Is Sami Vatanen A Legitimate Norris Trophy Candidate?

The James Norris Memorial Trophy, the National Hockey League’s annual award given to the, “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position”, is one of professional hockey’s most time honored awards, as the defense position is considered by many observers to be the most difficult position to master. Names such as Orr, Lidstrom, and Bourque come to mind when the award is mentioned, defensemen who were in their respective careers clearly head and shoulders above the competition. Yet with the great Lidstrom’s retirement in 2011, the award has become one of the most hotly debated topics for analysts and fans year after year. Players like Duncan Keith and Ryan Suter have been staples of these debates, but with 21 points in 29 games this season, Anaheim Ducks blueliner Sami Vatanen has emphatically inserted himself into the annual debate.

Vatanen Fitting In To Norris Trend

Duncan Keith
Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr

Duncan Keith, P.K Subban, and Erik Karlsson — the last three Norris winners — have all won over voters largely through their offensive prowess, and in the process taking some of the focus of the award away  from the defensive side of the game. While that may hurt players such as Ryan Suter who regularly play nearly half the game and post solid possession numbers, it only helps players such as Vatanen, who is clearly a work in progress in his own zone.

Instead, the Finnish Olympian has largely buttered his bread in the offensive zone with the puck on his stick, making some highlight reel plays in the process. It’s not just his rifle of a slap shot that’s gained him notoriety (though that certainly doesn’t hurt), but an awe-inspiring combination of skating ability, poise with the puck, and an understanding of how to be a threat without the puck  that has elevated Vatanen from mere prospect to power play quarterback for the Anaheim Ducks. By the sheer virtue that he provides so much offense from the blueline, he’d at least be a part of the conversation if voters had to decide today who to anoint as the NHL’s best defenseman.

Legitimate Candidate?

(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Before embarking on the question of what makes a Norris candidate “legitimate”, it must first be noted that in recent years guys such as Mark Giordano and Ryan Suter have consistently been among the best, if not the very best of NHL blueliners. Yet the trophy always seems to end up either in a player who is prolific offensively (Karlsson) or resides in a larger market where exposure is easier to come around (Keith, Subban). That’s not to say that the last three winners haven’t been deserving of consideration, but the fact that their awards have been largely debated (Keith especially) clearly shows that the line between what actually is a legitimate candidate and what the voters think is a legitimate candidate has been severely blurred.

Underlying numbers paired with plain old goals and assists have Giordano as the favorite to win it at this juncture of the season, but if Sami Vatanen can continue producing anywhere near the level he’s at right now, he’ll simply be impossible to ignore for voters. The fact that Anaheim is in a less nationally covered market may even actually help Vatanen, as many might overlook his defensive deficiencies simply by not having watched him enough, leaving them only to see his eye popping offensive totals. So is the Ducks’ 23-year old breakout star a lock for one of hockey’s highest awards? The short answer is no, not with his defensive deficiencies and the bigger names that are out there, but with the unpredictable entity that is the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he just may have a chance.