It must almost be the offseason, because NHL Awards have once again caused a stir regarding the voting structure and overall legitimacy of the accolades. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Norris Trophy, where the Montreal Canadiens’ PK Subban won out by a hair over Minnesota Wild’s Ryan Suter. He did so despite the words, “awarded to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position” right on the darn trophy. Alas, with the results of the past two seasons, the statement about ‘all-around ability’ is looking demonstrably untrue for Norris voting.
Earlier in the year, I made an impassioned case that Dion Phaneuf’s numbers were quite worthy of a Norris nomination. While Phaneuf ultimately fell off the point scoring pace to warrant a nomination, the piece articulated the make-up of a Norris-calibre defender. Phaneuf fit the profile of a nominee for the award in the mould of Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber. I put forward Subban’s name as a contender for the trophy in April for this reason below.
The award praises exceptionality by a defenseman, even at the expense of good defense. Offensive exceptionality will suffice to make up for poorer competition numbers, high offensive zone starts (which encourage better offensive numbers), and a high PDO. Mike Green came second in Norris voting in consecutive seasons probably because he was getting five minutes of ice time a game on a then-stellar Washington power play.
As the nominations and votes showed, Subban edged out Suter, while the oft-injured but high-scoring Kris Letang played the role of also-ran. And, boy, was Subban’s offense exceptional among his peers. He tied Letang for the league lead in points with 38 (11 goals, 27 assists) in 42 games. He finished second in goal scoring and second in power play goals (behind partner Andrei Markov). He finished second on the team in points, propelling the high-octane Habs to second play in the Eastern Conference before ultimately getting handled by the Ottawa Senators in five playoff games.
Extrapolated over an 82-game season, PK would have recorded 74 points, not far off Erik Karlsson’s totals for the Senators last season when he won the Norris Trophy. He did well better than Phaneuf, whose 28 points were good enough for a top 10 finish and some faint praise for it. But in terms of all around ability to defend against the league’s elite? I’d give the advantage to Phaneuf.
This isn’t to say that Phaneuf had a better season than Subban or should have won the Norris instead. He shouldn’t have, but the Leaf captain deserved better than his 11th place finish with his terrific two-way performance this season. While they were both the top defensemen on their respective teams, their utilization this season were worlds apart. Subban’s was far more exceptional to the naked eye, but Phaneuf was a true leader of a defense corps.
All that said it should also be appreciated how one dimensional Subban’s offense and subsequent game was. 26 of his 38 points came on the power play, roughly 68% of his total for the year. And while Subban has always been a terrific special teams’ contributor, it’s a huge spike compared to his production the two previous seasons. Put into some perspective, in 2011-12 Karlsson managed to record only 28 of his 78 points on the man advantage, about half Subban’s rate. (Karlsson also had 5 game winning goals to Subban’s zero, suggesting a slightly more impactful goal scoring touch).
Indeed, when compared against each other, Karlsson looks a lot less specialized and more consistent on offense than Subban does. Karlsson’s also more worthy of being deemed the most dominant defender league-wide, to me anyway, since the significant majority of the game is played at evens.
Of course, the other side of Subban’s game… defense… well, he’s no Chara or Weber, and certainly no Phaneuf. According to www.behindthenet.ca, Subban skated his way to a Norris on 23 papery soft minutes a night of work. He started 53% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and did so against some of the softest competition among defenders league wide. Subban appeared to benefit and control the flow of play against the second and third lines of most teams. When Coach Michel Therrien had options for the league’s 23rd ranked shorthanded unit, he’d play Josh Gorges, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin or Andrei Markov ahead of Subban, witnessed by his meagre 1:38 of shorthanded ice time per game. Hard to be considered ‘all around’ when you’re not relied upon for the toughest assignments.
As it relates to Phaneuf’s season with the Maple Leafs, his usage was a lot simpler than Subban’s. And a lot dirtier. Under Randy Carlyle as with Ron Wilson before him, he was the first choice in every situation. First power play; first PK unit; in the last minute of play. He did so against the league’s best in putting the puck on net, evidenced by his league-leading 3.173 Corsi Quality of Competition score. And despite nearly three and a half minutes on the power play a night, Phaneuf’s utilization was far more defense-minded, witnessed by his 41.3% Offensive zone starts at even strength. Beyond that, he was tops on the Leafs defense corps with three minutes of penalty kill time per night on the league’s second best unit, roughly twice as much time as Subban.
I’d further conjecture that a lot of the high marks given to Subban’s 2013 season are coming from the accelerated returns of terrific linemates. Subban and Markov combined for 15 goals and 49 points on the power play. No two defenders on the same team came anywhere close to those astonishing numbers, precious few forwards. This isn’t to suggest that Subban was riding anyone’s coattails, but Phaneuf certainly didn’t spend nearly five minutes a game on the power play with a perennial all-star on the other point.
