2021 NHL Award Watch: Evaluating the Norris Race

This is the last part of the award series examining the races for the major awards (Hart, Selke, Calder, Vezina, and Norris) as the season comes to a close. I have already evaluated the Hart Trophy raceVezina race, Calder race, and Selke race. This volume will take a look at the Norris Trophy race and which defensemen have played the best this season. All four frontrunners have a good chance at winning the award.

This series will emphasize analytics and take into account other critical elements. In this shortened season, there are some clear frontrunners while other races are very close. Unless something dramatically changes in the final games, this is my final ballot for each award.

Norris Race

The award is given to the defensemen who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.

Norris Race
Norris Frontrunners’ Stats 20-21 (Evolving-Hockey & Natural Stat Trick)

This race came all the way down to the wire and I am not sure there is truly an undeniable winner. Cale Makar, Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, and MacKenzie Weegar all have strong cases and are deserving of the award. This is truly very close, but whoever does win the award needs to be on this list.

In hindsight, I am very glad that Makar won the Calder Trophy last season over Quinn Hughes as the latter has had a very underwhelming season. Makar has been even more impressive this season than last season’s performance which speaks volumes. The 22-year-old defenseman finished the season with 8 goals, 36 assists, and 44 points while only playing 44 games.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Makar has a league-leading 60.88 percent Corsi share and 61.77 percent expected goal share at 5-on-5. Not only has the sharp-shooting defenseman been an offensive threat, but he has actually been above-average defensively which is positive from the youngster. His 1.73 expected goals against per hour is the seventh highest in the league which paints him more favorably than Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM model which grades him out as just above-average.

His 2.8 wins above replacement (WAR) – a comprehensive metric that attempts to capture all contributions into a single number – is the highest in the league and his expected WAR is third. There is no doubt that Makar should be a Norris Trophy finalist at a minimum, but he has a strong case to win it.

Adam Fox has been unbelievable for the New York Rangers after a great rookie season. He has the second-highest point total with 47 points among defensemen, but he also played 11 more games than Makar. I don’t think he’s quite a lock like a lot of people appear to think he is this season. He holds an expected goal share of 54.22 percent at 5-on-5.

Adam Fox New York Rangers
Adam Fox, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Compared to the others, Fox has a lower 1.7 WAR and 1.9 expected WAR, respectively. Not only has he been one of the league’s best offensive defensemen, but he’s also been effective with his defensive assignments. Fox’s 1.93 expected goals against per hour rank 44th among defensemen. He is easily the Rangers’ best defenseman and has helped stabilize their defensive core.

Charlie McAvoy is arguably the best defenseman at 5-on-5 in the league with very strong two-way results since he entered the league. He never gets enough recognition and Norris Hype because he doesn’t get enough points in the eyes of many – he picked up 5 goals, 25 assists, and 30 points in 51 games. Surprisingly, the Bruins defensive results have not suffered from the departure of Krug, and McAvoy is a huge reason behind that.

Charlie McAvoy Boston Bruins
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

McAvoy’s 2.4 WAR and 2.1 xWAR is just below the likes of Makar and Weegar. He has a strong 2.61 expected goals for per hour and 1.82 expected goals against per hour at 5-on-5. His strong two-way results – among the league’s best – is a huge reason why the analytics community considers him a top-five defenseman. He does everything at an elite rate despite it not always manufacturing into points.

MacKenzie Weegar is one of the most under-the-radar defensemen this season and deserves recognition. He is one of the best defensive defensemen in the league, but still carries an offensive element which makes him a threat because of his strong two-way results. He has 6 goals, 30 assists, and 36 points in 54 games.

He holds a strong 55.56 Corsi for percentage and 57.21 percent share of expected goals. Weegar has legitimately displayed his ability to be a top-pairing defenseman this season and is among the league’s best at the position.

MacKenzie Weegar Florida Panthers
MacKenzie Weegar, Florida Panthers (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Weegar’s 2.7 WAR and 2.5 xWAR finish right on the tail of Makar which displays just how effective he has been this season. His defensive goals above replacement rank fourth league-wide. He has the fourth-best RAPM expected goals against rate at 5-on-5. His two-way presence has been able to keep the Panthers’ defensive core afloat. Elite defensive play by defensemen will never get the recognition as point production for some odd reason, which is why Weegar is an under-the-radar but still deserving candidate.

Honorable Mentions: Dougie Hamilton, Shea Theodore, Samuel Girard & Devon Toews

Final Thoughts

The Norris Trophy race is definitely the closest race out of all the major award races. The four frontrunners – Makar, Fox, McAvoy, and Weegar – all have a strong case to win the prestigious award. You can’t go wrong with any of them. This season was definitely interesting as there were a lot of deserving defensemen and the four honorable mentions who just missed the cut have been very good.

Another interesting observation is the age of the qualified players this season. Makar, Fox, and McAvoy are 22, 23, and 23, respectively. There were many veteran defensemen who just weren’t good enough, like Victor Hedman, Roman Josi, and other previous Norris Trophy winners. The young defensemen took over this season and made a significant impact.

(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference)

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