Is it Time to Split the Norris Trophy?

The NHL is no stranger to the idea of change. Its history has been built upon it.  From the decision to limit teams to one goal per power play in 1956 to the removal of the red line in 2005, the league has shown a knack for constantly evolving when necessary.

This embracement isn’t just limited to the rules either. Everything from the style of play to the yearly awards ceremony has seen alterations throughout the years. The NHL, above all else, understands that the best way to succeed in the ultra competitive sports market is to embrace the inevitability of change.

Well NHL, it’s about time for another change. Don’t worry, it’s nothing monumental. It’s actually quite simple. It has nothing to do with altering the way that the game is played or how the league is perceived. Instead it is all about celebrating and recognizing the dawn of a new era and a new breed of NHLer.

NHL, it’s time to split the James Norris Memorial Trophy.

Chances are that your reaction to that statement came out in one of three ways. 1.) Who cares? The awards are meaningless anyways. 2.) Blasphemy. The Norris is, and will always be, the only defensive award that matters in the NHL. Or 3.) Finally. It’s about time more blue liners are recognized.

Before this past season I was firmly planted into the ‘Norris Tradionalists’ category. It’s one of the most prestigious awards in hockey after all. Changing it would mean changing its glorious history. Well, truth be told, it’s history was forever changed before the idea of splitting the award could even be contemplated.

Just this past season Erik Karlsson, a 21 year old defenseman from the Ottawa Senators, became the youngest player since Bobby Orr to claim the Norris Trophy. Most hockey fans were left speechless, wondering how this kid managed to beat out two of the best defensemen the NHL had to offer in Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara. But it wasn’t his lack of age that defied Norris logic; it was his lack of defense.

Erik Karlsson Senators
Erik Karlsson (Icon SMI)

His jaw dropping defensive stats include:

33 seconds per game on the penalty kill (7th amongst his fellow Ottawa defenseman)

84 giveaways (4th worst in the NHL amongst defensemen)

65 blocked shots (168th amongst NHL defensemen)

Of course those deficiencies were masked by his stellar play in the offensive zone. Karlsson’s 78 points were not only 25 more than the next defenseman in line but were the most since Nicklas Lidstrom tallied 80 back in 2005-2006. Obviously there is no debate as to whether Karlsson was the best offensive defenseman in the game, but does that justify him wearing the Norris crown?

The Hockey Hall of Fame states that the ‘James Norris Memorial Trophy is presented annually to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability at his position.” If that’s the criterion we are basing our judgment on then should Karlsson have won the award? No. Does that mean he shouldn’t be recognized as the best offensive defenseman in the NHL? Absolutely not.

You see, Karlsson is the byproduct of a new generation of defenseman. What they lack in defensive skill they more than make up for with speed and pure offensive talent. They are forwards in a defenseman’s body essentially. With this new style of blue liner comes an entirely new aspect of the game that needs to be recognized in some way. Enter the Norris Trophy split.

What I am proposing isn’t necessarily a true split of the Norris. What I mean by this is that the best way to recognize this new breed of

Bobby Orr at the Montreal Forum 1971
The man who revolutionized the position (Dick Raphael-US PRESSWIRE)

offensive defenseman is to create another award to be handed out alongside the Norris Trophy. Let’s call it the Bobby Orr Trophy just for fun. By creating the Bobby Orr Trophy the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association will be able to distinguish those who excel on the offensive side of the puck. This will allow the Norris Trophy to retain its claim as being awarded to the best all-around defenseman in the NHL. Think of the Bobby Orr Trophy as the Frank J. Selke Trophy of the defensive world.

Of course there are questions and quarrels that will inevitably arise. Most notably the argument that the newest trophy would be meaningless, that every blue liner dreams of hoisting the Norris, not some newborn trophy. I can’t argue against that kind of statement honestly.

A lot of awards are given their weight by tradition above all else. The prestige of the Hart Memorial Trophy has more to do with the names that have hoisted the trophy than the title itself. The honor isn’t about being named the most valuable in any given year, it’s about being mentioned alongside the NHL greats like Gretzky, Howe, Orr, Shore and Lemieux. Without that history the award loses a lot of its meaning.

The same can be said about the Norris Trophy. The title of best all-around defenseman is nice and all but being mentioned alongside defensive legends such as Bobby Orr, Nicklas Lidstrom and Doug Harvey is the ultimate goal. It’s the path towards immortality and it’s through the Norris Trophy. If the Bobby Orr Trophy came to fruition it would essentially eliminate an entire section of blossoming defenseman from achieving that level of greatness. Or would it?

Creating an award for offensive defenseman isn’t about pigeonholing them into a cliché. As hockey history has shown us, there are no rules that state that the best offensive defenseman can’t be the best all-around blue liner in the NHL. Just ask Bobby Orr and Nicklas Lidstrom.

Instead the awards purpose would be to recognize the new breed of defenseman that has emerged in the NHL as well as preserve the long held tradition of the Norris Trophy. It would allow the voters to honor the ideals of the all-around defenseman while doing the same with the offensive minded.

When it comes down to it it’s the best of both worlds. It respects tradition while embracing the future. The traditionalists will have their beloved Norris Trophy while the new age of offensive defensemen will begin a tradition of their own. The NHL needs the Bobby Orr Trophy. The fans need the Bobby Orr Trophy. The future of hockey needs the Bobby Orr Trophy.