BIG NUMBERS OR BALANCED PLAY? NORRIS VOTERS HAD A TOUGH DECISION TO MAKE

Washington’s John Carlson ran away with the scoring title among defencemen, but played for a leaky team. Nashville’s Roman Josi and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman had more balance but less flash.

John Carlson|Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

John Carlson|Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It would be pretty smarmy to claim that this year’s Norris Trophy voting comes down to how many reporters were actually paying attention all season, so let’s frame things in a less combative way: How strong will anchor bias go in determining the winner this year?

The finalists for the top defenceman award are John Carlson, Roman Josi and Victor Hedman. Since the Norris tends to be the NHL trophy most spread around by voters, Hedman is at a distinct disadvantage since the towering Tampa Bay star just won it two years ago (I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just telling you how it is). So let’s narrow the decision down to Carlson and Josi.

Carlson blasted out of the gates for Washington, putting up dizzying offensive numbers at the start of the campaign and continuing to pile up points until the end. His 75 points in 69 games was a career high and led the league by 10 points. With an average ice time of 24:38, he also logged the big minutes needed to seriously warrant Norris consideration.

In terms of possession numbers, Carlson was pretty good but not spectacular, with a Corsi percentage of 52.3. As a team, the Capitals had a Corsi rating of 51.6 – good for top-10 in the league.

What was worrisome about Carlson’s candidacy is how Washington ended the truncated season. That is to say, in a defensive meltdown. The Caps surrendered 35 goals in their final 10 games of the campaign, which included losses to Buffalo, New Jersey and Montreal (glass half-full: they beat Pittsburgh twice). In the five games before that, they gave up 20 goals.

Now, could Carlson and the Caps have turned things around had the pandemic not shortened the season? It’s very possible. After all, Washington is still one of the best teams in the NHL and even with the swoon, the Capitals earned a bye past the Return to Play qualifying round. And look, 75 points is nothing to sniff at – particularly since Carlson was headlining a Washington blue line that had fewer vets and weapons than in year’s past. But did voters think about Carlson’s March, or just remember his awesome autumn and look at the insurmountable offensive lead he had in the scoring race?

Which takes us to Josi, whose resume is a lot more balanced, but a little less dynamic. The Nashville Predators stalwart was one of the best blueliners in the league in terms of defensive point shares, tying Hedman for sixth with 4.8 while Carlson was top-50 with 3.5. Overall, Josi was the best defenceman in the NHL when you combine offensive and defensive point shares. In fact, he was fifth overall behind David Pastrnak, Leon Draisaitl, Connor Hellebuyck and Artemi Panarin. Carlson, to be fair, wasn’t far behind thanks to his offensive point shares.

But even though Josi had teammates such as Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm to do the heavy lifting with him in Nashville, the superb Swiss captain still stood out and his 65 points is impressive when you consider the circumstance: while Carlson could pass to Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Kuznetsov and get points, Josi led the Nashville offence himself. The Nashville defender was 17 points clear of winger Filip Forsberg for first place on the team – so Josi didn’t just win the scoring crown in Nashville, he owned it this year.

As fun as big numbers are, there is precedent for a defenceman to win the Norris without leading the NHL in scoring by a blueliner – last year in fact, when Mark Giordano won over Brent Burns. Will Josi or Hedman manage to snatch the award from Carlson, or did the Washington mainstay’s raw output simply weigh too heavily on the minds of voters? That’s the only mystery left in the Norris race now.