Zdeno Chara turned 37 on Tuesday, and he’s still one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Considering how long he’s been one of the best, it’s kind of amazing that he’s only won one Norris Trophy (in 2009). He’s continued to be as good as anyone every season since then, but he hasn’t won another for a variety of reasons.
In 2010, Chara dropped to eighth in voting almost exclusively because his goal total dropped from 19 to seven; his defense, by all measures, was every bit as good. In 2011, either he or Shea Weber would’ve been a great choice, but for some reason the Norris was turned into a lifetime achievement award and given to a 40-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom who had a good but not great season.
In 2012 (Erik Karlsson) and 2013 (P.K. Subban), the award was simply given to the defenseman who put up the most points, despite the fact that neither of those players really stacked up in most defensive metrics. By defensive standards, Chara and Weber were once again the most deserving players in 2012, but they settled for runner-up spots for the second year in a row. Chara dropped to fifth in voting in 2013 due in part to a perceived drop-off in his play, even though the numbers didn’t really bear that out.
So what are Chara’s chances in 2014? He should absolutely be one of the top candidates yet again. As has previously been mentioned in this space, we have plenty of stats -- call them advanced if you want -- that help give us a pretty good idea of how good a player is defensively. The four we used last time (and that we'll use here) are time on ice, zone starts, Corsi and quality of competition. And we’ll also add in CorsiRel (Corsi relative to the player’s teammates), which tells us how much that player affects possession when he’s on the ice -- positively or negatively -- compared to his teammates.
Here are Chara’s last six seasons, starting with his Norris-winning 2008-09 campaign:
2008-09: 26:04 TOI, 45.9% OZ starts, +3.75 Corsi, +5.00 CorsiRel, 1.159 QOC
2009-10: 25:22 TOI, 49.7% OZ starts, +11.85 Corsi, +9.20 CorsiRel, 1.094 QOC
2010-11: 25:26 TOI, 45.6% OZ starts, +9.07 Corsi, +12.00 CorsiRel, 1.047 QOC
2011-12: 25:00 TOI, 48.1% OZ starts, +17.54 Corsi, +13.00 CorsiRel, 1.015 QOC
2012-13: 24:56 TOI, 45.8% OZ starts, +14.21 Corsi, +6.00 CorsiRel, 1.207 QOC
2013-14: 24:52 TOI, 48.3% OZ starts, +11.30 Corsi, +4.10 CorsiRel, 1.537 QOC
The reason this is presented is to establish the fact that Chara is still outstanding. Any insinuation that his play has declined is somewhere between an extreme exaggeration and an outright lie. He still plays the most minutes on the team, he still plays the toughest minutes on the team (for comparison’s sake, the second-highest QOC on the Bruins this season is Patrice Bergeron at 0.832), and the B’s still take far more shots than they give up when he’s on the ice, despite the fact that the opponent’s best players are also usually on the ice.
The CorsiRel has gone down a little, but you could easily make the case that it’s the result of 1) a higher of quality of competition, and 2) playing with Dougie Hamilton, who, while solid, is not quite as good as Johnny Boychuk (Chara’s regular-season partner in previous seasons). Plus, just having a positive CorsiRel at all in the kinds of minutes Chara plays is pretty darn impressive.
Of course, the Norris isn’t just about defense, as evidenced by the voters’ propensity to fall in love with goals and points. Chara is only 27th among defensemen in points with 33, but he’s tied for third in goals with 16 -- three away from his career high. That could definitely catch voters’ eyes and give him a bit of a boost.
So, who are the other serious contenders? And what do we need to know about them? Let’s take a look at some of the names that are expected to be in the conversation.
We’ll start with last year’s winner. Interestingly enough, Subban is probably more deserving this year than he was last year. Last season, the Canadiens used him in more offensive situations than most of their defensemen (53.6% OZ starts), and they kept him away from opponents’ best players for the most part (0.026 QOC). This season, he’s playing much tougher minutes (46.6% OZ starts, 0.597 QOC), and he still leads Montreal defensemen in CorsiRel (+12.20). The offense hasn’t taken much of a hit either -- he ranks fifth in points among defensemen with 48. One thing that might hurt him is that he still doesn’t kill penalties regularly, averaging just 0:37 per game on the PK. Chara, by comparison, leads the B’s at 3:13 per game.
