TORONTO - NOVEMBER 13:   A view of the James Norris Memorial Trophy during a photo opportunity prior to the Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies on November 13, 2006 at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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
Nicklas Lidstrom 42 1st 46.7 -7.2 1.11
Dustin Byfuglien 41 2nd 54.1 17.2 1.30
Lubomir Visnovsky 41 2nd 42.5 18.4 1.30
Tobias Enstrom 41 1st 54.3 13.0 1.07
Kris Letang 41 3rd 54.0 8.1 1.42
Keith Yandle 40 3rd 50.6 6.1 1.23
John-Michael Liles 35 2nd 54.3 8.4 1.36
James Wisniewski 33 7th 48.6 10.8 0.94
Jack Johnson 33 3rd 52.1 -6.5 0.67
Alexander Edler 32 4th 59.2 4.2 1.02
Dan Boyle 32 1st 48.8 0.5 0.71
Brian Rafalski 32 4th 53.5 6.6 2.04
Brent Burns 31 2nd 42.2 4.2 1.36
Tomas Kaberle 30 5th 54.7 3.4 0.80
Shea Weber 29 1st 44.9 6.4 1.29

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.

Comments (6)

  1. nice work ! go visnovsky !

  2. Yandle and Morris play on the same pairing, but you said Yandle isn’t drawing the tough pairings? Yandle-Morris is what Tippett uses against top lines. Aucoin-Jovanovski is the 2nd pairing and is most definitely NOT the shutdown/matchup pairing

  3. Andrew:

    The difference between the top four isn’t huge, but in the ~10% of the time Morris/Jovanovski are getting paired they’ve seen lots of defensive zone draws and tough opponents, which gives them the edge.

  4. Jonathan Willis,

    If the approximately 10% of the time a pairing is getting broken has that much of an impact on your “advanced” numbers, that should tell you how flawed your advanced numbers are. You can’t base a Norris winner off of flawed statistics. You have to base it off their play. Visnovsky is an average defenseman in his own zone at best, if not below average. He’s playing with Lydman who is miles ahead of him defensively, not to mention on a line with Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. That tends to help to the goal difference, when you play on a line with 3 great goalscorers.

    As for Yandle, he’s obviously the front runner right now. He’s somehow managed to lead all defensemen in scoring on an average offensive team, and unlike Visnovsky, Lidstrom, etc, he’s not soft, undersized, frail, etc in his own zone.

    As for Jack Johnson, you don’t need to look at corsi numbers to tell if he’s a good defenseman. He’s been outplaying an out-of-shape Doughty all year long, so, again, if Doughty has better even strength numbers than he does in terms of your advanced statistics, it just shows how flawed your statistics are. And Doughty isn’t even the best example. So injured Willie Mitchell is a better offensive defenseman at even strength, or at least as good, as Jack Johnson? Scuderi too? Has it occurred to you that LA has been wildly inconsistent scoring goals all season, and that Jack Johnson just didn’t happen to be on the ice when the majority were scored? A lot of it is just chance. Just because he wasn’t on the ice for a ton of even strength goals doesn’t mean he isn’t making great first-passes and getting his shots through and doing everything better than a Scuderi or Mitchell. Scuderi in particular is awful at getting shots through.

    Anyway, Lidstrom isn’t very good defensively anymore, so he’s out as a Norris Winner. I mean he’ll probably win because of voters like you who don’t know what they’re talking about… If you’ll recall, a true Norris form Lidstrom finished the season +40 in 08, not struggling to even be a positive +/-. Visnovsky also is average at best defensively. Yandle has been the best defensemen in the league so far this year, period. Brent Burns may very well be second. When you give points less importance, Robidas has been a horse for Dallas. Chara always has to be in the conversation. Letang is definitely ahead of Lidstrom and Visnovsky but he’s still not a two-way shutdown defenseman. He’s excellent offensively and average defensively. That’s not what the Norris is about. These guys have all outplayed Lidstrom and Visnovsky. Again, you’re just one of a large group of these idiots who don’t actually have an eye for talent and an eye for what’s going on on the ice, so you rely solely on these deeply flawed statistics. I’m a Ducks fan but I’m not delusional.

  5. @Jonathan

    I take Willis’ math, however flawed it may be, over yours (or anyones) “seen him good” anyday

  6. I think this is great content and I enjoyed it very much. This is clearly very well researched information on your part. I totally agree.

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