The race for the Norris Trophy is heating up as the 2021-22 NHL season is coming to a close. The players who are contending are both new and old. The big Swedish defenseman on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Victor Hedman, will be a name that is mentioned. Then, there are players like Aaron Ekblad, who was unfortunately hurt in a game against the Anaheim Ducks and will be out for the remainder of the regular season. And, there’s the reigning Norris Trophy winner, Adam Fox of the New York Rangers.
While those players have excellent seasons in their own rights, two others are leading the pack in a close race. The 23-year-old phenom defenseman for the Colorado Avalanche, Cale Makar, and the 31-year-old former Norris winner, Roman Josi.
Before we dive deep into the weeds of the individual cases for the players, I think everyone can acknowledge that these two defensemen are extremely special. Makar has changed the defensive position in the short time he’s been in the NHL, and Josi is arguably the best Swiss player ever to touch the ice. But, with that being said, let’s dive in.
Makar and Josi being the same archetype of defenseman make this race both more exciting and more challenging to decipher. In the points category, Josi leads with 81 points in 64 games to Makar’s 73 points in 62 games. The Predators’ defenseman is on pace for 102 points, while the young Avalanche blueliner is on pace for 91. In terms of points per 60, Josi (3) leads Makar (2.77) as well.
While Josi leads in the assist category with 63, including 32 primary assists, Makar leads in the goals category with 24, the most by a defenseman in Avalanche history. He leads Josi in that category by six (and he’s on pace for 30 goals), while Josi leads in the assist column by 14.
One of the many facets of being one of the best defensemen in the NHL is being on the ice. When looking at the average time on ice between the two, it’s essentially a wash. Makar averages 25:30 of time on ice, while Josi averages 25:17. Makar has played 34 games of 25 or more minutes, including two with over 30, and Josi has played 36 games of 25 or more minutes with one over 30. If it isn’t clear already, these two defensemen play ridiculous amounts of time for their respective clubs.
Despite plus/minus being a pretty awful stat, I’ll mention it here to keep those of you who still use it happy. Makar (+38) leads Josi (+21). However, the strength of the team, something that I will mention multiple times in this article, definitely factors into that result.
Now, we get into the nitty-gritty of the argument and where one might be separated from the other. Before I dive in, check out explainers of all the stats I’ll be using from the twins over at Evolving-Hockey. Here is one from Charlie O’Connor at The Athletic to start you out!
While surfing through the pages and pages of hockey analytics data, one common theme stood out. While Josi is arguably better on the offensive end, Makar is better on the defensive end.
In expected goals for percentage (xGF%), Makar leads Josi 57.66 percent to 52.8 percent, which is a pretty sizeable margin. In regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM), the differences in the offensive stats are mostly minimal, but it’s defensively where Makar takes the apparent advantage. Josi leads Makar in RAPM goals for per 60 (GF/60), while Makar leads Josi in xGF/60 and xGA/60. Interestingly, the two defensemen are essentially tied in Corsi for per 60 (CF/60).
In goals above replacement (GAR), Josi (19) is ahead of Makar (18.4). Josi ranks ahead of Makar in total offensive GAR (Off) at 17.7 compared to 12.8, while Makar sits ahead of him in total defensive GAR (Def) and Penalty GAR (Pens). Makar’s penalties are limited, which helps his case against Josi in the advanced analytics department. If we switch over to expected goals above replacement (xGAR), Makar takes a commanding lead. He leads all defensemen with 32.6 compared to Josi in seventh among defensemen with 14.6.
Although Makar appears to have the edge in the advanced analytics category, there’s no doubt that Josi has the advantage in the microstat category. He leads all defensemen in zone exits and zone entries by an extensive margin, which means plenty when considering that he’s the driving force for the Predators’ offense. If the Predators are creating through the neutral zone, it would be wise to be that it’s Josi doing the work.
So, Makar and Josi are both killers on offense, with both taking leads in different categories, while Makar leads defensively, and Josi leads in the transition game. So, now what? Well, we’re to the point where the teams the two play on need to be considered.
The Avalanche is the best team in the NHL, at least by standings points. They own a 46-14-6 record, good for 98 points. The Predators, on the other hand, sit in the first wild card position in the west with a record of 38-24-4 for 80 points.
Here are the charts regarding the two teams per Evolving-Hockey:
There are plenty of observations to glean from these charts, but the biggest one is clearly the even-strength offensive production. While Makar gets the benefit of having players like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog (who is injured as of the writing of this article), and Nazem Kadri, who is having a career season, among other players, he’s bound to get an advantage. Of course, Josi has Forsberg and Duchene, but they aren’t the catalysts of play like Josi is. Makar, while he is an extremely talented defenseman and arguably the best defenseman over the last three seasons, is a threat among many threats. Josi is the main threat among a couple of threats.
Makar does have the advantage in expected goal statistics primarily because the shots he’s taking are usually from higher danger areas. Josi does take plenty of shots, but usually, they are from farther out, whereas Makar takes higher-danger shots. That is one of the places where their respective games differentiate. It also can help explain some of the smaller differences in the RAPM statistics.
Both of these defensemen are experts at their craft. The difference between them in this race is minimal, and if one were to have Makar as the frontrunner, there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons as to why. However, having watched Josi bear the brunt of the offensive and defensive responsibilities for a team that continues to fight for its playoff life, it’s hard to not say that he has been the best defenseman in 2021-22. If he manages to hit the 100 point mark, that will solidify his case, seeing as that feat hasn’t been accomplished in 30 years. I hate that points would be the deciding factor, as I don’t believe that that should be considered as heavily as it is. But 100 points for a defenseman is something that rarely happens anymore, and the player that does it needs to be recognized. The craziest thing is that BOTH of these defensemen could hit that mark, although, at this point, the road is harder for Makar.
With Josi being on pace for 100 points, his strong offensive output, his slightly below average defensive output, and his incredible transition game, there’s plenty to put him in the front of the Norris race. However, we’ve seen late-season surges before, and with Makar’s ability, it could be a different conversation by season’s end. It’s going to be fun either way!