With over three-quarters of the shortened season now complete, competition is starting to round out for the league awards. The Norris Trophy, given annually to the top defenseman in the NHL, is among the most polarizing, considering the interpretative criteria to determine the best defenseman.
Top candidates for the Norris this season include Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. All three have provided consistent offense, strong capabilities in the defensive zone, and overall value to their team’s success as a leader and top-pairing defenseman.
Victor Hedman – The Favorite
Hedman is the favorite to win the trophy in 2021. The defending Stanley Cup champions have again established themselves as contenders poised for a playoff run, and Hedman’s play has been integral to the Lightning’s success.
The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy-winner continues to be the team’s workhorse, averaging over 25 minutes per game. At 6-foot-6, 241 pounds, he has an imposing physical presence as a shutdown defender that many puck-moving defensemen can’t offer. His athleticism and recovery speed allows him to jump into an offensive play frequently without abandoning his position.
Hedman’s contributions on offense often come as the distributor to the skill players on the Lightning’s power-play unit, which is converting at over 25 percent. He leads all NHL defensemen with 21 assists on the man advantage, and he is tied for second in points. His natural offensive ability was on full display when he scored the game-winner on a breakaway during the 3-on-3 overtime against the Florida Panthers on April 15.
Adam Fox – The Sleeper
Fox has had an outstanding breakout season to become the Rangers’ top defenseman, filling the void left by the Tony DeAngelo saga. The 23-year-old native of upstate New York is in just his second NHL campaign, but he has had as much impact as any of the league’s top blueliners through 44 games.
His outstanding puck-handling skill has propelled him to lead the league in assists among defensemen. The Rangers are still desperately clawing at a playoff spot in the crowded MassMutual East Division race, and he has been a major driving force for their bounce-back effort after a slow start to the season.
Fox leads the Rangers in ice time, averaging over 24 minutes per game. He does not bring the same imposing physical presence in the defensive zone as Hedman. However, he has been counted on as a reliable top-pairing defenseman against the opposition’s top players.
The traditional approach to Norris candidates does not favor young breakout stars like Fox, who was not among the preseason favorites to win the award. However, four of the past nine Norris Trophies have been given to players aged 26 or younger, an indication that voter trends might be changing.
Roman Josi – The Defending Champ
Last season’s Norris winner is back in the running in 2020-21. The Nashville captain has played an invaluable role in their late-season playoff push in the Discover Central Division. No player has won consecutive Norris Trophies since Nicklas Lidstrom after the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
For better or for worse, voting decisions are sometimes measured against a player’s performance from the previous season. Josi’s offensive production has decreased slightly from 2019-20, and he has gone from third in the league in ice time to 12th. Despite his continued presence as the centerpiece of an outstanding Predators’ blue line, he is not likely to repeat as the winner.
Secondary Candidates – Cale Makar, Shea Theodore, Charlie McAvoy, Aaron Ekblad
Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche has become one of the league’s top defensemen at age 22. The former UMass standout won the Calder Trophy last season as Rookie of the Year, and he is averaging a point per game this season. He is an exemplary puck-moving defenseman in the modern NHL.
Since returning from injury on March 18, Makar has 17 points in 12 games, and the Avalanche are 9-1-2 in that span. Despite his outstanding impact on Colorado’s high-powered offensive attack, he is unlikely to win the Norris because of a 12-game absence that accounts for over 20% of the shortened season. However, expect him to remain in the Norris conversation in future seasons.
Shea Theodore has solidified himself as a core member of the Vegas Golden Knights, who are, again, a Stanley Cup contender. He is a key contributor on the eighth-ranked power play in the NHL, and he has recorded 34 points in 41 games this season.
Charlie McAvoy has solidified the Boston Bruins‘ defense after the offseason losses of Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara. He leads the Bruins in ice time, averaging over 24 minutes per game.
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad was lost for the season after suffering a gruesome leg injury on March 28. The circumstances, unfortunately, hinder his chances to win the Norris, despite an outstanding season for the upstart Panthers.
Expectations for Voting
Voting for the Norris has sometimes been based on a player’s reputation as much as their regular-season performance, which has led to repeat winners. Paul Coffey, Raymond Bourque, Brian Leetch, and Chris Chelios combined for 13 consecutive Norris wins between 1984-85 and 1996-97. Lidstrom alone won seven in ten seasons from 2000-01 through 2010-11.
That trend has changed somewhat in recent seasons as the last nine Norris Trophies since Lidstrom’s retirement have gone to eight different defensemen. Voting criteria is becoming more specific and the other trend, of the winners “who excel strictly in the offensive aspect of the game derelict of their defensive capabilities,” as THW’s Brett Slawson noted, saw a significant change last season when John Carlson did not win the award despite a strong offensive season.
Despite strong cases for each candidate, I expect Hedman to win the Norris Trophy following the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. His overall game meets each element of the criteria used by the voters, and his reputation as a top-tier defenseman who has already won the Norris (2018) and played a major role in his team’s success over twelve seasons, including a championship, help his case as this year’s top candidate.