Pernell Karl Subban for Norris?

Montreal Canadiens v Buffalo Sabres

Pernell Karl Subban will win the Norris Trophy this season as the league’s top defenceman whether he deserves it or not. P.K. is probably too close in pulling away as the league’s top scorer in points, and my oh my isn’t it coincidental that hockey writers consistently consider defencemen who are at the top of the leaderboard in goals and assists the best defencemen in the game*.

Subban was credited with points #33 and #34 on the season as the Habs clinched a playoff spot in a rout over Buffalo. He is amazingly at a point-a-game pace as a defenceman, and if you’re wondering how many times that’s happened in the NHL’s modern era** it’s three: Nick Lidstrom in 2006 the year that the NHL was calling every slight mis-step a penalty, and Mike Green in 2009 and 2010 playing behind the wicked powerplays led by Alexander Ovechkin.

*Norris Trophy winners have finished 1st, 5th, 1st, 12th, 2nd, 2nd and 1st in defensive scoring, the one real outlier Zdeno Chara in 2008-2009.

**modern era defined as the period of time past 1997-1998, when the NHL began splitting up even strength and powerplay shots, and also began publishing ice times.

Anyway, whether a defenceman scores goals or assists is of little worry to me. The raw data exists that we can accurately judge a defenceman’s play at both ends of the rink. Whether he gets involved in the scoring or not means little if he’s consistently keeping the puck away from top competitors. “Defenceman” to me generally means “defence”. Oftentimes, scoring a goal and playing offence is the best way to keep opponents from putting the puck in your own net.

Subban doesn’t play against the toughest competition. This isn’t a knock on Subban. I like Subban. I love Subban, in fact. All last season I took his side when he was getting dicked around by Montreal media and coaching and in the offseason by management when he wanted the long-term deal he never got.

But he doesn’t play against the toughest competition. At least… not over the course of the full season. Using BehindtheNet’s Corsi Rel QoC statistic, a usage statistic to show which players lined up against the top opposition, Subban is fourth on the Canadiens.

That alone doesn’t mean that Subban’s season isn’t worthy of Norris consideration, but it does drive up the possibility “hm, are there defencemen who are having success preventing shots against tough opponents?”. If the answer is “no” there’s no reason why a player can’t be up for consideration just because he plays second-pairing minutes. If he’s playing them very well, he’s still helping the team win.

Subban’s minutes have been racking up in importance lately. He did play more minutes against Jaromir Jagr on Saturday than most and saw the most minutes against Alexander Ovechkin on Monday. But over the course of the season, the forwards Subban has matched up against have primarily been negative-possession players. Josh Gorges, Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov have handled those tough assignments.

The test would be whether Subban is dominant enough against the lesser competition to warrant consideration. He has absolutely crushed his assignments: Montreal has a 60.9% Corsi Close rate with Subban on the ice through Monday’s game, and P.K. was fifth in the NHL in Relative Corsi through Wednesday’s (Jake Muzzin and Anton Stralman get easy competition, while Christian Ehrhoff and Kris Letang draw tougher assignments. P.K. is somewhere in the middle).

Those achievements are sort of weighed down by the fact that P.K. is fourth on his team in defensive minutes and time on ice per game.

What he’s doing is impressive, but it’s more limited time, and I think that if you ignored points altogether you’re looking at a decent crop of defencemen in contention. Points, after all, don’t measure a player’s defensive assignments, points don’t measure how well a player kept the puck out of his net.

If you go look at the usage chart for defencemen generated by Ninja Greg (the closer you get to the upper left corner, the tougher the minutes) you’ll find mostly blue circles, indicating “plus” Relative Corsi players, towards the bottom left:

usage chart defencemen

There are some standout examples of players with blue circles as you look left and up. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one. Zdeno Chara. Victor Hedman. Nik Hjalmarsson. Rookies Brendan Dillion and Jonas Brodin. Ekman-Larsson is a consistently underrated player who has done yeoman’s work in Phoenix this season to little credit. Chara, who is big and meaty and possesses a booming slapper, doesn’t get the credit I think he deserves for giving a reputation to a defence that isn’t really full of big names. Then there’s Christian Ehrhoff, who is quietly putting together an unbelievable season and may unfortunately be the only Buffalo Sabre having a good year.

I’d probably lean Chara at this point. Boston and Montreal are probably the two best teams in the Conference (sorry Pittsburgh) and I hope they get a playoff series against one another. And no, I don’t think Dillon or Brodin are better than Subban. I just think that more than points should determine a Norris Trophy, and that you can fiddle around with usage metrics to find other players that are out-performing their expectations.

