I’ve seen more than a few midseason awards handed out, and the conversation seems to revolve around three names – Nicklas Lidstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, and Kris Letang – with the majority of writers favouring the incomparable Lidstrom.
All three of those defencemen were named to the all-star game, along with nine others: Dan Boyle, Brent Burns, Zdeno Chara, Tobias Enstrom, Mike Green Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, Marc Staal and Shea Weber. Somehow, though, the player I’m about to suggest as the NHL’s best didn’t make the cut.
He presently sits second in scoring among NHL defencemen, with 41 points. Among the three candidates most commonly named, his plus-7 rating trails only Letang. His 24:31 average time on ice eclipses all of them. He plays the best opponents night after night, starts in his own end more often than not, and there is no doubt his team would be outside of the playoffs this morning if he were absent from its roster.
He is Lubomir Visnovsky, and he’s been the difference maker on a depleted Anaheim Ducks blue-line.
Kent Wilson, among others, identified the defence corps as Anaheim’s greatest weakness during the preseason, and with the exception of one pairing that has been the reality. Cam Fowler, who turned 19 last month, has been the team’s number three defenceman by a long ways, and after him the Ducks’ coaching staff have been forced to rotate a motley assortment of youth and castoffs.
Those coaches have responded to a shallow depth chart by giving a ton of minutes (over 1000 each, no other Ducks defenceman has even two-thirds as many) to Fowler and the pairing of Visnovsky and Toni Lydman. With Fowler already in over his head in the number three role (over an average 60-minute stetch of even-strength play, Fowler’s pairing gets outshot 33 to 25 and outscored 2.71 to 1.70), the toughest minutes have gone to the two veterans.
How tough are those minutes? Let’s compare two measures – Quality of Competition and ZoneStarts – for the NHL’s 15 highest-scoring defencemen. We’ll also include Relative Corsi (shot attempts for and against, adjusted for team strength) and even-strength PTS/60 to show how each is doing in the possession battle and at generating offence.
|Player||Points||QC Rk.||Off. ZS||Rel. Corsi||EV PTS/60|
That chart tells us a lot about the NHL’s best offensive defencemen. Let’s wander down the line.
- Nicklas Lidstrom’s having a strong season, despite a weak relative Corsi. He’s playing the best opposition, starting in his own end, and contributing offence. The only reason his possession number looks so bad is because he’s playing for Detroit, where everybody outshoots because the team is so strong. In terms of real shots, Lidstrom’s in the black.
- Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom are real beneficiaries of some yeoman work being done by others, particularly Zach Bogosian and Johnny Oduya. While they get to start in the offensive zone more than 54.0 percent of the time, Bogosian and Oduya are taking less than 43.0% of their starts in the offensive zone. While both are delivering strong possession numbers (exaggerated a little due to the relative weakness of Atlanta’s team) and scoring appropriately, it must be remembered that the coaches are doing them some favours.
- Lubomir Visnovsky’s not getting any favours, but his numbers match or equal the Atlanta duo’s in every category. Relative Corsi is again slightly exaggerated thanks to Anaheim’s weak blue-line, but those offensive numbers are spectacular under the circumstances.
- I’m a little suspicious of Letang’s Quality of Competition number because Ben Lovejoy just misses my games played cutoff (20) and finishes ahead of him. Nevertheless, Brooks Orpik’s pairing is seeing the heavy opponents, and he, Lovejoy and Zbynek Michalek are getting defensive zone assignments. That said, Letang’s results are very strong.
- Keith Yandle isn’t getting much consideration, mostly because Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris are getting the toughest assignments. He’s having a good, but not Norris-calibre, season.
- Again, I’m a little suspicious of John-Michael Liles’ number, as it appears Foote & O’Byrne are getting (and Scott Hannan was getting) the toughest assignments. I’ve also seen a lot of him this season, and while he’s a great offensive specialist he’s not a complete defenceman. Liles is having a fine bounce-back year, but I don’t think he’s a legitimate contender.
- James Wisniewski’s QualComp number is a little out of whack thanks to a midseason trade, but even so there’s no doubt he’s being sheltered. Good at what he does, but not a Norris candidate.
- Jack Johnson may be the most overrated defenceman of the post-lockout era. He’s having a great year on the power play, but at even-strength he’s basically a run of the mill second-pairing option. Best of all, his even-strength scoring number is worse than that of defensive specialist Rob Scuderi, and pretty comparable to Willie Mitchell. It’s the fifth-best number among regular Kings defencemen.
- With Alex Edler, it’s all about shelter. He’s being deployed in an offensive role and delivering points, but his possession numbers are lackluster and he’s certainly not the best defenceman in Vancouver, let alone the league.
- Dan Boyle’s having a strong season for the weak Sharks, and he’s doing it honestly: playing against top opposition, starting in his own end, etc. Tremendous player.
- Brian Rafalski’s probably out of the conversation because of his role on a deep Detroit blue-line, but that scoring number is off-the-charts good. He’s an all-round defenceman being cast in a scoring role, and he’s nailing it.
- Brent Burns’ All-Star nod was greatly deserved – he plays in all situations, handles the tough assignments at even-strength, both in terms of zone-starts and quality of opposition, and somehow has a spectacular scoring number despite it. I’d bet he gets ignored come voting time thanks to weak power-play offence (11 points on the PP ranks 29th among NHL defencemen), but he shouldn’t be.
- Tomas Kaberle’s had a couple of off seasons, and despite the point production I can’t help but feel underwhelmed with his performance. He’s being put in a position to succeed and in this company he seems lacking. Still great on the power play, though.
- Shea Weber’s a spectacular player. He’s a workhorse defenceman who does everything for the Predators; if it weren’t for the lack of power play production we’d be talking about him a lot more than we are.
At the end of the day, offence always gets more weight than defence in the Norris conversation, and as a result I’d bet at least two contenders – Weber and Burns – are going to get bumped in favour of flashier options. The three guys generally named as finalists are all strong options, but as of right now if I had to vote for the Norris I’d do it this way:
1. Lubomir Visnovsky
2. Kris Letang
3. Dustin Byfuglien
4. Brent Burns
5. Nicklas Lidstrom
That leaves Shea Weber and Tobias Enstrom on the wrong side of the cut, though just barely. Visnovsky suffers thanks to a miniscule role on the PK, but all things considered I think he’s still been the best defenceman in the league so far this season.