To reiterate: this isn’t to say that Phaneuf had a better season than Subban. What I am saying is that context matters when it comes to evaluating the scope and value of defenders. PK Subban was slotted into an offensive role, and excelled offensively in 2013. Dion Phaneuf was thrust into a much different shutdown role, and yet still made admirable contributions offensively. Who was better at scoring shouldn’t matter as much as it appears to for a defensive award, with both the Norris and Selke trophies guilty of this.
From the games and score sheet, I know which guy I’d rather have on the power play as opposed to the penalty kill. I also know who I’d rather have on the ice in the last minute of play, tied or carrying a lead. Yet these choices also dictate the box stats and, thusly, the hardware at end of season.
So as a brief mental exercise, let’s consider role reversal. How would Phaneuf do flanking a first rate offensive defenseman? With more than a minute of extra power play time? Against third liners? With more starts in the offensive zone? How would Subban do carrying Mike Kostka and getting shelled from the league’s top forwards while 4-on-5? Phaneuf’s 2008 Norris nomination, on the strength of a 60-point season, suggests that he would find Subban’s role a far smoother transition than the reverse.
Ultimately, what it really says is that the current structure of NHL Award voting is extremely flawed (for the most hilarious holes poked in the process, go here). PK Subban is the best defenseman in 2013 for being an amazing special teams rover. He didn’t even really have the best offensive numbers for his position, either, what with an injured Letang tying Subban in points in seven fewer games. Ultimately, the healthiest, highest scoring defender with a incomplete game won the award.
Regardless of your thoughts on the Norris, or the waning merit of the trophies in general, I think we can all agree that it’ll be hilarious when PK Subban gets an 8-year, $60-Million-plus deal next summer.
Steve Dangle at the Leafs Nation with the scandal sheet on what NHLers were earning for their services in the KHL during the lockout. Looks like Lupes took home a decent chunk of change for nine games effort.
TSN brings you up-to-date info on the offseason’s biggest story: Lindy Ruff Watch. The Dallas Stars just seem to love wily veterans, eh?
I hope Nonis does not descend and disappear into Nothingness. The time to be proactive is now. I would want Nonis to take positive actions like taking salary from other teams and buy-outs to get good players. I would want him to take chances and trade players and sign impact players. It is way harder when the season begins and every manager and team wants to win.
The time to roll the dice is now or at the draft. In any event, I would NOT want Nonis to stand pat and give us a speech that these players can put the puck in the net etc etc. I hope he means it when he says he wants upgrade at every position and if that means we can trade for a Webber with Phaneuf plus than so be it. Nothing ventured nothing gained.
Cheap bargain signs are good, they just don't change the fortune of teams. Let's hope Nonis makes some splash at the draft.
Can't wait to see Eric Knodel, Tony Cameranesi, Tom Nilsson and Petter Granberg in the minors...
Nobodies really talked about this I don't think, but what are the chances of Sparks being the starter for USA at the WJC this upcoming year??
Awards are all subjective. I'm glad Subban won the Norris. Almost guarantees that he's going to get paid 7.5-8m on his next contract in MTL, or he's getting the hell outta there. They friggin low balled him so hard this year, its funny to see him come back and win the award for best defenseman. LOL.
why would anyone trade Reimer? We finally have a LEGIT NUMBER ONE goalie and some would trade it to get a number one centre? Talk about selling your Ferrari to buy gas.
BREAKING: Water is up to row 10 at Saddledome. Dressing rooms completely submerged. Jumbotron rm & all equipment destroyed.
Hold on tell me what the fuck is going on here. Were trading reimer and replacing with Bernier now??
Reimer to the Oilers ?
Dave Tippett and the Phoenix Coyotes have agreed on a five-year extension. The NHL has approved it, as well.
I don't believe the leafs are front runners. That is what they said for the last few years. That is a bunch of media based garbage news
I guess getting Bernier is better than getting Luongo? Personally i would say much better! I would not want any present Leafs playing for the canucks. That would truly suck. Not to mention all the issues of contract etc etc.
Raising the stakes on Bernier: http://www.csnphilly.com/hockey-philadelphia-flyers/sources-bernier-ante-raised-no-call-bryzgalov…
Leafs upping the ante apparently.
Any award that is based upon votes from the likes of Steve Simmons and Damien Cox has zero validity for me. If the NHL awards were voted upon by the players peers or a panel of former players I would deem the results to be far more legitimate.
Great job Micheal! I think you should say that Subban didnt deserve the trophy. Maybe Dion did or didnt but certainly subban didnt deserve it. All the proof is in what you wrote.
Seeing that picture above, reminds me how much im going to miss Leo! Hopefully the Leafs will get us another Leo or close to it this year. We definitely need one or three!