Comments (38)

  1. Good article. Subban for Norris? Perhaps some year perhaps not. This year? No

    • Subban deserve Norris this year. No matter what haters say, its all biaised. He speak about Subban corsi, but as far as i remember, Subban corsi is among the top 10 of the NHL for the defensemans who played over 20 games this season.

      So scoring as D-men shouldnt be considered for Norris race? lol Then why did Karlsson won last year? Because he put more points than any other D-mens in the NHL. Why will Subban win this year? The same exact reason.

      Nowdays, a elite D-men is not a pure shutdown D-men, its a D-men who can play good defensively, aswell as been another threat to the opposite team when going to offense. Offense is no more 3 players but 5. As much as defense is not on the 2 defenses, but the 3 fowards that need to back and check their opponent. subban should win because he is overall the best offensive D-men, and one of the top defensive D-men aswell.

      His +- rating and his corsi justify is dominant on ice and bring to more goals for him than it comes against him. Also, speaking about is TOI, sure he have less TOI, because he missed 5 games and then was used less for the first 10 games with less than 20 TOI on the fist 10 games. But then he started putting the 25 + minutes match. Just like he did all year last season as he was the most used D-fense of the Habs and finished +9 last year

    • When is the last time a defenseman led his team in term of points?

      And with 5 less games than most of other teamates.

  2. I think the one thing people need to do in Subban’s case is look at different parts of the year.

    For example, everyone (including Elliott Friedman’s latest 30 thoughts) keeps talking about his low average ice time, saying that he doesn’t play enough to win the Norris. In his first 14 games, he averaged 19:58. Not very high. This was also a period of time where he played on the 3rd pairing, alongside Bouillon. During those 14 games, he had 9 points.

    Since then, he has played 20 games, averaged 25:17, and recorded 25 points. 25:17 is good enough for 11th in the NHL, while those 25 points would have him tied for 6th among Defencemen.

    Furthermore, look at the specific ice times. First 14 games, he hit 22 minutes just once. Last 20 games, he has been below 22 minutes just once (specifically the 3-0 win over NYR, where he had 3 points). He’s also been under 24 minutes just 4 times in the last 20 games, while having 2 games over more than 30 minutes.

    Unlike almost every other defenceman in the NHL, he missed training camp and preseason. He got sheltered minutes early on, as Therrien tried to ease him back in and see how he would adapt to a new system. And, obviously, he’s been fine. And I don’t know if it’s possible, but I really think people should look at his advanced stats over the last 20 games, separate from the first 14. Then tell me he’s not facing top competition, while paired up with Josh Gorges against the opposing top lines…

    • Right I touched on that. Subban matched up against Ovechkin and Jagr in the Habs’ last two home games. My understanding (and I don’t think anybody’s written about this yet) is that Subban’s QualComp and TOI have bounced up a bunch over the last 20 games.

      But the Norris should be awarded to the player who did the best job handling the tough assignments in every game, not just the last 20. Or the last 26.

      • You’re projecting your own meaning on to the trophy:

        The James Norris Memorial Trophy is awarded annually to the National Hockey League’s top “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position”. – Wiki & NHL.com

        No where does it say the best defensive defenseman. The term all-around certainly implies that both offense AND defense factor in.

        • I agree, tough competition shouldn’t be prerequisite to be considered for the Norris. PK is killing his minutes–a very good team in Montreal is 1.16 in goal differential better (per 60 of 5v5) with Subban on ice than without. Among D, that trails only Souray, Beauchemin, Kindl, Muzzin, McBain, Gunnarsson, Goligoski, and Schenn (min 30 GP, 15 min/gm at 5v5). Ehrhoff is tied, and OEL and Chara aren’t too far behind.

          One thing, though, if you look at his scoring–an inordinate amount has come on the PP (23 of his 34 points, leading the league. Markov is second in PPP among D with 22, then Timonen and Campbell with 15). That sort of production is a little more replaceable.

          Letang still leads D in ES points by 5, 21-16 (Suter/Voynov/Yandle/Beauchemin).

      • I know you touched on it, I just feel it can be explored a lot more. And saying he matched up against Ovechkin and Jagr merely mentions 2 games, dismissing the other 14 where he played more than 24min, and prioritizing the 14 where he played under 22min.

