This year's race for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, awarded to the league's best overall defenceman, is shaping up to be a battle between stats-darling Erik Karlsson and media-hyped Drew Doughty. The fight against Karlsson seems to be some kind of last-gasp push against analytics by the mainstream media, and Doughty is a guy who represents everything people used to praise in defencemen. But if you dig a little deeper, it's clear that Doughty is the guy who deserves the trophy.
One thing that gets brought up a lot is that this award would be kind of a lifetime achievement award for Doughty, since he's been a good defenceman for a few years now. Doughty has several achievements already under his belt in his career, including finishing top-five in Norris voting once, winning the Stanley Cup twice, and being an idiot on Twitter. Finishing runner-up for the Norris pretty much means they have to give you one later in your career -- just ask Brad Park or Shea Weber.
Lots of people point out that all Karlsson has going for him is points, and that's absolutely valid. After all, the last defenceman to put up two four-point games in the same season was Chris Chelios, and we all know how he's faded into history. He's on pace to be the first defenceman with 80 points since some hack named Nicklas Lidstrom, and has an outside chance at being the first defenceman with 90 points since some nobody named Ray Bourque. He could be the first defenceman to finish second in league scoring since Paul Coffey, another zero from the history of the NHL. Those four guys listed have only won a total of 17 Norris trophies between them, meaning points should hardly be a consideration. Smart hockey guy Dave Poulin of TSN said he'd like to pick someone like Brent Seabrook for the Norris, who only has a modest 0.62 points per 60 minutes (at 5v5), but Doughty is creeping down to his Norris-worthy level with 0.63. It could be any game now when Doughty finally overtakes him for fewer points.
We all know a physical presence is required on defence, and Doughty's 89 hits dwarf Karlsson's 63. Doughty's only 161 behind the current leader among defencemen (Mark Borowiecki) in that category. On the flip side, modern hockey thinking tells us that shot-blocking is bad, because it means you don't have the puck in the other team's zone. Karlsson's 114 blocks to Doughty's 71 demonstrate that Karlsson spends a lot more of his time defending, meaning he's an ineffective puck-mover. Similarly, we know giveaways are good because they mean you have the puck on your stick, and Doughty leads Karlsson in this category by a score of 73 to 67. As other smart hockey guy Dave Cameron once said, "Elite players make more turnovers because they have the puck more." (Emphasis courtesy of the Ottawa Sun.) Clearly Doughty is more elite based on his higher number of giveaways. It's just science. (For the record, Karlsson also has 41 takeaways, second among d-men, while Doughty only has 6, but that stat is unreliable. Besides, that just shows how many times Karlsson doesn't have the puck and needs to get it back.)
Another key point for the Norris is penalty-killing. Doughty leads his team (other than Jeff Schultz's one game played) in PK time-on-ice per game at 2:59, good enough for 21st in the league. Meanwhile, Karlsson only plays 1:11, a far cry behind the Senators' leader Jared Cowen at 2:29, a future Norris nominee in his own right. If Karlsson isn't good enough to defend on the PK, he hardly deserves to win a trophy for the league's best defenceman. As Eric Gryba can attest, playing the penalty kill takes a lot of specialized skill.
People point out that Karlsson plays on a far worse team than the Kings, but I think you can flip that around and point it right back at Karlsson. Why can't he elevate the play of his teammates like Doughty does? Sure, Anze Kopitar is an elite centre set to make $10M a year, but isn't that in part due to the help he gets from Doughty? Would Jonathan Toews be as good without Duncan Keith? Would Sidney Crosby be as good without Kris Letang (the 40% of the time he's not injured)? Would Tomas Plekanec be as good without P.K. Subban? So sure, Kyle Turris isn't an elite top-line centre, but a lot of that has to come back on EK. The two Stanley Cups that Doughty's Kings have won are surely a testament to that too. One has shown up on the big stage, and one hasn't.
Doughty's sacrificial leadership is also shown in his lack of a letter. It's not for lack of talent, he just knows that it means a lot more to guys like Dustin Brown and Matt Greene. We all know Karlsson is selfish, based on him taking all his team's points for himself, and the fact that he leads the NHL in time on ice at 29:04 per game, a full minute ahead of third-place Doughty. This selfishness is further demonstrated by his hogging of the captaincy. Someone like Chris Phillips or Chris Neil wanted it, but Karlsson was offered it and ran with it. That's not the kind of behaviour the NHL should be rewarding.
One last point that I think bears mentioning: of the last 14 Norris winners, 10 have been from Europe (and one has been that basketball-esque showboat Subban). I think we can all agree that's far too many. It's not like Canada isn't pumping out some of the best hockey players on the planet. Even an American would be acceptable if they'd produced anyone recently as good as Drew Doughty (spoiler alert: they haven't). Giving Karlsson yet another Norris would be confirming that the NHL is becoming a Euro league, and nobody wants to see that happen. Next thing you know, guys like John Klingberg and Hampus Lindholm and Roman Josi will be inspiring the next wave of d-men. Who wants to see a league full of slick passing and smooth skating? Giving the Norris to Doughty could hopefully slow the influx of skill into the game, and reward Canada for being such a great hockey nation for so long. Karlsson's loss is Canada's gain, as it were.
When you add it all up, history and stats and national pride don't lie. Maybe someday they can create an award for the league's best offenceman, but for now, the Norris should firmly be Doughty's. And based on what the most vocal professional hockey writers keep screaming on TV, it will be.