In a season partly overshadowed by disappointing performances, Nashville Predators captain Roman Josi’s has not been among them. Josi has been at times the lone bright spot on the team, leading them both on the ice (in points and assists) and off the ice.
Preds fans have long clamored for their captain to be among the finalists for the coveted Norris Trophy, and if there was going to be a year for Josi to make the cut, the 19-20 season is it.
Unfortunately for Josi, there’s stiff competition blocking his path to the NHL’s top defensive award. The Capitals’ John Carlson (who’s scoring at a pace not seen from a blueliner in three decades), the Hurricanes’ Dougie Hamilton, and Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo are all in the Norris conversation.
So how does Josi’s season stack up with those of the rest of the contenders? And is there enough evidence to put Josi at the top of the NHL’s echelon of defenders?
A Battle of Two (Potentially) Historic Seasons
Despite his 12-game point streak coming to an end against Winnipeg on Sunday, Josi’s penchant for finding the scoresheet has put him on a historic pace. So far, he’s racked 46 points (14 G, 32 A) in just 44 games, good for a 1.05 PPG pace. If that holds up, he’ll finish the season with 86, which would pass Paul Kariya’s franchise-best mark of 85 (set back in the 2005-2006 season).
Not only that, Josi’s on pace for 26 goals, which would be the most by a Predators defender in team history (Shea Weber hit 23 twice while in Smashville). If Josi hits that mark, he’ll be just the 18th defender in league history to do so in a single season.
2019-2020 NHL Leading Scorers - Defensemen
In a normal year, all of those numbers would certainly put Josi in the “front-runner” category.
Why do I say “in a normal year”? Over in our nation’s capital, John Carlson is having a year that...well...isn’t normal.
Carlson is scoring at a pace that hasn’t been seen from a defender since the days of Ray Bourque, Phil Housley, and Brian Leetch. His 55 points (13 G, 42 A) has him at an unholy 1.2 PPG pace, which would easily give him the best scoring season by a defender in years (with Josi not far behind).
Best Scoring Seasons By Defenseman Since 1999-2000
|2019-2020||John Carlson (WSH) *||23*||75*||98*|
|2019-2020||Roman Josi (NSH) *||26*||60*||86*|
|2018-2019||Brent Burns (SJ)||16||67||83|
|2015-2016||Erik Karlsson (OTT)||16||66||82|
|2005-2006||Nicklas Lidstrom (DET) #||16||64||80|
|2000-2001||Brian Leetch (NYR)||21||58||79|
|2011-2012||Erik Karlsson (OTT) #||19||59||78|
|2016-2017||Brent Burns (SJ) #||29||47||76|
|2009-2010||Mike Green (WSH)||19||57||76|
|2015-2016||Brent Burns (SJ)||27||48||75|
|2018-2019||Mark Giordano (CGY) #||17||57||74|
|2013-2014||Erik Karlsson (OTT)||20||54||74|
Most writers have Carlson as the runaway front-runner on numbers alone, and it’s hard to argue. If he hits his projected 98 points (and let’s be honest, that’s a BIG “if”), that’ll be the most points in a single season for a defender since the 1993 season, when Phil Housley had 97 for the original Jets.
That being said, of the ten best scoring seasons by a defender, only four resulted in a Norris Trophy win. In fact, among the past ten Norris winners, only three were that season’s leading scorer among defensemen. That includes several “milestone” seasons, such as last year, when Brent Burns’s 82 points (most by a defender since 1994) weren’t enough for him to beat out Mark Giordano for the trophy.
Total Value to the Offense
And that leads us to a point where Josi may actually have an edge over Carlson. While Carlson has the more impressive total numbers, Josi’s individual value to the Predators’ offense outweighs Carlson’s to Washington.
Using these player isolates from Micah Blake McCurdy (whose work you should check out at HockeyViz.com), we see that when Josi’s on the ice, the Predators are generating about 16% more of a chance to score than the league average at 5-on-5. Take Josi out of the equation, and that number falls to 10% below league average. That 26 percentage point differential is the largest among the four leading Norris candidates.
