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?