Erik Karlsson should have won the Norris Trophy last year as the NHL’s outstanding defenceman. I haven’t been particularly quiet on this issue. As I kept saying: Drew Doughty had a great season, but Karlsson had a once-in-a-generation offensive performance.
This year, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Brent Burns is going to run away with the Norris. He’s third in league scoring overall, and 12 points ahead of second-place among defencemen (excluding Thursday night’s games). That’s the biggest gap since 2013-14, when Karlsson finished 13 points ahead of second-place Duncan Keith. He could challenge 2011-12, when Karlsson finished 25 points ahead of second place (Brian Campbell and Dustin Byfuglien tied). Burns is playing 25 minutes per night in all situations and dominating offensively. He’d be a deserved Norris winner.
The problem for me is that most of the arguments for Burns this year apply to Karlsson from last year. Gaudy point totals? Check. Good possession numbers? Check. Most time-on-ice per game on his team? Check. In many ways, Brent Burns’ season this year resembles Erik Karlsson’s from last year. It’s a dominant performance by one of the game’s best.
The thing that gets me is many of the criticisms of Karlsson from last year still apply. Burns is currently fourth on his team in shorthanded time per game (1:47). That’s better than Karlsson’s 1:19 per game from last season, but nowhere near the 2:56 Doughty played last year. Burns is crushing defencemen in giveaways with 117, 34 more than second-place Karlsson. Burns has just 54 hits, more than 200 behind league-leading Mark Borowiecki, and half as many as Doughty.
Burns is rocking a good share of the shot attempts (53.24% 5v5 Corsi - all analytics via Corsica.hockey), but nowhere near Doughty’s gaudy 56.36%. (Somehow, Doughty was 58.38% last year.) Obviously it’s asking a lot of someone like Steve Simmons to consider shot attempt percentage, but it does give a sense of just how dominant Doughty was. One would expect that in a situation like that, the eye-test would line up with such lop-sided stats. Of course, the argument in favour of Karlsson last season is that his relative numbers were much higher than Doughty’s. In other words, Doughty was a dominant defenceman on a dominant team, while Karlsson was a great defenceman on a really bad team. This season again, Burns’s relative number (3.45 to 2.39 for 5v5 Rel Corsi). Again, this should be reflected in the eye-test. Do people notice that a defenceman is playing really well even if the rest of his team isn’t?
So if all the criticisms of Karlsson still apply, you’d think they’d be coming up more this year. But I have yet to hear anybody say, “Doughty could score as many points as Burns if he wanted to stop playing defence.” I haven’t heard anyone call Burns an offenceman. In fact, Burns is generating Hart Trophy buzz. Points are back to being a boon, not a burden for a d-man’s Norris chances.
So all of this begs the question, why? Why is Burns’s situation so different from Karlsson’s last year? I have a few thoughts on this. The first is that the circumstances are different. Karlsson’s Senators didn’t make the playoffs last year, and some people have a hard time nominating someone for an award if they don’t make the playoffs. Burns’s Sharks are coming off a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and are the favourite to win the Pacific Division. For many media members, last year seemed to be a lifetime achievement award for Doughty for his two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. Now that he has a Norris, there might not be nearly as much push for him to win another. If anything, Burns finishing third in voting last year and then dominating the playoffs might have convinced people that he’s the next guy deserving his own trophy (especially with Shea Weber fading after Game 10).
The second has to do with the NHL-wide love affair with Brent Burns. His beard is iconic. He’s more than willing to poke fun at himself. His fashion choices have been amazing. He’s inspired Joe Thornton to grow his own beard, in turn reminding us just how good Jumbo Joe still is. It’s hard not to like Burns. Karlsson also has a fun personality, but for whatever reason that hasn’t been a part of what the Canadian media has tried to highlight about him. So maybe Burns has momentum because he’s just so lovable.
The last reason, and the one I hate to admit I thought of first, is that Burns is Canadian. Hockey is a sport that isn’t a big fan of difference. Like it or not, Don Cherry’s opinion that European contributions to hockey amount to “the helmet, the visor, the dive”. The idea of a Swedish player winning his third Norris, especially after Nicklas Lidstrom’s dominance through the 2000s, would be unpalatable to some media members. And many voters rallied behind the best non-European to win the award. Or at the very least, I think many old-school types disliked the “European style” that Karlsson represented to them. Even though Burns puts up a lot of points, the fact that he’s Canadian means you don’t have to worry about promoting Euro tactics.
So yes, Burns is having a great season and will be a deserved Norris winner. It just frustrates me as a Sens fan that the league-wide aversion to Karlsson last year was just to Karlsson, not to all high-scoring defencemen. And I can’t help but think that if Karlsson re-takes his position as top-scoring defenceman next season, the discussion of 2016 will start up again because he’s not Brent Burns.