Norris Debate: Shut-Down Vlasic or Two-Way Burns?

The James Norris Memorial Trophy is awarded every year to the “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” A lot of the time, however, this does not mean the best defensive player in the NHL. In fact, it hardly ever means that. This season, there is a microcosm of this choice taking place: Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Norris debate in San Jose exemplifies the problem with the Norris debate as a whole.

The Patterns of Past Winners

In the last four years, we have seen some very famous names win the Norris Trophy. Duncan Keith, PK Subban, Erik Karlsson, and Nicklas Lidstrom were the recipients the last four seasons. Let’s check out the stats that won them the hardware.

Goals Assists Points CF% GF% SV% SF% +/-
Duncan Keith 6 55 61 56.6 56.7 91.4 55.7 22
P.K. Subban** 11 27 38 56.5 66.0 93.0 58.7 12
Erik Karlsson 19 59 78 54.8 55.5 91.9 53.0 16
Nicklas Lidstrom 16 46 62 51.2 50.9 92.0 49.9 -2

All advanced stats are taken from war-on-ice.com and are 5v5 even strength.

**Lockout-shortened season

Norris Debate
Former 2nd round draft pick PK Subban with the Norris Trophy; (Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

So, we can conclude a couple of things from this data. First, points are a requirement to win this thing. Subban was the first winner to score under 50 points since Rod Langway of the Capitals from the 1983-84 season. For your information, his 38 points is on pace for 65 in a full season.

Second, your goalie has to be happier to have you on the ice. Each player’s save percentage is over .913 (the average save percentage in the NHL during this span). This stat implies that you are keeping opponents’ high quality chances down.

Third, the Norris Trophy does not care if you prevent the other team from shooting or even scoring to an extent. At five-on-five, Nicklas Lidstrom actually allowed more shots than his team generated. His goals for percentage isn’t great either, just barely positive at 50.9%. Oh, and his goal differential? That plus/minus rating was actually negative.

The Guys They Beat

You read that right, to be awarded as the best defender in the NHL, you don’t need to be good at defense. In 2010-11, Lidstrom won his seventh Norris Trophy with a -2 rating and his reputation alone. But did Lidstrom’s win mean someone more deserving missed out?

Norris debate
(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

In second and third place that season were Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara. Both of those guys couldn’t muster that fifty point benchmark, but had positive differentials (+7 and +33 respectively). They also boast superior advanced stats (CF%, GF%, etc.). This brings us to San Jose.

Sharks Private Norris Debate

Enter Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns. Two current defenders on Team Teal. One is a shut-down blue liner while the other moves the puck and blasts slapshots like there’s no tomorrow. My colleague, Andrew Bensch, doesn’t think Burns should even be back on the blue line he plays so offensively. But let’s see who would be more likely to win the Norris if the NHL was the size of the Sharks roster.

When we take a look at the primary statistics, Vlasic doesn’t look all that special:

Marc-Edouard Vlasic Brent Burns
Goals 6 11
Assists 8 23
PP Points 2 13
TOI/G 22:04 23:42
+/- 11 -9

The only real advantage Pickles has over his hairy teammate is the oft-criticized plus/minus category. Vlasic struggles offensively and that impacts his usage. He is not used on the top power play unit because his defensive strengths are not as useful. In terms of the Norris debate, these numbers hold more weight. Projected stats have Vlasic failing to eclipse 30 points. Brent Burns on the other hand is slated to come close to 70 points. He is currently 3rd among D-men in points.

Norris debate
Burns’ offensive numbers are impressive (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

While formidable on offense, Brent Burns is almost the polar opposite on the other side of the puck. For these stats, we have to venture into the advanced categories.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic Brent Burns
CF% 52.1 52.6
SF 344 370
SA 315 357
SF% 52.6 50.9
GF 29 28
GA 23 37
GF% 55.8 43.1
SV% 92.7 89.6

Similar to the previous chart, there is a clear winner here. Vlasic dominates these categories (even strength 5v5) as the shut-down defenseman. The shots category is very telling. With Burns on the ice, the rubber flies a lot more. Burns’ defensive unit allows more shots than Vlasic’s even generates. Yet, not only does Vlasic’s unit allow fewer goals, they even score more.

Brent Burns turned heads last season as a bull in a China shop. He wrecked havoc on the ice and it was great to watch. However, that was as a forward. Defenders, in the most basic meaning of the word, must negate chaos.

Who is Our Winner?

That last chart may look like Burns is pitiful on the blue line, but it can’t be discounted how valuable he is offensively. Take a quick peek at some of the worst power play teams in the NHL. Buffalo and Edmonton sit at the very bottom of the pack. A common factor between them? Their defenders are near transparent on the scoresheet. Edmonton’s Justin Schultz is the only player above 11 points. Buffalo doesn’t have a single blue liner in double digits, and their power play percentage is sad as well.

Brent Burns is lethal on the man-advantage. He is in the top ten in points on the power play, he is tops in Corsi For%, and he is tied for third in goals scored. That bomb of a slapshot is worth its weight in gold.

Norris debate
(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

The Norris debate ends with a controversial decision. Vlasic is clearly the better defensive defender, but he pales in comparison with the puck on his stick. Burns is far and away the more gifted shooter, but his defensive play is comical at times. However, the trophy has become more offensive than defensive. Even current favorite, Drew Doughty, is on his way to a 50+ point season. Unless Vlasic can up his point production, Burns will still be ahead of him.