Josh Norris: Year in Review

A big year for the prospect

Welcome back to the latest iteration of our Year in Review feature, where we re-visit the past season for key members of the Ottawa Senators. Here are the players we’ve profiled previously:

Drake Batherson

Erik Brännström

Connor Brown

Josh Brown

Thomas Chabot

Evgeni Dadonov (whoops, not an Ottawa Senator anymore!)

Alex Formenton

Victor Mete

This week we turn our attention to Josh Norris, the young centreman who has rocketed up the organization’s depth charts the last three seasons.

By the Numbers:

The 2021 season was Norris’ first full year in the NHL following a three-game cup of tea at the end of the 2019-2020 season. Norris suited up for all 56 of the Sens’ games, netting 17 goals and 18 assists for 35 points – a 51 point pace across a full 82 game season. While he was on the ice at 5v5, the Sens posted a 47.23 CF% and a 51.58 xGF%; in other words, the Sens were outshot on pure volume, but they also got the better of the chances. It might be tempting to say that part of that discrepancy could be explained by Norris being asked to protect leads late in games when giving up shots, without giving up quality chances, is the name of the game. The numbers, however, don’t bear that out as both his CF% and xGF% dip when you adjust for score and venue. Most modern analysis favours xGF% over CF% across any decent sample, but the gap is still worth keeping an eye on for next season with only a partial season under Norris’ belt.

Here is how Micah McCurdy’s model over at Hockeyviz sees him as of this writing:

Norris is a bit of a drag on the offense, but his defensive contributions are strong enough that he comes out on the positive end of things when you add it all up. He’s a solid contributor on the power play (which we’ll get to later) and he’s a great shooter (which helps that aforementioned power play contribution).

Story of the Season:

At the outset of training camp, one of the biggest questions was which one of Logan Brown or Norris would make the leap to a permanent spot on the NHL squad. With Chris Tierney, Colin White, Artem Anisimov, and Derek Stepan assured of roster spots, there wasn’t much question of both prospects making the team out of camp. What was projected to be one of training camp’s most intense battles never quite materialized, however, as Norris was clearly Smith’s favourite out of the gate and Brown was beset by injuries. Just as he had done in the AHL the season before, and the NCAA the year before that, Norris seized the opportunity and ran with it. Despite some early season offensive struggles (Norris was demoted from the first power play unit at one point) his defensive game remained on point and the coaching staff often praised his “200 foot game” and his strong skating ability. Norris wasn’t immediately trusted with the toughest defensive assignments, but it was clear that he was being groomed for that type of role. He spent most of the season affixed at the hip to Brady Tkachuk and their line was the team’s top unit virtually every night by season’s end. It was common to see Norris on the ice late in games along with Smith’s other most trusted forwards.

As the year wore on, Norris also seemed to gain confidence offensively – particularly on the power play where the one-timers he previously was whiffing on were now bulging the twine. Norris tallied enough points to garner the attention of some of the Calder Trophy voters, and  he finished 4th for the award behind Kirill Kaprizov, Jason Robertson, and Alex Nedeljkovic.

Future Outlook:

Norris has been one of the biggest success stories for the Sens’ organization since he arrived as part of the Erik Karlsson trade in 2018. His current role as the team’s de facto first-line centre belies his rapid ascent: at the time of the trade, Norris was coming off something of an underwhelming first year in the NCAA with Michigan and most analysts didn’t foresee his departure as a major loss for the San Jose Sharks. In three subsequent season, Norris has more than exceeded expectations and forced the team, and its fans, to re-consider where he might fit in the long term. It’s clear at this stage that Norris is a good NHL forward: his skating and defensive play make him a coach’s dream. The next question for Norris is whether he can take a leap with his offensive game. He’s already 22, so there are reasonable questions about whether he’s already hit his ceiling, but Norris has also done nothing but prove his critics wrong since arriving in Ottawa.

It’s a popular parlour game among Sens fans to debate whether Norris is “good enough” to be the first line centre. I think that question misses the mark a bit because these things are not determined in a vacuum — if the Sens have elite wingers and elite defensemen, then Norris could be the first line centre on a very good team. If Norris is being asked to carry the load offensively, then that seems less likely to work out at this juncture. Either way, what we do know for sure is that Norris will be playing a key role for the Sens for years to come.

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