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:
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.