        And ya, the Norris should be about the entire season. But Subban’s last 20 games has been better than most NHL defensemen’s last 40 games. As I said, he’d be 6th in points with only 20 games played if we ignored the first 14 games.

        And I know offense isn’t everything for the Norris (I actually think there should be two or three awards; defensive dman, all around dman, and maybe offensive dman), but some people have talked about Chara… Chara is on pace for his worst offensive season since his first year in Ottawa, 11 years ago. In an 82 game season, he’d be on pace for 35 points. He has been 39 or above every season since 01-02 (23 that year). His lowest points per game since 01-02 was .519, but right now he’s on .425.
        This suggests one of three things: He’s not as good as he was (and thus maybe shouldn’t get the Norris), he’s having a bad year (and thus maybe shouldn’t get the Norris), or his teammates are worse offensively so he’s worse offensively (in which case maybe he’s not as dominant as people thought, and thus maybe shouldn’t get the Norris).

        Ultimately, who else is in the conversation with Subban? Chara is having a weak offensive year, as I just mentioned. Letang plays with Crosby and Malkin, has only 3 goals, and has never been noted for his defensive prowess. Ryan Suter, maybe? Low plus/minus, but that’s not very important (if it were, Souray would win the Norris for his +26!). Who else?

  3. Michel Therrien’s mis-use of Subban is definitely the biggest strike against him. For Subban’s first 17 games (until Diaz got injured) Therrien had him playing 3rd-pairing minutes with Francis Bouillon. I guess it was more important to make Subban a better person than to put the team in the best position to win. Like not having Subban signed in time for the season the Habs are fortunate that didn’t come back to bite them in the ass.

    • Umm… Look at PK’s stats and the standings (hint: Habs are pretty good). There’s something to be said for easing a player who’s been outside the team and hadn’t played in a while coming into a situation where the Habs were really hot. Obviously Michel’s strategy didn’t backfire.

      • So they got good results when employing some bad processes, that happens all the time (the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs this year).

        Therrien’s system this year has been terrific though, leading to sterling puck possession which outweighs the negatives when it comes to the three cases of poor player-usage. He could be doing better though. Bouillon’s over-use for most of the year and Desharnais continued use on the powerplay even though he’s underperformed (especially compared to Eller) are two other instances of poor decisions by Therrien.

  4. I think there is a good case for other guys – but I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of the argument here. Are we saying that scoring shouldn’t matter at all? I agree it shouldn’t be the sole criteria. But you cannot discard the fact that he’s 5 points clear of the next guy on the list having played 6 less games. That as they say – “ain’t nothin’”. All of the factors you mentioned should be included in the assessment, and again, I think there is a case for other players to be certain – but if you’re going to weigh the evidence – you have to weigh it ALL.

    Yes Subban has benefited from not having to play the toughest defensive minutes on the team – generally because he is being used for full 2 minute powerplays with Markov. He benefits from having Josh Gorges on his team – certainly. He’s hindered by the fact that he was used very carefully to start the season – regularly seeing only low teens for the first 5 or so games – impacting his TOI. Over the course of an 82 game season this would probably change in his favor given that his overall use has greatly increased drastically since March. In the 20 games since then he’s averaged just over 25 mins per night.

    I am in no way arguing against advanced metrics, but as always (especially in hockey) context is critical to applying them properly. You can’t set a new rule that points don’t all of a sudden matter for Norris qualification just because a player is black (just kidding relax).

    Chara is obviously a monster. The difference between him and PK as a player is so great that it makes the comparison difficult to make. But I shudder to think of what this season would be like for the Habs if PK wasn’t out there. He is the majority of the powerplay – and at the most critical moments in the game – its him who is out there to get the defensive zone clear, the critical penalty kill. Thierrien has been explicit this year that he doesn’t match lines based on the competition – but on the situation. That is going to skew quality of competition metrics significantly over the course of a shortened season. For me PK is without a doubt the Habs MVP this season. Whether or not he’s the league’s very best defenseman is certainly up for debate – but the misconception that he’s only having a good offensive season is one that I have to challenge.

    • Additionally – it also needs to be said that scoring a goal can be just as, if not more effective at shutting down an opponent than simply keeping the puck away from him. The fact is – Montreal is FAR better by all metrics in terms of keeping the puck in the offensive end when Subban is on the ice than not.

  5. To me, the Norris doesn’t mean the best defender, it means the best player at the defense position. Getting points, dominating on the power play, certainly counts and should absolutely not be pushed aside. Does PK help his team win more than OEL or Chara this year, I’d say yes. It’s not like PK is a bum on defense either, and his assignments have been very high comp and his TOI are very high in the last 20 games. It’s PK for me.

