The 2020-21 season was the coming out party for many young defenseman. Two of the three defenseman that were in the Calder trophy conversation last season are finalists for the Norris trophy. Cale Makar was projected to be a bonafide number one defenseman, and he solidified that tag by playing extraordinarily well.
Adam Fox turned into the elite defenseman that the numbers showed him to be in his rookie season. Charlie McAvoy, arguably the biggest snub among the Norris finalists, continued his dominance with the Boston Bruins. Makar and Fox got their nominations alongside the usual suspect Victor Hedman. Which one of them deserves to win the award?
Makar had a breakout start to the season and didn’t look back. The only thing that stopped him from being the runaway Norris winner was an injury that cost him 12 games. He was a point-per-game player and looked as good as any defenseman in the NHL. According to the stats, the Colorado Avalanche could have had three Norris finalists. Samuel Girard and Devon Toews were just as good, if not better than Makar. However, Makar’s elite skating and as a playmaker push him over the hump.
His great start to the season helped his advanced numbers, as he placed first among the finalists in goals above replacement (GAR) by a wide margin with 16.4 per Evolving-Hockey. He also ranked first in expected goals above replacement (xGAR) with 14.6. Finally, he placed first in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) among the finalists and third among all skaters behind Toews and Girard.
Had Makar not missed the 12 games in a shortened season, he would be the leading choice to win the award. The missed time is a bit exaggerated by some but will likely mean fewer votes.
The candidate I’m most excited about is Fox, who finally got some of the credit he deserved last season. After being snubbed for a Calder Trophy nomination the season before, he came out with a vengeance and put the league on notice. He was my pick to win the Calder because of his fantastic analytics. The New York Rangers needed someone on the back end that could facilitate play, and he took that next step and became a true number one defenseman.
He scored 47 points in 55 games and ranked second in most analytics. He had a GAR of 9.6 and an xGAR of 10.4, which placed second behind Makar. His xGF% was above average at 54.78%. He may not have excelled in any one aspect of the game, as other Norris finalists have done in the past, but Fox continued to show why he’s one of the most valuable defensemen in the NHL.
His highlight-reel plays and excellent reads continued in 2020-21, and overall, his numbers were excellent relative to most other defensemen. He deserves this nomination, especially after being snubbed for the Calder after an exceptional rookie campaign last season.
Probably the least deserving candidate (sorry, Lightning fans) of the three, Hedman had a tough season. According to most, he was battling an injury, which can take a toll on a player’s competition level and results. It did for Hedman, and the analytics back it up. Widely regarded as the best defenseman in the league, he gets a lot of credit even when he may not deserve it. This season, he was likely nominated because of his reputation and points totals, which has been a point of contention regarding this award for years.
Hedman had 45 points in 54 games this season, and over 50% of his points came on the power play. Yes, the Lightning’s power play wouldn’t be the same without him, but it’s unusual for him to struggle at even strength. He placed third in both GAR and xGAR among the three finalists; his GAR was reasonably close to Fox with a 0.2 difference. However, Hedman had a 5.7 xGAR, which wasn’t even close to Fox, who had a 10.4. His xGF% was only a smidge above 50% at 51.3%, which is not what you expect from the best defenseman in the world.
Hedman may be among the best defensemen over a larger sample, but he had a tough season in 2020-21, and without his solid reputation, he likely wouldn’t have been in the Norris conversation. However, many people believe that he should be nominated consistently because he’s the best overall defenseman. That couldn’t be further from the truth. His season wasn’t awful, but it didn’t live up to the standards that he likely holds for himself.
The stats have chosen a winner by default. Makar was outstanding and used his elite skating ability to create offense for his team. When he was fully healthy, no other defenseman played at his level, including Fox, who had a great season. However, durability is a factor, which makes the race much closer between the two. As for Hedman, he shouldn’t be here. Players like McAvoy and even Jakob Chychrun, who had an underrated season, deserve to be here more than him, even if his status as the best defenseman in the NHL goes unchallenged. Makar should win the Norris, but it’s a very close race.
Jeff is a consistent source for Predators and Red Wings content here at The Hockey Writers. He enjoys watching all sorts of hockey from juniors to the pros and playing for his high school and local teams in Nashville. He’s a big proponent of hockey analytics, and you’ll often see him using lots of statistics and data to back up his main talking points. You can find his work here, or check out his contributions on his own Substack, or at Last Word on Hockey and On the Forecheck. Lastly, you can listen to him on the Youth Movement Podcast presented by On the Forecheck or the Triple Shift Podcast. For any inquiries about interviews or questions about statistics, analytics, or just general hockey opinions you can message his Twitter, @jjmid04.