Erik Karlsson’s Norris Trophy Win Shows Little Regard for Defense in Voting for NHL’s Best Defenseman

Erik Karlsson's Norris Trophy Win Shows Little Regard for Defense in Voting for NHL's Best DefensemanFor the most part, the NHL and the writers, broadcasters and team executives who vote on the league’s annual awards acquitted themselves well Wednesday night.

The writers of the hackneyed material given the presenters to read? Not so much.

But the 2012 NHL Awards did produce one genuine, albeit unintentional, bit of comedy when Erik Karlsson was named the Norris Trophy winner. After all, if giving the award for best defenseman to a guy who can’t play defense doesn’t produce at least a chuckle, what will? And no, the answer is not hockey puns from celebrity B-listers like Joshua Jackson.

Karlsson is fine player. At just 22, the Ottawa blueliner has already blossomed into one of the premier offensive defensemen in the game, a skill for which he was richly rewarded on Tuesday in the form of a new seven-year, $45.5 million contract.

Karlsson led all defensemen with 78 points this past season, 25 more than any other blueliner in the league. That will earn a guy some leeway if his play in his own zone isn’t quite as impressive. It will also earn him an awful lot of cash, as the contract mentioned above attests. What it shouldn’t earn him is recognition as the league’s best all-around defenseman.

And those two words — all-around — are the two most important words in the league’s description of the James Norris Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually “to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.”

That’s not quite how most who have seen Karlsson would describe his game. Even the Senators appeared to understand his limitations. Karlsson led the team in overall ice time at 25:19 a game, but rarely was used when Ottawa was protecting a precarious lead late. And he certainly wasn’t trusted often when Ottawa was down a man, averaging just 33 seconds a game on the penalty kill. Sixteen other Senators averaged more shorthanded time than that.

Contrast that with Wednesday’s other finalists, Shea Weber of Nashville and Zdeno Chara of Boston. Weber was a workhorse as well, averaging 26:09 in ice time, which included a healthy 2:16 of penalty kill time and 3:31 on the power play. Chara checked in at 25:00 overall, 2:43 shorthanded and 2:39 on the power play.

Weber and Chara also provided a physical presence that Karlsson does not bring to the game. Weber dished out 177 hits with his 6-foot-4, 232-pound frame, while Chara pounded foes with his mammoth 6-foot-9, 255-pound body 166 times. Karlsson, at just 6-foot, 180 pounds, wisely shied away from so many collisions, managing just 60 hits.

He also managed to keep his slender frame out of the path of most flying pucks, blocking just 65 shots, compared to 140 for Weber and 87 for Chara. That may show some wisdom and even a strong sense of self-preservation, but it doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot to help a team defensively. Then again, neither did Karlsson’s 84 giveaways, so maybe staying away from the puck in the defensive zone isn’t such a bad idea after all.

And in fairness, Karlsson’s plus/minus did rise from a wretched minus-30 in 2010-11 to a solid plus-16 this past year. That may have been more due to Ottawa’s improvement from 190 goals scored in 2010-11 to 243 in 2011-12 more than any true improvement in Karlsson’s defense, or the team’s for that matter as Ottawa still surrendered 236 goals after allowing 254 the previous year, but it is still a sign of some progress.

This isn’t to beat up on Karlsson. He is a budding star, and offensive defensemen play an important role in the game too. That role has even been rewarded with Norris wins before. Paul Coffey did claim the trophy three times after all, and no strictly stay-at-home defenseman has come close to winning it in recent memory.

Putting up solid offensive numbers has become a requirement for consideration as well. But Weber (19-36-49, plus-21) and Chara (12-40-52, plus-33) meet those qualifications as well. And that’s where the real injustice of Karlsson’s win comes in.

It’s not just the lowering of the standards by rewarding a player who excels in only one aspect of the game. It’s that two players who represent everything the award is supposed to celebrate were denied their just recognition.

That is especially true of Weber, who was consistently strong throughout the 2011-12 campaign. He truly “demonstrated throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.” But he came up 12 points shy of winning the Norris, with Karlsson edging him 1,069-1,057 (Chara was third in the voting with 950 points).

The Professional Hockey Writers Association, of which I have been a member since 2000, came that close to getting it right on a night when there was little to quibble with on any of the other award decisions.

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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