There are a number of serious issues that the COVID-19 shutdown has created for the NHL, mostly related to those whose income depends on the continuation of hockey (like ECHL players). There are also issues that seem frivolous right now compared to human health, but can still be interesting to think about. These include players nearing performance bonuses, deciding the playoff format, how conditional draft picks play out, and how the stoppage will affect next year’s salary cap. And then there are questions about how player awards will be handled, and this is where I want to focus today, because I think there’s only one player who’s getting absolutely jobbed by this closure, and that’s Mark Borowiecki. Borowiecki should be the slam-dunk candidate for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s top defenceman. Boro has gone from being a face-puncher to being a beloved defenceman on and off the ice, and I think if this season had kept going, he would’ve got the recognition he so rightly deserved.
Now I know what your first thought is: Borowiecki isn’t even the best defenceman on the Senators, one of the worst defensive teams in the league! But let me assure you, the stats give us no other choice than to award Borocop this honour.
First, let’s look at Boro’s scoring stats. He’s sitting at seven goals (41st among defencemen), 11 assists (111th among defencemen — and tied with former Norris winner P.K. Subban), and 18 points (92nd among defencemen). None of those are very high, but let’s remember that points aren’t everything among defencemen. After all, the Norris isn’t given to an “offenceman”. Not scoring as many points shows us Boro is spending more time focusing on the defensive side of the game. And let’s remember that Drew Doughty won a Norris in part by scoring fewer points than Erik Karlsson because “coach Daryl Sutter [didn’t] require his top defenseman to attack in the same vain [sic] as Erik Karlsson.” We all know that Doughty scored fewer points because he was such a good defenceman, and Boro is scoring even fewer points. Boro has more than doubled his previous career-best in goals, and is already 64% up on his previous career-best in points, and that kind of improvement while still focusing on defence deserves serious Norris consideration.
The biggest knock against Boro is likely his shot share (all stats via NaturalStatTrick.com), sometimes referred to as fancy stats. He’s only getting 43.9% of the 5v5 shot attempts (Corsi), and 46.7% of the 5v5 unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick). That’s not good, to put it mildly. But context is important. The Sens are 26th in the league in Corsi and 22nd in Fenwick, so in a sense this team is using bad systems, and Boro can hardly be faulted for putting up numbers consistent with his coach’s system. If anything, he deserves recognition for not showing up his coach and teammates by putting up better numbers than the rest of the team. Boro’s goals-for percentage at 5v5 is 43.3%, compared to an expected goals-for percentage of of 48.5%, meaning he’s actually getting unlucky in his time on ice, and if anything should have more points on the season. Boro’s shot metrics are also a slight step up from last year’s numbers, showing improvement along with his increase in scoring. Since there is no award for most-improved defenceman, I think Boro is deserving of serious consideration as a Norris candidate.
It’s also important to look at some stats that are often rejected by the hockey nerd community. For example, Boro is a +1 on a Sens team that is a -52. He’s third in the league among defencemen in hits with 199, and the two players ahead of him have played at least 16 more games. He’s third among defencemen in blocks/60 (min. 20 GP) at 7.57. He’s only starting 32% of his shifts in the offensive zone, by far the lowest among Sens d-men. Compared that to presumed Norris frontrunner John Carlson’s 52% offensive zone start percentage, and you’ll see who’s actually expected to play defence.
The last thing to remember is that you can’t just consider a defenceman based on their on-ice actions. Boro has started defending LGBTQ+ rights this season. He also defended an innocent victim of thievery in Vancouver. And he’s coupled being the biggest defender of Tara, his wife, with also being the biggest defender of their first child, Miles. He even got injured so he could spend more time at home taking care of those who needed him most right now. That’s truly some all-around defensive play from Borowiecki. Some might argue that these off-ice achievements are more deserving of the Masterton Trophy, but with Bobby Ryan successfully battling alcoholism, it’s hard to see Boro as the most persevering player on the team. It’s Norris or bust for the bruising defenceman.
The funny thing about pulling this article together is that at first what seemed like a silly idea for some April Fool’s satire gradually became something of a tribute to the bruising backliner. Boro’s won his way into our hearts, through his improved play on the ice but maybe even more through his impressive actions off the ice. Mark Borowiecki’s a stand-up guy, and in these times we couldn’t think of a better target for some gentle ribbing. He’ll never win the Norris, and I think Boro knows that, but he’ll always hold a special place in the fans’ hearts.