While Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban deserves every bit of his nomination for the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s best defenseman, the smart money is on Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson to win.
Subban vs. KarlssonNominated for the award alongside Los Angeles Kings blue-liner Drew Doughty, Subban and Karlsson will nevertheless likely finish one-two in voting (by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association). The only thing that may be up in the air is who finishes where.
Karlsson finished second in goals (21) and first in points (66) among defensemen. Subban finished sixth in goals (15) and third in points (60). However, he also had a much better plus/minus rating (+21, ninth best versus +7, 67th best).
While the award traditionally goes to the league’s best “offensemen,” plus/minus does make a difference. Proof to that effect can be seen in San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns not making the cut despite scoring the same amount of points as Subban (60) and two more goals (17). His plus/minus? A dreadful -9.
Consider it a pitiful attempt on voters’ parts to legitimize in their mind an award that in theory should go to the top “defense player who demonstrates… the greatest all-round ability in the position.”
That’s really Subban’s only noticeable saving grace in this two-horse race. Less noticeable, but still pretty noteworthy? As recently as April 7 (days before the start of the playoffs), Karlsson had not been deployed on the penalty kill for over 50 minutes all season.
In sharp contrast, Subban actually breaks away from both him and Doughty in that regard—performance while shorthanded—despite the popular opinion that he is horrible defensively.
There’s no denying Subban gives the puck up… a lot. He in fact led the entire league this year with 112 giveaways. However, that’s a direct result of ice time. And Karlsson (99) ranked fourth. So, the narrative that Subban is the only one giving it up more than Baskin Robbins does free samples is false to say the least.
Look at it this way: If takeaways were to actually weigh on the minds of voters, Doughty would be the favorite here, averaging just less than one per game (80 overall, 12th-most in the league). However, Doughty is the huge underdog in spite of his edge in responsible play. Sad, but true when talking about a trophy that should go to the best defenseman in the game.
The main reason will inevitably fall short in his quest for his first Norris Trophy (while Subban and Karlsson are each in pursuit of their second) is he has 20 full points less than Karlsson. He totaled 46 points and just seven goals on the season (plus/minus rating of +3).
While that technically shouldn’t matter, it does. And, due to several other factors out of his control, he’s unlikely to have gotten the consideration he may have deserved, with him playing on the West Coast and at times when many voters have long since turned off the television and are sound asleep.
He may be just as electrifying as either Karlsson or Subban in theory, but few witnessed it firsthand consistently enough for him to have likely earned enough first-place votes. The fact that his team fell short of a playoff berth made it all the easier to disregard him.
Looking at it another way, Karlsson and the team he captained into an unlikely playoff spot (where the Kings failed) just made it too difficult for voters not to give him their nod… even though Subban’s Habs enjoyed the better season overall.
By going 21-3-3 over the final third of the season, the Senators essentially guaranteed Karlsson his Norris Trophy. Granted, he had a little something to do with it, scoring eight goals and 16 assists during that same stretch. But people, and voters specifically, love comebacks. So much so that they devoted an entire trophy to them. And Karlsson, who spent most of the 2013 season injured with a lacerated Achilles tendon, is no stranger to them.
Karlsson’s going to win. Bank on it.
The Smarter Money
This really isn’t about Subban falling short in one way or another as much as it is about Karlsson and the Senators’ redemption after they missed the playoffs last season and almost did again this one (but, obviously, ultimately didn’t).
That being said, Subban is arguably just too polarizing a figure—justifiably or not—for sportswriters to hand him his second Norris in three seasons. For him to win it again, he’s going to have to put together a season for the ages, blowing away the competition in nearly every (non-possession, mainstream) statistical category to the point that no one can justify voting against him. And Vezina Trophy-favorite Carey Price playing behind him? Yet one more excuse to do just that.
It’s not all bad news for him and Habs fans, though. Sure, the Habs are getting ready for the second round of the playoffs while the freshly beaten Senators are heading to the golf course. More importantly, at least long term, this nomination serves as vindication.
When Subban signed his eight-year, $72-million deal last summer, the pressure was on. He delivered, not necessarily proving he was worth all that cash (who is?), but that the deal most certainly wasn’t a mistake on general manager Marc Bergevin’s part.
Sure, the whole bridge deal “fiasco” can maybe be considered a smudge on the GM’s relatively sterling reputation up to this point if you want to be picky, but at the end of the day the team made the right decision, keeping their star defenseman happy… and their fans as a result.
People may have good reason to bet against Subban at the upcoming awards ceremony, but they shouldn’t when it actually counts… on the ice.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.