Welcome to THW’s 2021-22 Norris Trophy tracker, an ever-shifting ranking of the NHL’s top defensemen to be updated monthly throughout the entirety of the regular season. Before we set out to the list, a few qualifying criteria should be established ahead of time to avoid potential gripes with the methodology or order. As always, these are subjective rankings meant to initiate discussion, so feel free to disagree (civilly) in the comments and offer your own picks.
First, five-on-five play is highly valued in these rankings, as power-play deployment greatly skews rates of production and fails to present a coherent evaluation of a defenseman’s overall impact. Next, a player’s reputation is largely ignored as an annual trophy should not be a quasi-lifetime achievement award; this season’s results matter most, but special cases can be made as it’s extremely early to make sweeping conclusions. Last, advanced statistics are critical tools in moving past superficial analysis (looking solely at boxscore stats for example), and form the basis of reasoning for these rankings. With that being said, let’s dig in.
5. Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers)
2021-22 Stats: 11 GP – 0 G – 9 A – 9 PTS – 25:49 ATOI
The Edmonton Oilers have won nine of their first 11 games, the third such instance in franchise history, and the first since the 1985-86 season. Hulking defenseman Darnell Nurse is a significant factor in their success. On top of posting his most productive NHL scoring pace (0.81 points-per-game), Nurse’s play has yielded the most stellar underlying metrics of his young career. In over 20 minutes played at five-on-five per game (fifth-highest average ice-time in the NHL), the Oilers have enjoyed an overwhelming majority of shot attempts for (55.9%), scoring chances (54%), and expected goals (57%) with Nurse roaming the ice.
Although Nurse has benefitted from featuring on the red-hot Edmonton power play (four assists), he’s taken on a sizeable workload on the penalty kill (31st in average PK time among defensemen) to exert control over every game-state for the Oilers. The 26-year-old has expanded his game and improved considerably on the defensive end, so don’t be surprised for him to feature heavily in year-end Norris discussions if he maintains his admirable results throughout the season. The context surrounding Edmonton’s transformation into Stanley Cup contenders plays in Nurse’s favour, as credentialed writers should send votes his way if the Oilers capture the Pacific Division and/or Western Conference crowns.
4. Roman Josi (Nashville Predators)
2021-22 Stats: 13 GP – 4 G – 8 A – 12 PTS – 25:01 ATOI
Although we’re only a month into the season, Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators continues to enjoy his favourite pastime – accounting for the entirety of the Predators’ transition game and offensive exploits, all the while maintaining a positive impact on the defensive end. His 0.92 points-per-game represents the second-highest offensive clip of his career, and his scoring totals are tied for second among all NHL defensemen thus far. The team relies heavily on Josi at 5v5, riding the Swiss workhorse to the tune of 25 minutes a game in all situations – the 13th-highest ATOI among all defenders. That he sustains net-positive shot- and chance-share results in spite of the immeasurable weight upon his shoulders pushes him to the forefront of the Norris Trophy conversation.
Nashville controls 55 percent of 5v5 expected goals (xGF%) and 53.8 percent of scoring chances (SCF%) when he plays, no mean feat when the team as a whole hovers at or below 50% when he’s on the bench. With Josi, the team approaches the level of a playoff hopeful but without him, they’re most likely running the numbers of the summer’s draft lottery. In what will come as a surprise to no one, Josi remains a prolific power play threat as the joint points leader among defenseman with seven points and a league-leading three goals on the man-advantage. If Josi can vault the middling Predators into a playoff spot, his Norris case becomes all the more bulletproof to an electorate that loves a good narrative.
3. Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers)
2021-22 Stats: 13 GP – 4 G – 6 A – 10 PTS – 25:25 ATOI
Aaron Ekblad‘s unfortunate injury suffered towards the end of the 2020-21 season was excruciating to see as a neutral observer. It essentially curtailed the Florida Panthers‘ path to Stanley Cup contention, forcing them to navigate the postseason without their defensive anchor. In turn, his return has lifted the Panthers into the league’s upper echelon, now the gleeful owners of the NHL’s best record as we turn the calendar on the first month of the season. He’s continued to grow into the enormous potential suggested by his first-overall selection in the 2014 Entry Draft, and enjoying unmatched personal and team success as a result.
The grizzled Ekblad has improved upon his offensive instincts, scoring the most 5v5 goals among defensemen (three) and the third-most points (six). When it comes to the overall leaderboards, the native of Windsor, Ontario is tied with Josi for the lead in goals scored by defensemen (four), but drops to 11th in terms of points (10). If Ekblad continues to produce at such an elevated rate, expect him to blast past his previous career-best of 41 points from 2019-20.