The 2012 winner is still an elite offensive defenseman, as he once again leads all blue-liners in points with 62. That’s aided by the fact that he has an offensive-zone start percentage of 54.4 -- higher than every Ottawa defenseman except Cody Ceci. He doesn’t get matched up against pushovers, though, as his 0.652 QOC is the second-highest on the D unit (and his +9.40 CorsiRel is first). Karlsson gets more shorthanded time (1:43 per game) than Subban, but four other Ottawa defenders are used more on the PK. Perhaps the biggest hurdle Karlsson faces is that when he won two years ago, voters were widely criticized for just looking at points and not paying attention to his defensive-zone play. Since then, his defense has been under more scrutiny than perhaps any other player’s (if you’ve watched any Bruins-Senators games on NESN, you know exactly what I mean). Some of that is overblown, but there’s no denying that Karlsson isn’t anywhere close to the defensive player that Chara is. The Sens missing the playoffs would hurt Karlsson as well.
Keith also has one Norris already on his resume (he won in 2010), and this year he ranks second among defensemen with 55 points. Keith is a fascinating case because of a shift in how Joel Quenneville uses him and his defensive partner, Brent Seabrook. For years, those two were the Blackhawks’ shutdown pairing. But for the last two seasons, Quenneville has used Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya as his shutdown pairing, allowing him to use Keith and Seabrook in more offensive situations against a little bit easier competition (55.3% OZ starts, 0.549 QOC for Keith). Should that count against Keith? Should he be penalized just because the Blackhawks happen to have a very good second pairing that allows Quenneville to use Keith in situations that better suit his game? Maybe not, but it’s worth considering nonetheless.
Weber has 16 goals and 44 points this season. He plays 26:47 per game in very tough minutes (44.7% OZ starts, 1.797 QOC). He has a -1.50 CorsiRel, which is fine given those kinds of minutes, but it’s worth noting that defensive partner Roman Josi actually has a +2.50 CorsiRel in nearly identical minutes (26:20 TOI, 45.2% OZ starts, 1.852 QOC). That probably doesn’t hurt Weber’s candidacy too much, but the Predators being out of the playoff race probably does.
Obviously what stands out about Suter is how many minutes he plays -- his 29:45 per game is 2:24 more than anyone else in the NHL. He faces tougher competition than any other Wild defender (1.148 QOC), but he also has the highest offensive-zone start percentage (53.9) and a -3.80 CorsiRel. The sheer number of minutes Suter plays is incredible, but he hasn’t been quite as effective on the ice as Chara.
Pietrangelo has a great Norris resume -- 25:19 TOI (including a team-leading 3:12 on the PK), 47 points, 50.9% OZ starts, 4.80 CorsiRel, 1.380 QOC. Perhaps the only thing that might work against him is that his partner, Jay Bouwmeester, has a nearly identical resume (24:14 TOI, 50.6% OZ starts, 1.10 CorsiRel, 1.387 QOC). That’s a benefit that Chara hasn’t had this season, but still, it would be impossible to complain about Pietrangelo winning.
Doughty doesn’t have to play super tough minutes (54.5% OZ starts, 0.653 QOC), but that’s mostly because the Kings are such a good possession team that no one does (Doughty does still face a higher quality of competition than any other LA d-man). He has 34 points and a +6.60 CorsiRel, and he is a regular penalty-killer, so he certainly has a solid case even if he isn’t tested quite as much as Chara, Weber and Pietrangelo.
If you want to make the case for Chara and use so-called advanced stats to do it, here’s what you need to know: Chara is one of only four defensemen in the NHL (and the only one from the group mentioned above) who plays 23 or more minutes per game, has 25 or more points, has an offensive-zone start percentage under 50, has a quality of competition over 1.0, and has a positive CorsiRel.
The other three are Calgary’s T.J. Brodie, New Jersey’s Andy Greene and Nashville’s Roman Josi. Fairly or unfairly, none of those guys will get very much Norris consideration because 1) they aren’t big names, and 2) they aren’t on playoff teams.
Personally, if the season ended right now, my three finalists would be Chara, Pietrangelo and Keith (with Doughty just missing), and the winner would come down to Chara vs. Pietrangelo. The choice here would be Chara. Regardless of the wear on his tires, there is still no player a team should rather have as its No. 1 defenseman when it gets to crunch time.