freedom to do some things,” Murray said. “Allowing a player to be creative is a big part of good coaching.”

Karlsson will be 22 when the Norris is awarded. Denis Potvin was also 22 when he won the Norris in 1976, but he was seven months older than Karlsson will be. Karlsson is playing his third NHL season, and Potvin was also in his third season when he won.

Keeping with this age motif, Karlsson’s having one of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of the NHL for a 21-year old defenceman. Potvin won the Norris with a 21 goal/76 point campaign. With 16 goals and 67 points of his own, Karlsson’s having the sixth most productive season for someone of that age and with 13 games left to play, he has a large enough margin to add to those totals.

In recent years, voting by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association has tended to favor older defensemen. Lidstrom didn’t win his first Norris Trophy until he was 30, and now he has seven. Zdeno Chara won his first at 32. Scott Niedermayer was 31. Duncan Keith was a month short of his 27th birthday when he won in 2010.

The fact that the PHWA has a historical tendency to discriminate against players because of age can only be a good thing, right?

So much for the balloting being a meritocratic process…

Karlsson is a dynamic presence who looks like he’s at Mach 2 when he joins the rush. The question about his Norris candidacy is whether he is strong enough defensively.

He is. I’ll come to this later…

“He’s 100 percent improved over last season,” Murray said. “We play him against the top players in the league. He’s very reliable.”

Along with his defensive partner Filip Kuba, Behind the Net corroborates the fact that this pairing plays against the oppositions’ best players.

TSN analyst Bob McKenzie, who will vote for the award, says he has Karlsson ranked in his top two or three but still wants to see what happens over the final month of the season.

“There comes a point in time where the sheer volume of numbers has to tilt the balance in favor of the offensive defenseman and Karlsson is clearly on the cusp of that,” McKenzie said, adding that Karlsson has been “Paul Coffey-esque.”

The tilt of balance is an intriguing point because the way some have carried on, one is led to believe that other perennial candidates like Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara are infallible in the defensive end. Or at the very least, their defensive strengths or dominance over Karlsson would tilt the award in their favor.

Now if only there was a statistic to determine how much each defenceman contributes offensively and defensively to his team so that we could determine whether Chara and Weber defensive aptitudes are high enough to corroborate the opinion that they’re more Norris worthy than Karlsson…

Oh wait, there is, it’s called Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) and it is tracked at Hockey Prospectus.

Its creator, Tom Awad, defined GVT as:

GVT is very similar to VORP in baseball: it is the value of a player, in goals, above what a replacement player would have contributed. The fact that GVT is measured in goals is crucial: statistics that divide up ‘Win Shares’, so that the ratings of a team’s players sum to that team’s number of wins, are very erratic and non-linear, since wins don’t increase or decrease linearly with team caliber. While hockey is ultimately about winning or losing, players’ contributions always come down to scoring goals and preventing them. A player cannot ‘win’ a game, even though he may be put in a situation where scoring a goal or making a key save would create or conserve a win. Each player’s role, no matter his position, is to try and increase the goal differential in favor of his team. An offensive player who scores a hat trick only to see his teammates allow 4 goals against has nevertheless done his job; a goaltender who stops 39 of 40 shots only to lose 1-0 has likewise performed well. Using this standard, all players can be compared by the same yardstick: how much did they help (or harm) their team’s goal differential? 

Using this metric, Erik Karlsson has the 11th best GVT in the NHL at 18.4. Comparatively, the next closest defenceman to him is the 46th ranked Alex Pietrangelo who has a GVT of 12.5.

Where art thou Zdeno Chara?

He registers with the third highest GVT amongst defencemen at 12.4 while the affable Shea Weber comes in at the 52nd overall spot with a 12.2.

If you’re an anachronistic simpleton who dislikes ‘new’ stats like GVT that use a moderately sophisticated model to weigh not just how good a player’s contribution are but also evaluate how hard he is to replace, well, this blog probably won’t sway your opinion.

Nevertheless, one cannot say that there is no correlation between GVT and the Norris Trophy.

Last year Lidstrom won the Norris and he led defencemen in GVT. The season before that, Duncan Keith captured the award and led defencemen in GVT.

Yahoo.com Puck Daddy blog editor Greg Wyshynski says he has Karlsson in his top three, but he questions whether Karlsson is well-rounded enough at this point his career.

“I think you could make a better case for him as Hart Trophy candidate than you can a Norris Trophy winner,” said Wyshynski.

So the guy who transcends position and deserves to be mentioned in Most Valuable Player conversations isn’t the best Norris Trophy candidate? Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.

ESPN.com columnist Scott Burnside said he recently talked to a couple of pro scouts, who “gushed” about how much impact Karlsson is having on the Senators.

“Every shift he does something that seems to create a scoring chance, something exciting,” Burnside said. “And his defensive game has improved appreciably over last year.”

But Burnside also not ready to concede the Norris to Karlsson.

“For me, though, the Norris should be awarded to the player that is the best at that position and that means more than just putting up impressive offensive numbers,” Burnside said. “It’s about blocking shots and shutting down opponents’ best players and leading by example at both ends. … It would be hard to put Karlsson ahead of Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber and even Ryan Suter at this point.”

Well, since Bryan Murray and the numbers have already established the fact that Karlsson already plays against the opposition’s best forwards, maybe it’s a good idea to handicap Karlsson’s candidacy because he doesn’t hit or block as many shots as some of these other defencemen. Even though it’s rarely pointed out that Chara has benefitted from the quality of his teammates or that Weber plays with Ryan fucking Suter.

While we’re at it, let us ignore Karlsson leading defencemen in takeaways. Instead we’ll lazily attempt to substantiate Karlsson’s reputation by alluding to tangible observations that the most uneducated hockey fan can witness like blocked shots or hits – punishing him because he’s not the second coming of Craig Ludwig.

As I mentioned in a piece that I wrote in February, 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.  

Nashville Tennessean sportswriter Josh Cooper considers Karlsson one of the favorites, but he believes other defensemen are superior to him at other aspects of the game.

“The trophy states that the player must have the best all-around ability at his position,” Cooper said, “and this should include prowess in his own end.”

Cooper points out that Weber lost the Norris voting to Lidstrom by a slim margin last season and Weber is performing even better this season.

Excuse me for a second so that I may reach for the Kleenex box.

Former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button says there is no question that Karlsson is effective enough defensively to win the Norris.

“He forces teams to alter their thinking offensively,” Button said.

In other words, opponents are so concerned about Karlsson’s ability in the transition game that they play cautiously.

But…blocked shots…hits…Weber almost won last season and he’s better this year….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

“That’s the same as stopping them,” Button said. “They know he’s such a superb passer that if they lose the puck, it’s going the other way in a hurry.”

Murray said Karlsson should be judged on the impact he has had on the seventh-place Senators.

“Nobody was picking us to make the playoffs,” Murray said.

Added Button: “I’m not sure that Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek would be among the league leaders in scoring if not for Karlsson.”

Ummm, nails much?

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