Despite his offensive pursuits, he’s not conceding many chances at the other end. Some would consider sacrificing defence for offense an understandable swap to be made in one’s personal quest for accolades, but Florida still claims 54% of xGF and 57% of SCF when Ekblad takes the ice – even with their emphasis on overwhelming opposing defences (most team goals-per-game). Award races hinge heavily on the stories associated with them, and the Panthers’ early success feeds into Ekblad’s rise as he carves out a formidable two-way presence on the Panthers’ blue line.
2. Adam Fox (New York Rangers)
2021-22 Stats: 13 GP – 3 G – 10 A – 13 PTS – 24:39 ATOI
At the ripe old age of 23, Adam Fox has resoundingly wrested the mantle of the NHL’s best defenseman for himself, and doesn’t look set to relinquish that title anytime soon. The reigning Norris Trophy winner is picking up where he left off in 2020-21, leading all defensemen in scoring with 13 points through the first month of the 2021-22 season. The only thing keeping him off of the top spot on this list are his early struggles at five-on-five (sub-50% across the board), an uncharacteristic development for an otherwise premier puck-mover, and something that should regress back to normal for the New York Rangers‘ rearguard.
Fox is tied for third in 5v5 defensemen goals (two) and overall scoring (six points), meaning he’s more than a power-play merchant, although his five points on the man-advantage make him an offensive threat in all situations. As I mentioned earlier, his suspect underlying numbers to start the season make him a prime candidate to fall further down in the rankings, in spite of his expectedly bountiful production. It’s almost unprecedented for a skater to experience an over 10% drop in expected goals share over a single offseason, but the sample is small enough to hold off on penalizing him too heavily just yet.
His offensive impact, combined with New York’s decent start to the campaign (ninth in points-percentage), has been enough to postpone any uncomfortable discussions around his advanced numbers, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. It becomes increasingly difficult to justify such a high rank if he continues to bleed an inordinately high amount of chances against for a prolonged period of time.
1. Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins)
2021-22 Stats: 10 GP – 1 G – 6 A – 7 PTS – 24:01 ATOI
Shot- and chance supression? Charlie McAvoy‘s got it. A robust transition game? McAvoy’s got it. Offensive production? You guessed it. Although his fellow American in New York is arguably the NHL’s most dynamic blueliner at the moment, the Boston Bruins‘ McAvoy boasts an almost incomparable overall impact in all situations. The Bruins’ underwhelming 6-4-0 start has temporarily tempered the amount of praise heaped on McAvoy, but his underlying numbers indicate that he’s still downright dominant when it comes to controlling five-on-five play and suppressing scoring chances against.
Among defensemen to have played at least 100 minutes at 5v5 this season, McAvoy concedes the fewest expected goals against (xGA/60), and sixth-fewest high-danger opportunities against per hour (HDCA/60). In terms of the quantity and quality of chances allowed, McAvoy’s preventative abilities are unparalleled among defensemen who can relate to his workload (20th in ATOI) in all situations, and the level of competition he’s facing each night.
Of all the defensive pairs to have skated in at least 75 5v5 minutes together, the McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk pairing is untouchable. The duo controls 74.6% of the xG share (first in the NHL), and 63% of the unblocked shot share (also first), and leads the league in per-60 concession rate for both categories. Boston has scored two-thirds of the total goals when they’re on the ice, meaning they drive a sound process while also seeing actual on-ice results from their labour.
You may also like:
- Rangers’ 2021-22 Quarter-Season Team Awards
- Oilers’ Have the Assets to Trade for Carey Price
- NHL Stat Corner: Maple Leafs, Kraken, Predators, Stars, Panthers, Sabres
- Kings’ News & Rumors: Byfield, Lemieux Suspension, & Clarke Snub
- Oilers’ Ceci Provides Silver Lining in Losing Larsson
McAvoy’s scoring rate of 0.7 points-per-game (56 points over an 82-game season) represents his highest offensive output to date, and he clearly hasn’t abandoned his defensive duties in an attempt to expand his already overflowing skill set. The annual parade of pieces questioning whether the Bruins are finally retreating to the NHL’s outskirts have already begun, but Boston quickly rebounds as long as McAvoy continues to be his usual dominant self. To clarify, it’s a tight Norris race with several outstanding blueline performances being submitted so far, making the top five easily interchangeable in my mind.
2021-22 Norris Trophy Honourable Mentions
In no particular order, five additional honourable mentions to round out the early top 10 are: Dougie Hamilton (New Jersey Devils), Jaccob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes), Moritz Seider (Detroit Red Wings), Bowen Byram (Colorado Avalanche), and Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning).
Next Norris Trophy Tracker Update: December 2021
To recap the Norris race to this point, several familiar faces have pulled ahead while emerging talents are quickly imprinting themselves onto the NHL’s collective consciousness. Several preseason contenders should find their way back onto this list as we accrue a more comprehensive sample of games, so don’t be too worried if you don’t see your favourite blueliner mentioned in this first edition. Make sure to check back in December for the next update, which surely reignites heated discussion based on another month’s worth of play.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.