As the NHL regular season winds down, hockey writers around North America are filling out their ballots for some of the major awards to be handed out in Las Vegas at the league's annual gala in June. The Norris Trophy is decided upon by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (those that are not boycotting the vote this time), and while many scribes are penciling in Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom as the favorite to win his 7th(!) title as the NHL's top defenseman, I think once you really look at the details, Nashville's Shea Weber makes the stronger case this year.
|2010 - Shea Weber||80||16||31||47||7||56||6||1||3||250||6.4|
Follow after the jump as we break down the candidacy of the league's top blueliners...
First, a bit of background - while of course this is a site devoted to Nashville Predators coverage, I'm originally from Detroit. I've watched Nick Lidstrom's entire career, and believe him to be the best defenseman I've ever seen (my hockey fandom began shortly after the Bobby Orr days). Lidstrom doesn't just play hockey, he orchestrates the game. But, after reading The Hockey News' pick from the other day, I took a deeper look, and it appears that Father Time is taking his toll.
The following table details some of the numbers representing what five leading candidates have done over the course of the season:
G, A, +/-
|Zdeno Chara||14G 29A, +31||19:28/2:49/3:08||1.02 (15th)||2.43 (8th)||+11.3||1.08||2.52||7.03|
|Nicklas Lidstrom||16G 46A, -3||16:40/2:42/4:07||1.75 (1st)||-1.05(108th)||-7.0||0.89||6.67||6.97|
|Shea Weber||16G 31A, +7||19:33/2:08/3:40||0.91 (20th)||1.79 (11th)||+6.9||1.10||3.24||4.34|
|Lubomir Visnovsky||18G 49A, +17||19:44/0:24/4:10||0.93 (19th)||3.97 (2nd)||+15.1||1.42||4.78||5.64|
|Keith Yandle||11G 48A, +11||19:34/0:44/4:03||0.62 (43rd)||-0.75 (105th)||+2.4||1.24||4.05||8.73|
The rankings, where noted, are among the 116 defensemen with at least 60 games played, and 15:00 or more of 5-on-5 ice time per game. Advanced data from Behind the Net.
Not the same old Slick Nick
Now, yes, I understand that Plus/Minus is probably the most low-brow, overrated hockey stat out there, but Lidstrom's -3 caught my eye. After all, this would mark the 1st time in his 19 NHL seasons that he will finish on the negative side of this measure, unless things turn dramatically over the next few days. That led me to look at the advanced numbers, and what surprised me even further was Lidstrom's poor Relative Corsi value, which is a good measure of how the flow of the game changes during that player's ice time. In a nutshell, that number highlighted above says that when Lidstrom is on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the balance of Total Shots (shots on goal, plus missed & blocked shots for your team, minus those fired by the opponent) shifts by 7 shots per 60 minutes against the Red Wings. That's really poor, and a huge reversal from his +10.6 figure from the 2009-10 season, and +4.4 from the season before that.
There is some context to be added to those numbers. Lidstrom's quality of competition is very tough (like most of the guys above), but in another change from previous season, his quality of teammates has turned sharply negative - in other words, he isn't playing alongside Brian Rafalski and other leading lights as much as he used to. That doesn't excuse the precipitous drop in Relative Corsi, but it explains away perhaps a small slice of it.
Lidstrom's outstanding offensive results are driven in large part by power play work, but in 5-on-5 play (which represents over 75% of playing time), he's just not driving things like he used to, not even close. If he wins the Norris Trophy this year it will be due to the incredible reputation he's built up over time, not really his performance this season. It's been good, but it's a big stretch to call it best in the league.
Nit-picking the rest of the pack
- The gargantuan Bruin Zdeno Chara is having a typically well-rounded season, but those penalty killing numbers are pretty awful.
- Visnovsky and Yandle are both having breakout campaigns, but are more offense-only type of blueliners. Neither plays even 1 minute per game on the PK.
The Case For Shea
In his first season as captain of the Preds, Shea has pretty much put the team on his back at various points along the way, leading the team in scoring until just recently. He plays against the tough opponents, he drives the flow of the game in a positive direction consistently, and is a force both on the power play and penalty kill. He delivered a standout performance at the NHL's All-Star Weekend, coming close to toppling Chara for the Hardest Slapshot, and led all skaters with 4 assists and a +6 rating in the All-Star Game (the first blueliner with 4 assists in the ASG since 1985).
And, let's not forget, he does all this while playing a very physical style, but not actually taking very many penalties (he's up to only 56 this year). Here's a typical smash which he put on Loui Ericksson of the Dallas Stars:
And don't forget that thundering slap shot, which has goalies around the league shaking their heads:
Weber's game has developed steadily over the years, and after a 2009-10 campaign which raised eyebrows around the NHL (not least due to his performance at the Olympics), he's followed through with even stronger results this season. You'd be hard pressed to find another defenseman who contributes in so many different ways to his team's cause, and as a result, he has the Preds contending for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, confounding outside predictions that mostly had them missing out.
He's pretty much done everything you can do on the ice to establish himself as the best all-around defenseman in the game - but have enough hockey writers around the league paid attention? That's my big concern.