It was just the fourth week of the season when the campaigning began.
“I said this morning, Johnny for Norris,” Alex Ovechkin said in October. “That’s a hashtag right now. Let’s keep it going.”
He was referring to John Carlson and the James Norris Memorial Trophy, more commonly just the Norris Trophy, awarded each season to the best defenseman in the NHL by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The 2019-20 season was still in its infancy, but Ovechkin and other Washington Capitals teammates were eager to praise Carlson for his blistering start to the year.
Carlson racked up 23 points in October alone, kept up a torrid scoring pace and finished the season with 75 points (15 goals, 60 assists) in 69 games. Not only was it the highest total among NHL defensemen this year, it was the best point-per-game average (1.09) by a defenseman playing at least 50 games since 1993-94.
Voting for the Norris and the other end-of-season awards concluded this week (disclaimer: I am a PHWA member but did not receive a ballot this year). Putting aside the premature end to the regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic, it must be safe to assume that Carlson locked up this trophy long ago, right?
Not so fast.
The sports website The Athletic polled its 41 hockey reporters and found Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi was their overwhelming favorite for the Norris over Carlson — 63.4% to 24.4%. NHL.com’s similar exercise gave Carlson a narrow edge based on a points system (five points for your first choice, four points for second and so on) — 80 total points to Josi’s 77.
If that looks too close for comfort to Capitals fans, the reason this vote is so divisive comes down to how voters view the award.
The Norris’ official description is that it goes to “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” To many, that means skill in every facet of the game, both scoring and defending. But these days, the Norris is quite often handed out to the blueliner with the highest point total at season’s end.
It’s gotten to be such a point of contention that in 2018, the PHWA invented an imaginary award for best “defensive defenseman,” only voted on at midseason, called the Rod Langway Award — named after the longtime Capitals blueliner and Hockey Hall of Famer remembered for his defensive talent above all else.
It’s not that Carlson played poorly on defense in 2019-20. But around January, his performance fell off along with most of his teammates as Washington hit a rut. There was a string of a few games where Carlson turned in uncharacteristically sloppy performances, giving away pucks and being caught out of position on goals allowed.
Josi is more than a stalwart defender: He was second to Carlson among defenseman with 69 points and scored one more goal than Carlson. It feeds into the pro-Josi argument, which has become popular among puckheads and within analytics circles.
Certain defensive analytics are on Josi’s side. The website Evolving Hockey’s model for expected goals against per 60 minutes — which utilizes data like the distance and location of a shot individual defenders face — rate Josi at 2.3 xGA per 60 and Carlson at a much worse 2.7.
It’s led some to argue Carlson’s chief merit is his historically good offensive campaign.
“Yes, (his point total is) sick, one of the best for a defender in a long time — but it feels disingenuous that (Sharks defenseman) Erik Karlsson was flogged often for his defensive ability in Norris-caliber seasons while Carlson often gets a free pass,” The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn wrote.
There are a few counterarguments. Carlson hit a slump sometime in the middle of winter. Well, most hockey players do at some point. And his defensive effort has usually made his unit better, not worse, considering the other defensemen the Capitals had to shuffle through — Nick Jensen, Radko Gudas, the now-departed Christian Djoos and the acquisition of Brenden Dillon.
And he averaged 1:30 of shorthanded ice time per game for Washington’s sixth-ranked penalty kill; Josi skated an even 2:00 on the penalty kill per game, but Nashville’s kill was an abysmal 29th. Carlson saw just 5.82 power-play goals per 60 minutes go in while on the ice this year, while Josi allowed 9.1 per 60.
So is the “offense versus all-around” debate overblown? It really comes down to each voter’s interpretation of how to cast a ballot and which metrics he or she looks at to make the decision.
Capitals coach Todd Reirden, a defenseman in his own playing days, has praised Carlson throughout the season and on Monday argued that intangibles like leadership should be taken into consideration for award voting. Carlson is serving as one of Washington’s alternate captains for the first time this year.
“He’s been a huge part of why we’ve been able to win five straight Metro championships,” Reirden said. “So I think it is important in these awards that you see the difference in the role that the players have in ultimate team success. He’s played that role, especially after we lost a couple of veteran guys (Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen) over the summer going into this year.
“So I can’t say enough about how I feel John deserves this award and deserves this honor, and if I was voting I would definitely be voting for him,” the coach said. “But we’ll see how things work out.”
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