Over the 94 seasons of New York Rangers hockey, only Harry Howell, Doug Harvey, and Brian Leetch had managed to win the prestigious Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top defenseman. On Tuesday night, Adam Fox joined the elite list, becoming the fourth New York Ranger to capture the award, beating Cale Makar and Victor Hedman.
In all sports, players who come out of the gate fast in their freshman seasons are typically subject to a sophomore slump. The league adjusts to the tendencies of the younger players, forcing them to have to learn how to adjust as well. For Fox, who fell just short of the Calder Trophy ballot in his rookie campaign, his sophomore slump was non-existent, catapulting himself from Calder-snub to the top defenseman in the NHL in just one year.
Any time your name is said in the same breath as Bobby Orr, odds are you are doing some amazing things. Fox was phenomenal this season, finishing second among the NHL’s defensemen in points (47), first in assists (42), second in power-play points (23), and tied for first in shorthanded points (2). In just his second season, Fox averaged playing 24:22 TOI per game. Those meaningful minutes allowed the Rangers a chance at a postseason push, and his plus-19 rating shows how valuable those minutes were.
Throughout the season, the 23-year-old displayed his poise and skill with the puck in all three zones, making seemingly impossible plays appear commonplace. He amassed a 12-game point streak, second-longest to Brian Leetch in Rangers history, proving how lethal he is when the puck is on his tape. All around, Fox was the best defenseman in the NHL during the 2020-21 season, and the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association nailed this selection.
What the Naysayers Are Saying
Those with a dissenting opinion of Fox winning this award have heavily argued that the Rangers missing the postseason reduces his candidacy. And miraculously enough, Fox’s Norris victory enshrines him as the first defenseman to win the Norris Trophy in the modern era on a non-playoff team. Joining Orr as the second defenseman to win it in his first two seasons and standing alone as the only defenseman to win it from a non-playoff team make this quite the historical Norris Trophy for Fox.
This award is a regular-season trophy, and according to the NHL Records page, the Norris is “presented annually to the defense player who demonstrates the greatest all-round ability in the position throughout the season.”
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No asterisk under this reads, “Team must qualify for the postseason to win this award,” as is the case for every award handed out on Tuesday. These are all regular season trophies, awarding play over the course of an entire season, and the stipulation that one’s team must make the playoffs to win an award is a figment of some people’s imagination.
And if you hold staunch to that viewpoint, riddle me this. Take Fox and Makar and rotate teams. Does Makar take the Rangers to the playoffs? Do the Avalanche miss the postseason? Take Fox and Hedman and do the same thing. It is clear, and was clear all along, that the Lightning and Avalanche were superior teams, both of whom reached the postseason if their respective Norris candidates were out. But if Fox were out long-term for the Rangers, holy moly, would that backend have been in shambles.
Fox Was a Beast All Season
We mentioned the stats Fox possessed, all of which were outstanding in their own right. Analytically, Fox was equally as impressive, both offensively and defensively, courtesy of evolving hockey.
Not a single one of those categories sees Fox as a negative player. It didn’t matter what zone Fox was impacting; he positively influenced both sides of the puck. In just his second season, the Jericho, NY native shows an unlimited amount of potential, despite not having been able to play a full 82-game slate.
JFreshHockey, a terrific analytic member of Elite Prospects Rinkside, broke down Fox’s season by a scorecard. It speaks volumes to the caliber of the season we all just witnessed.
Sometimes a player’s numbers do not indicate their on-ice impact. This is not one of those situations. Simply put, Fox was a stud all 2020-21, dominating his way to the Norris Trophy. The Leetch comparisons are certainly premature, but they are definitely warranted. The Rangers have not had a defenseman who could take over a game since number two graced the ice, but they certainly have one now in Fox.
No one is saying the Makar and Hedman were not dominant in their own right. But Fox from game one through 56 was the best overall defenseman in the league, and in the end, he brought home a Norris Trophy that was rightfully his. Next year, the goal for the Rangers is simple; to make the postseason. And with the reigning Norris winner on their blue line, that goal certainly seems attainable.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!