    Note. I would’ve liked to see something on Suter, another the media is talking about.

  6. Much like Billy Beans failed attempted use of calculations to win a championship Corsi does not paint the whole picture. Hockey, like baseball is not a science. It doesnt take into account the human factor, or off site potential distractions or problems. It doesnt take into a lack of training camp or a media starved city requiring a story. PK Subban is by far the best defenceman on the team, and the sole reason did not play the most minutes early on was due to a message by the coach, which clearly worked.

    PK is a serious norris candidate this year, and if he keeps up up over the last 7 games its his for the taking. I’m very proud of this young man in his new found maturity. People will always hate him for some things he does, but doesnt everyone hate Chara? He’s still pretty good.

    Good Read though.

  7. Wait, the Norris is the award for best ALL AROUND defenceman right? Not just defensive defenceman? I’m looking at this correctly aren’t I?

    Sure someone like Chara might be a small bit better than PK defensively. But as a Point Per Game defenceman, and with 11 goals this season, PK is destroying him offensively. In that area it isn’t close.

    So when you average it out, and put Chara’s slight win defensively against PK’s big win in the offensive categories, why wouldn’t PK come out on top?

    • Exactly. I hate this argument that just because the winners have high point totals, it’s just an offensive award. Afterall, which of those players weren’t good at D as well? I mean, Chara, Lidstrom, etc are all great at D as well. Remember when Green led the league in defensive points (by a lot) and didn’t win the Norris? It’s because he was not great defensively. Why didn’t Vishnovsky win the Norris? He’s not great defensively. You need both to win.

  8. Although the article seems complete it doesn’t it leaves on the table things that I think should be considered:

    1 – Defensive pairings: Josh Gorges has been PK Subban’s partner 5 on 5 most of the season, the fact that Gorges has a team best Corsi rating and that Subban is fourth eludes me, but if Subban was playing with Zybnek Michalek (not a knock on Gorges) wouldn’t he have a better Corsi rating? The fact that those stas are based individually let me think that it doesn’t take into account a bad pass or a bad decsion from a defensive partner or any teammates on the ice for that matter.

    2 – Coaching: There are many reason why a defenceman’ opposition is tougher or weaker. But it all come down to coaching, it has nothing to do in the player’s abilities. The fact that Duncan Keith is third on his realative corsi quality of competition proves that point. The assumption that is made is that a coach will always want his best defensive defencemen against the best offensive forwards, but that’s not always the case. A coach can decide to balance the time of each of his defensive pairing due to the tight schedule, how can you take that into account just using the corsi?

    I still think the best way to evaluate players is not via the one stat that disqualify a player but by watching them. Every night Subban his targeted by the biggest forward from the opposite team and hit relentlessly. He is probably part of the game plan of every coach in the east this year. That alone should justify the Norris.

  9. I’ll give Cam the credit of naming someone, in his case Chara, since most people who say Subban doesn’t deserve it don’t mention who they would pick.

    Lidstrom is gone, Karlsson is injured, Letang missed a few games, Chara doesn’t produce offensively, Weber had a really slow start, Suter has bad +/-. There is not a clear cut winner, or even a consensus 2-3 names.

    A lot of players will get votes for the Norris this year.

  10. Good, thorough, well-researched, well-reasoned article. Nice work!

  11. Awarding Norris trophies to the leagues top scoring defenseman is insane. There should be a separate trophy for that. The Norris is for the BEST defenseman not the most productive. I didn’t see who was nominated, but Souray and Beauchemin with the Ducks have been incredible this year. Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara? All better defensemen than Subban.

    • Sheldon Souray a better DEFENSEMAN than Subban? Ludicrous.

      Watching Subban skate out with the puck from behind his own net and outskate every other person on the ice going end-to-end is like watching old videos of Bobby Orr. I’ve followed the Canadiens for 22 years and he is the best player I’ve ever seen on this team by far.

      I agree Chara is probably the only other comparable player in terms of the way he controls the pace of the game, but Subban is faster and has more raw talent that Chara. He will own the Norris for years to come.

