As the 2016-17 NHL season winds down, Erik Karlsson is once again at the top of the NHL scoring race, tied for 12th in the NHL in points, and only 5 points behind Brent Burns for the lead among defensemen. Unsurprisingly, this has put him back in the conversation for the Norris trophy, an award that many were ready to preemptively hand to Burns at the halfway point of the season.
As is always the case when the conversation surrounding the Norris turns to points, the fact that both these players are offensive defensemen has gotten a lot of fans and pundits riled up. “What has become of this award?” they cry, “When did it turn into the Art Ross for defensemen? These players aren’t real defensemen, they’re forwards!” etc.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and argue that Erik Karlsson’s style of defense is better than anyone else’s, or that the Norris trophy should always be awarded to the most offensively inclined blueliner, because such opinions are beside the point. What I’m here to do is debunk the notion that players like Erik Karlsson, P.K Subban and Brent Burns are really fourth forwards, and thus should not be evaluated as defensemen.
Whenever I watch Erik Karlsson play, the elements of his game that stand out to me are his ability to get shots through traffic, his incredible end-to-end rushes, and the way he can quickly recover from mistakes. These are all things that are best put to use when playing defense.
Blueliners are always afforded just a little bit more time and space than forwards, simply because of the nature of their position. They get to hang back, watch the play, move around along the blueline, and take that extra split-second to calculate their next move. In the defensive zone, they’re usually the ones to start the breakout: good skating, vision, passing and stickhandling always make that a lot easier.
Forwards, on the other hand, have to be constantly avoiding opposing players whenever their team has the puck. For proof, just watch any offensive zone shift: you’ll see forwards frantically skating around down low, trying to get themselves open and make something happen before the opposing defensemen catch up to them. They spend less time with the puck, they have less time to make decisions, and they see less of the ice. Meanwhile, the defenseman stay (mostly) open at the blueline, watching, waiting for the play to come to them.
Defense is obviously a position that favours the defensive aspects of the game: it’s much easier to shut down a breakout and keep opponents from scoring when you’re hanging back at the blueline instead of crashing the net. But what’s really incredible about Karlsson’s game is that he has figured out how to use that extra time and space to create offense, even as he excels at keeping pucks out of his own net.
Where does Erik Karlsson get most of his points? From standing at the blueline. Sometimes it’s from sending clean passes to his forwards, other times it’s from getting huge shots through traffic. He’s able to do that because, playing defense, he can stand back, watch the play and pick his moves carefully. If Guy Boucher decided to play him at forward, I think he would be stifled. He’d have less time to make decisions, he wouldn’t be able to see as much of the ice, and his skillset generally wouldn’t be put to good use. Most goals come from close to the net, which is not where Karlsson usually sets up office. Add the downgrade in icetime he would undoubtedly face, and it’s clear that his impact on the game would be diminished significantly if he were playing forward. That’s not to say that Karlsson would be bad at playing forward necessarily, just that his style of play is better adapted to defense.
So why do so many hockey fans still insist that Karlsson is really a forward, or would make a better forward than defenseman?
I’m assuming it’s because of the roles are generally assign to these positions. A “defenseman,” as the name suggests, is supposed to be focusing on defense, while a “forward” should be trying to score goals. While that system does work most of the time, it’s ridiculous to insist that every single player stick with those roles, because there are some who simply have more success using the position for a different purpose.
Just look at great defensive forwards Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. Nobody is saying that they are really defensemen and not forwards, or should stop backchecking so much and focus on scoring more goals. Why? Because we know that they are both more effective as centremen than they would ever be as defensemen, even though they excel at the defensive aspects of the game. Fans should view offensive defensemen with the same open-mindedness.
Maybe we need a new name for the position, since “defense” is clearly causing a lot of confusion. Maybe, as some people have suggested, we need two awards for defensemen. Whatever we do, we need to rethink the way we evaluate the position, so that we can just let players play to their strengths. No need to try to fit them into boxes.
The Norris is about excelling at the position of defense. Erik Karlsson does that. So does Brent Burns. The fact that they both put up point totals resembling those of top forwards doesn’t change that.