If there is one award that is up in the air this year, it is the Norris Trophy for best defenseman. Only once in the post-Lidstrom era has a purely offensive defenseman (Erik Karlsson) won the award, but the award does generally lean towards those with pretty offensive numbers (although that’s clearly not the only criteria, or else Mike Green would have won a few times). The award goes to the guy that can play in all three zones, and be one of the best in the league at doing so. It’s why guys like Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, and Chris Pronger are (were) always in the running. It’s why we expect P.K. Subban to be in the running for the majority of his career.
But yet, Ryan McDonagh seems to be an afterthought for this award. I don’t think I’ve even seen him mentioned in the conversation this year. But yet, he sits 12th in defensive scoring with a line of 13-29-42 on an offensively starved Rangers squad. The four guys from 8th-11th are all on non-playoff teams. We still don’t hear his name mentioned, despite him playing almost 25 minutes per game (13th in the league).
So who do we constantly hear about for the Norris? This year, it appears to be Keith’s award to lose. But we also hear a lot about Subban, Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, and Ryan Suter. All great defensemen, but where does McDonagh line up with all these guys?
Aside from the scoring measures, we have to look at deployment (quality of competition, zone starts) and effectiveness (puck possession) to measure how good a player is at playing his actual position. I pulled together a comparison, courtesy of ExtraSkater, of the players I believe will finish in the top-ten in voting for the Norris. Below is a graph of their usage:
From a zone start standpoint, you can see how favorable the deployment is for Keith, Karlsson, Hedman, and Suter. These guys are facing quality competition, but they are doing so with over 54% offensive zone starts. Meanwhile, guys like Subban, McDonagh, Weber, and Chara are doing this with 46%-47% offensive zone starts. This isn’t to take anything away from the first group, but heavy offensive zone starts like that tend to lead to more favorable offensive numbers. After all, it’s much easier to notch a point when the play starts in the offensive zone.
Fenwick/Corsi don’t really favor McDonagh too much here, he’s in the middle of the road in terms of pure CF%. From a relative standpoint, he’s near the bottom of the list. It doesn’t help his cause, but it doesn’t really hurt his cause either.
What does help his cause is deployment, factoring quality of competition and zone starts together. Chara, Weber, and McDonagh are top-three in quality of competition faced. Weber, Subban, and McDonagh are bottom-three in offensive zone starts. Of those four, McDonagh sits third in points. If we are truly measuring based on deployment, then three of these four would be the finalists. But therein lies the conundrum: How can you punish players for their deployment? Byfuglien and Pietrangelo don’t exactly have favorable matchups, so are those extra offensive zone starts worth that much in offensive production?
All ten players on this list are great players, that we all know. Where they finish in the Norris voting, well that’s not up to you and me. This may not be McDonagh’s year to win the Norris, or even be a finalist, but he is certainly in the category of top-ten defensemen in the league. Should this offensive outburst be a breakout and not a blip, McDonagh’s name will appear in the conversation sooner rather than later."Ryan McDonagh's case for the Norris",