That being said, Josi has some competition in this field, specifically from Dougie Hamilton. With a threat level at 20% above the league average, Hamilton’s actually creating more scoring chances than both Josi and Carlson.
So how does this impact the Norris race? Recent history shows that the PHWA tends to interpret these awards as “who’s the most valuable to their team” as opposed to “who had the best season.” So if you’re a voter, you might look at these numbers and think, “sure, Carlson had the better scoring totals... but look at how much better the Predators/Hurricanes were with Josi/Hamilton on the ice.”
Defense Wins Championships... and Norris Trophies
Record scoring is cool and all. But in order to win a trophy for best defender... you kinda need to be good at defense. And while that’s never quite been considered Josi’s biggest strength, his play in his own end has been solid enough to be a bulletpoint on his Norris resume.
You can compare the quality of Josi’s defense to that of the other front-runners in a couple of different ways. One is Evolving-Hockey.com’s expected goals against (xGA) model. For those unfamiliar, this uses data like shot location, shot distance, and shot timing to determine how many goals your opponent SHOULD score when you’re on the ice. A low xGA typically means you’re not giving your opponents a lot of great chances to score (which...you know...is hopefully what you’re paying your defender to do).
Expected Goals Against Rates for Norris Front-Runners
|Player||xGA/60 (5v5)||xGF% (5v5)||xGA (Short-Handed)|
|Player||xGA/60 (5v5)||xGF% (5v5)||xGA (Short-Handed)|
Josi’s 2.26 xGA/60 isn’t exactly elite, but it’s still safe to call it “above average,” especially for a top-pair defender (whose xGA are typically higher because they’re on the ice with the other teams’ most explosive forward lines). While he still trails Hamilton and Pietrangelo, it’s not a huge drop-off, and still in the range of where the Norris winners usually wind up (Giordano, last year’s winner, finished with a 2.24 xGA/60).
It’s another category in which Josi edges Carlson, whose 2.7 xGA/60 is way off the pace of the other three front-runners. He’s also the only defender on the list whose xGF% is below 50, meaning in general, the Capitals typically allow more high-quality chances than they create when Carlson’s on the ice.
Another highlight here is the impact Josi’s had on the penalty kill, which is surprising considering the Preds are close to dead-last in the league with a 74.1 PK%. But Josi actually leads the pack with a 5.19 xGA/60 while short-handed. That’s more than a half-goal better than Hamilton, Carlson, and Pietrangelo.
We can also back up this data by looking at Micah Blake McCurdy’s isolated impact charts. This measures the impact the player individually has on the opponent’s chances to score — independent from all other variables (like which teammates are on the ice with them, etc.):
The isolates pretty much affirm what we’ve seen from the earlier stats. Josi’s defense isn’t on the same level as Hamilton or Pietrangelo’s, but he’s making up for it with elite levels of offensive playmaking. It also backs up what we’ve said about Carlson’s season; the numbers are spectacular, but in terms of actually creating his own offense — and in terms of being a shutdown defender — it’s not spectacular.
So, what are the odds Josi wins the Norris?
Well, that may hinge on a couple of different things, some of which are outside #59’s control.
First and foremost, helping the Predators get into the playoffs would be a major boost on to the resume. There has never been a Norris Trophy winner who has missed the postseason. In fact, there hasn’t even been a finalist from outside the playoffs since Tim Horton in 1968. Whether fair or not, it’s clear the team’s overall success sways the vote.
Carlson’s considered the runaway favorite at the moment, and if he somehow keeps up the pace and records 98 points, it’s going to be hard to vote against him.
But when you look at Carlson’s metrics, there are signs of “overachieving,” i.e. putting up numbers significantly higher than his quality of play. He’s still going to finish with a high-scoring season, but even if he drops from his historic scoring pace to a “extremely above average” scoring pace, he’ll finish in the same ballpark points-wise as Josi, and that’s where voters might put team value and defensive impact under the microscope.
If the race tightens, Hamilton may wind up being Josi’s biggest competition. He’s right on Josi’s tail from a scoring standpoint, but has the benefit of more sound defensive numbers.
Only time will tell.