Roman Josi or John Carlson: Who Deserves the Norris Trophy?
Some believe there’s “no debate” on who’s the league’s top defender. But there should be.
With the NHL’s regular season abruptly over, voting is now open for the end-of-season individual awards. We’ve already had one Nashville Predator, Jarred Tinordi, nominated for the Masterton Trophy.
But the trophy that almost every Predators fan has their eye on this summer (besides the Stanley Cup, of course) is the Norris.
Roman Josi’s name has been on most writers’ short-list for the last half of the season. The Preds’ captain just wrapped up a career season, one that many could argue was the best individual season by a skater in franchise history. Josi led the Predators in scoring (and broke a number of records in the process), achieved some of his best defensive metrics of his career, and often single-handedly kept the Predators in games they had no business being in.
Roman Josi’s season sets a few benchmarks:— Nick Morgan (@_nsmorgan) May 27, 2020
-Most points by a defenseman in #Preds history
-Most assists in a season by a defenseman
-Most points in a season by any Predators player since 2009, and 8th best scoring season in team history https://t.co/B7WuGREHdX
It’s hard to argue that no defender in the league was more critical to his team’s success this season than Josi, something other former Norris-winners have even picked up on.
And yet, Josi may still be denied an award many believe is rightfully his.
Capitals defender John Carlson is still widely considered the front-runner for the Norris Trophy, a status he’s held for most of the season. Two weeks before the league stoppage, Carlson sat atop NHL.com’s Trophy Tracker list for the Norris, with 16 out of 18 writers giving him their first-place vote (Josi finished second with one first-place vote). Carlson also beat out Josi on ESPN’s poll, is currently the Vegas odds-on favorite, and seems to be gaining steam as the “common sense” pick around the league.
Your 2020 Norris trophy winner. #nodebate pic.twitter.com/TgpLHwrHNP— Anthony Stewart (@StuMunrue) June 10, 2020
So is Stewart right in saying there’s #nodebate? Is Carlson the most-deserving candidate, or will Roman Josi become the latest Predator to be robbed of a Norris Trophy that’s rightfully his?
If you’re going by the scoresheet, Carlson clearly has the edge. The Caps’ blueliner finished the season with 75 points (15 G, 60 A) in just 69 games. Had the NHL not stopped play due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Carlson’s scoring pace would have put him at 89 points, the most by a defender since 1994.
Roman Josi’s scoring slightly dipped from a 1.05 PPG pace back in January to a 0.97 PPG pace at the stoppage, which is absolutely nothing to dismiss. His 65 points to end the year was still second best among NHL defenders this season, and most ever by a Preds defender.
Highest Scoring Seasons By Defenders Since 1999-2000 Season
|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|
|2019-2020||John Carlson (WSH)*||15||60||75|
|2015-2016||Brent Burns (SJ)||27||48||75|
|2018-2019||Mark Giordano (CGY) #||17||57||74|
|2013-2014||Erik Karlsson (OTT)||20||54||74|
However, scoring isn’t the end-all-be-all in the Norris Trophy race. Of the ten best scoring seasons by a defender, only four resulted in a Norris win. In fact, among the past ten Norris winners, only three were that season’s leading scorer among defenders. That includes several “milestone” seasons, such as last year, when Brent Burns’s 83 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 an area where Josi has an edge over Carlson...total value to the offense.
Based on past votes, the PHWA tends to treat awards like the Norris as “who is most valuable to their team,” and not “who had the best season?” And it’s hard to argue Josi’s value to the Predators’ offense is far greater than Carlson’s to the Caps’.
Using these player isolates from Micah Blake McCurdy (whose work you can find at HockeyViz.com), we see that the Predators are generating about 20% more of a chance to score compared to the league average when Josi’s on the ice. When he’s off the ice, that number drops to 1% BELOW league average. In simple terms, that means the Predators have about a 21% better chance at scoring with Josi on the ice.
Now compare that to Carlson’s numbers, where you see the Capitals only have a 3% better chance of scoring with Carlson on the ice than off it. Does this mean Carlson’s not a dynamic offensive player? Absolutely not. It simply means that if you take both Josi and Carlson away from their respective teams, the Predators would be hurt way more than the Capitals. That’s an indication Josi’s more central to his team’s success than Carlson.
What About Defense?
Of course, you can’t have a trophy for league’s best defender without having a little discussion about...you know...defense.
It’s an area that hasn’t exactly been known as a strong suit of Josi’s. But this season, it’s been suitable enough to add to 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’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)|
Josi’s 2.3 xGA/60 isn’t exactly elite, and he still ranks behind other Norris short-list candidates like Victor Hedman, Dougie Hamilton, and Alex Pietrangelo. But it’s still safe to call it “above-average,” especially for a top-pair defender who’s tasked with shutting down opponents’ number one scoring lines. Plus, when compared with past Norris winners, it’s about par for the course (Giordano, last year’s winner, finished with a 2.24 xGA/60.)
Compared to Carlson, however, Josi is ahead by a mile.
Carlson’s 2.7 xGA/60 is way behind the pace of the other potential Norris candidates. 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 is on the ice.
We can take this a step further by using Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM tool, which measure how above or below a player’s stats compare to “replacement level” (a fancy term for league average). When we plug in Josi and Carlson’s numbers, we can see that Carlson’s not just “off the pace” defensively, he can actually be considered “below-average” defensively.
So what does all this mean?
Look, John Carlson deserves to get a TON of kudos for his season this year. His 75 points in 69 games—regardless of how good the rest of his team is—is no easy feat. (I mean, no Predator has topped 70 points since 2008, so who are we to judge?) And in theory, no, voters shouldn’t take points away Carlson just because he plays on a team with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie.
That being said...if you’re comparing his overall season to Josi’s, there’s no comparison. Roman Josi should be the front-runner over John Carlson.
The Norris Trophy isn’t a scoring race. It belongs to the defender who’s the most valuable to his team. Offensively, Josi did more with less, and was more of an integral part of the Preds’ offense than Carlson was for Washington’s. Defensively, Josi’s metrics blow Carlson’s out of the water.
The question is will voters recognize this? Or will they be too enthralled by Carlson’s freakish numbers to even realize other, potentially more deserving, candidates?
We may have to wait a few more months to learn the answer.