The James Norris Memorial Trophy is given annually in the National Hockey League “to the defensive player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.” Last year’s winner was Nicklas Lidstrom, defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings, who has won the award seven times and has set the present-day standard for excellence at the position. Lidstrom is enjoying a strong start to the 2011-2012 season at the ripe age of 41 and is a threat to tie Bobby Orr’s record by winning his eighth Norris Trophy, but South Florida has its own candidate for the award.
Brian Campbell, arguably Dale Tallon’s prime acquisition during the busy off-season, has gotten of to a torrid start for the Florida Panthers and is a huge part of the team’s impressive play this season. He is tied for the league lead in points by a defenseman with 18, including 11 points on the power play which is tops among defensemen. As compared to all players, he is 3rd in assists and tied for 2nd in power play points. In fact, he is only one of two defenseman who are in the top ten in the league in assists.
The Panthers’ power play may be where Campbell has helped most. It is well chronicled that last year, the Panthers had the worst power play in the league with a conversion rate of 13.1%. This year with Campbell at the point, the power play has lit the lamp for 16 goals in 75 opportunities, which is a success rate of 21.3%. The difference between last year and this year is 8.2% – the largest positive change in the NHL. Campbell helps the Panthers take advantage in the power play because of his superb stick handling and passing, and he scores a majority of his points – 61.1% – with the man advantage.
Because of the increased production on the power play, the Panthers have also enjoyed a surge in overall scoring over the 2010-2011 season. Last year, the Panthers averaged 2.33 goals per game, which was good for 27th out of the 30 teams. This year, the Panthers are scoring 2.89 goals per game, which ranks the Cats 9th among the 30 teams. To put this in perspective, 2.89 would make for the highest goals per game average for the Panthers since the 2006-2007 season when they averaged 2.99 goals per game. The Panthers increase of 0.56 goals per game is the third highest increase over last year only trailing the Ottawa Senators who are averaging 0.58 more goals over last and the Philadelphia Flyers who are averaging 0.62 more goals over last year.
There’s more! The Panthers defense has also played much better. Campbell is currently a +4 on the season which is not stellar when analyzing the whole league, but it is strong when considering the Panthers history of late. More tangible is the team’s goals against average this season. Last year, the Panthers allowed 2.71 goals per game, and this year, that number has gone down to 2.37. The Panthers went from having the 27th ranked defense to the 8th ranked defense in the league. Combined with the increase in goals scored per game and the decrease in goals allowed per game, the Panthers have improved their goals scored differential from -0.39 in 2010-2011 to 0.53 in 2011-2012. As shown in previous posts, the goal differential is a good indicator of a team’s success, and most of the teams with top differentials make the playoffs.
Campbell has been a welcome addition to the Panthers. In 2010-2011, Dennis Wideman led the Panthers defensemen with 33 points, in 2009-2010, Bryan McCabe led the Panthers defensemen with 43 points, and in 2008-2009, Jay Bouwmeester led the Panthers defensemen with 42 points. Campbell already has 18 points with more than three quarters of the season left to play. The Panthers record for points by a defenseman has stood since Robert Svehla scored 57 in 1995-1996. At his current pace, Campbell is on track to score 78.6 points this season which would shatter Svehla’s record, top Lidstrom’s total from last season, and continue leading the Panthers in a winning direction. Hockey fans should pay attention because Brian Campbell is a serious candidate for the Norris Trophy.