"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."
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Mike Green, Washington Capitals
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
It is possible that for only the second time since 2000, a defenseman other than Nicklas Lidstrom will win this award. There hasn’t been this sort of dominance in a performance award since Wayne Gretzky won eight Hart Trophies in succession, ending in 1987. It makes for an interesting race as Lidstrom goes for seven in the last eight years. Unlike the past few years, Lidstrom does not come into this competition as a prohibitive favorite. In fact, he is probably going to finish third in this race. It will not be for lack of performance. Lidstrom finished third among defensemen in scoring, was third in plus-minus, was third in power play scoring, tied for fourth in power play goals, tied for third in game-winning goals… and was tied for 168th in hits, proving that one need not be a big bopper to leave a mark. One might be tempted to say that even with these results that Lidstrom slipped a bit, and statistically that would be correct. He had more goals this year than last (16 to 10), but fewer assists (43/60), fewer point (59/70), a lower plus-minus (+31/+40). He did have more power play goals (10/5) and almost as many points (33/34), so any drop off, numerically speaking, was slight. Lidstrom’s problem, if he has one, is the lofty standard he has set for himself. The season he had – excellent by anyone’s standards – was “normal” for him. We’ve become spoiled.
For Mike Green, there is a paradox. On the one hand, he is now – at 23 – the premier offensive defenseman in the game, having posted 129 points in 150 games over the past two seasons, and he was the only defenseman to post more than a point per game this year. He had the highest points-per-game mark since Paul Coffey in the abbreviated 1995 season, and his points per game lead over the next best finisher among the top-20 defensemen in scoring (0.25 points per game over Andrei Markov) made Green’s as dominating an offensive performance by a defenseman in recent memory. And that’s Green’s problem, too. He is seen not only as an “offensive defenseman,” but as one who fills that role at the expense of defense. The numbers don’t bear this out, at least not as much as Caps fans have come to believe. Green finished second overall among defensemen playing at least 50 games in Corsi rating, and while he finished 52nd in goals-scored against per 60 minutes at even strength, that was only five spots behind Lidstrom and three spots ahead of the third finalist for this award, Zdeno Chara.
Zdeno Chara has knocked on this door before. Lidstrom has always been in the way. This year, the numbers argue that Chara might once more come up short. He had fewer points than Lidstrom (50 to 59), a lower plus-minus (+23/+31), fewer game-winning goals (3/4), more power play goals (11/10), but fewer power play points (28/33). He also had a worse goals scored-against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Lidstrom. But Chara’s problem might not be Lidstrom here. It might be teammate Dennis Wideman. The unsung Wideman had as many points as Chara (50), a better plus-minus (+32/+23), had nearly as many power play points (25/28), and more even-strength points (24/20). Chara did have a better Corsi rating and faced better competition at 5-on-5, but there really wasn’t that much difference between the two, statistically at least.
These are very different defensemen, style-wise. Lidstrom is the very embodiment of the elegant, yet effective defenseman. He performs his task with what looks like a minimum of energy expended. If the art of the position is in making it look easy, Lidstrom is an artist. Green is, in many respects, the new-age defenseman of the post lockout era. He is offense-oriented, one of the motors that makes the Capitals hum. But he has an old-school quality to his game too – the old time puck rushing defenseman who can carry the puck with momentum through the neutral zone. To a point, he is a faint echo of Bobby Orr, except that Orr could actually finish those 180-foot rushes. Green doesn’t often finish those plays. Chara is the most physically dominating, most intimidating defenseman in the league. But he has also made himself a competent skater, able to compete in this faster post-lockout version of the NHL.
Chara has a running mate in Dennis Wideman, who can take some of the heat off. Lidstrom has Brian Rafalski, who could pick up some of the marginal drop off in numbers that characterized Lidstrom’s game this year. Green does not have that sort of running mate on the Capitals, who still suffer from a lack of experience and talent on the blue line. That could make a difference in the end.
If we were prognosticating about this a month or two ago, we’d be thinking that the winner of this award will be…
We still think he’ll be the winner. But if we had a vote…
…yeah, yeah…it sounds like a Caps fan.