      • Heh, I think there’s stiffer competition for future Norris Trophies than you acknowledge. OEL is a stud and two years (by draft) younger than Subban (which, in the late teens and early 20s, is really important development-wise). Erik Karlsson already has one and is one draft year younger than Subban, and remember than Alex Pietrangelo and John Carlson came out of the 2008 draft, as well. (Carlson would get more attention if he got more PP time, i.e. more points. He’s been stuck behind Green, Wideman, and Ovechkin on the PP point.) Victor Hedman is one of the best defensive defensemen in the game and he came out of 2009, as well–once Tampa doesn’t have to rely on him to carry their D corps, watch out. And let’s not forget Drew Doughty, who is still a near-Norris-level D every night and still quite young.

  12. Karlsson won the award last year right.

    He was on the ice for 80 ES goals against in 81 games (Subban 20 in 34), played less time on the Penalty Kill than Subban does this year, scored at a less prolific pace, and won the award.

    Based on that alone, this should be PK’s to win.

    • I like your argument, except it doesn’t compare P.K. to anyone this year.

      Basically you’re saying he has Norris numbers, and I agree with that. I think a lot of people really don’t like him, for one reason or another, and that’s the only reason he isn’t being called a lock, yet. He will win the Norris though.

    • Karlsson should not have won last year. Chara was hands down the best D last year. I don’t know anything about advanced stats but I watch a lot of hockey and have watched at least 4 games from each team this year. Souray and Beauchemin on the Ducks are far and beyond better D men than Subban I don’t care what stats or points show.

  13. so this is what advanced stats are… good grief

  14. In 2009/10 and 2010/11 Boston and Montreal were better than Pittsburgh, no doubt.

    This year? Not a chance.

    • Yeah, I personally like how the (supposed) two best teams in the Eastern Conference are 5 – 6 points behind – and have gone a combined 0-3 in head-to-head competition with – the team they’re supposedly better than.

      • Pittsburgh is 11-1 against the top 5 seeds in the East.

        Their one loss was before adding Jarome f#$%ng Iginla and Brendan Morrow.

        Cam Charron give your head a shake.

        • this is what advanced stats allow you to do.. he doesnt even watch hockey, just looks at inane stats and says, yep thats the best team

        • If Pittsburgh is 11-1 against the top five seeds in the East, that means that they’re 20-9 against the rest of the East. Use the record argument, and “Pittsburgh doesn’t bring their A game against lesser opponents,” or something. Or, Pittsburgh is a true talent 75 win team *minimum* (winning 11 of every 12 over a full season). Obviously, they’re not. So have we established that Pittsburgh probably got a little luck in going 11-1 instead of, say, 8-4? Good.

          When all four of Pittsburgh’s wins against Boston and Montreal are by one goal, well, that’s not exactly domination. Wins are what matter at the end of the day, but those games were tight. Is it really so unbelievable that Pittsburgh got some good bounces to go from 2-2 (our expectation if the teams are even) to 4-0 in those games?

          • …and in case you’ve forgotten, three years ago Montreal beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Pittsburgh is a better team now, but Montreal is much better–up front (more depth), on the blueline (healthy Markov, more mobile D to replace Gill, better Subban), and in goal (Price > Halak).

            For what it’s worth, I still have Pittsburgh as the best team in the East (with Crosby healthy, of course). But both Boston and Montreal are basically as good 5-on-5 (http://www.nhl.com/ice/teamstats.htm?fetchKey=20132ALLSAAAll&sort=goals5On5ForAgainstRatio&viewName=summary), and both have better PKs. (Montreal’s PP% is almost as good as Pittsburgh’s). Montreal also draws more PPs than anyone else. Unless the Penguins goalies get hot, like they did in 07-08, Pittsburgh is going to have at least one tough series to get out of the East.

          • Ralph, that’s why I said that Montreal was a better team than Pittsburh in 2010 and 2011.

            And yes, I am absolutely using the argument that Pittsburgh hasn’t been bringing their ‘A’ game against lesser opponents.

          • And you’re right, Pittsburgh’s PK has been horrible.

            Every team has it’s flaws, and I still think they’re definitely the best team, thought I’d say their odds of making it to the final are 50/50 at best (i.e. everyone healthy).

          • Well, how about now that Pittsburgh’s a combined 6-0 against Boston and Montreal? And has won their past 6 games without Crosby (and Neal and Malkin for much of that streak)? And 21 of their past 23? Eventually, it has to become a trend, right?

  15. this whole thing reeks of the “advanced stats” crowd whining… y’all just need to STFU.. quit bitching cause Mike Trout didnt win AL MVP while yer at it

  16. …and 19-3 against all current playoff teams. The Caps have a (very much so) losing record in that category, FWIW.

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