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Top 25 Sharks Under 25: No. 9 Josh Norris is right on track

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Everything is going according to plan.

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 31: Josh Norris #9 of United States tries to control the puck after being knocked to the ice by Joona Koppanen #15 of Finland in the first period during the IIHF World Junior Championship at KeyBank Center on December 31, 2017 in Bu Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

Doug Wilson’s first round draft pick of the 2017 draft was, shall we say, controversial.

Josh Norris is the son of Dwayne Norris, who had cups of coffee with the Anaheim Ducks and the Quebec Nordiques before spending 11 seasons playing in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) in Germany. Despite that illustrious pedigree, 19 overall was a reach for young Joshua, who NHL Central Scouting had ranked at 34th among North American skaters. The initial reaction to the pick was one of confusion and disappointment. While some very smart and handsome and cool people with many real friends understood the safety first rationale, most were nonplussed.

Still, as early as last off season, the kid was starting to grow on us. Norris’ numbers during his final USHL year in 2016-17 were good — 26 points in 25 games — but the last half of his season in particular was promising. Norris recorded around a 1.3 point per game pace, while leading the USHL in shots per game at 2.70. Sliding our perspective forward a year in those same metrics, the center paced for 0.63 points per game and 2.65 shots per game in his freshman year at the University of Michigan. That comes out to 0.186 points per game in the NHL, or about 15 points over an 82 game season. Not enough to make waves yet, but the shot rate in particular is promising if he can continue apace.

That first year was a good one for Norris, even if his point totals don’t jump off the page. Norris’ 23 points in 37 games were good enough for seventh on the Wolverines, and second among freshmen, behind only 2018 7 overall pick Quinn Hughes. If we look a little deeper, at Evan Oppenheimer’s betweenness data, we see that Norris had an out-sized impact on the team’s scoring network that belies his modest counting stats. Our boy is third on the team in this metric of driving offensive play at even strength, and second with the man advantage.

This usage data also speaks to the trust that Norris has earned from Wolverines head coach Mel Pearson. From an interview with the Oakland Press in April: “I’m extremely happy with Josh, he’s a complete player, we play him in all situations, we play him on the power play, he kills penalties, he takes important face-offs, maybe the most important face-offs.” This probably has a fair amount to do with Norris leading the squad in face-off percentage at .564, but whether or not we learn to love the kid, his coaches sure do. If Josh Norris were Jennifer Love Hewitt, his head coaches would be spooky but approachable ghosts with 42-44 minutes of tragically unfinished business, is what I’m saying.

Norris helped lead Michigan to the Frozen Four this year and, while they were tragically eliminated at the hands of Notre Dame in a 4-3 loss on April 5, the kid’s usage tells us a lot about his role. Norris won 10 of 16 faceoffs, including the opening of three power plays and two penalty kills, and was on the ice in the final two minutes. Such an important role for a freshman is remarkable. Combined with his five points in five games for USA at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Kamloops this year (sharing a bench with future teammate and consonant hoarder Sasha Chmelevski), Norris’ year has been really promising.

Looking ahead, the 2018-19 season will tell us a great deal about Norris’ ability to lead and drive play, as he looks to take a big step up as a player and leader for Michigan. Of the six players ahead of Norris in points last year, three are not returning for the next: Cooper Marody, who led the Big 10 in points, is set to join the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors, Tony Calderone will play for the Texas Stars, and Dexter Dancs will be in Idaho as a Steelhead. The other three are Jake Slaker, the aforementioned Quinn Hughes, and the latter’s defensive partner, Joseph Cecconi. With the team’s top line center and his highest scoring winger leaving (Marody and Calderone), Norris will have every opportunity to impress as a sophomore.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Norris challenge for a spot on the Sharks at camp in 2019. The team seems stacked at center, but Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are both set to be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season, and while I think it’s very unlikely either one of them does not return for the 2019-20 season (Thornton will play for the Sharks until the sun explodes and I will brook no argument to the contrary no matter how reasonable), a lot of San Jose’s depth at center will be looking at restricted free agency next off season: it’s very possible one of Dylan Gambrell, Maxim Letunov, and Barclay Goodrow does not return if Norris continues to impress.

On the other hand, the Wolverine (can we start calling him that?) will be a junior heading into 2019-20, and if he wants to stay in school, a fair number of cartoon dogs have assured me that that is a good decision.

What we like

Josh Norris is a smart, reliable pass-first center who can be comfortably deployed in all situations. Over the past year, he has adapted well to college hockey, putting up respectable, if not eye-popping, numbers and displaying the patience and crisp passing he was lauded for in his draft year.

Areas of improvement

More of the same would be satisfying from Norris, especially considering the likely increase in his role on the Wolverines this season. Norris’ offense is probably the part of his game that could use the most work, the man himself said as much to The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz: “I have the skill — I just need to produce more, and show them that they made the right pick last year.”

Highlight

This clip has a lot of what Norris is celebrated for. Norris camps out on the half wall on Michigan’s power play. He knows how much time he has and has the patience to wait for both an opening to saucer a pass to winger Will Lockwood, and for the latter to drift down and away from his distracted defender. Plays like this will tempt us to draw comparisons to Thornton and his half wall wizardry, but expectations that lofty should probably be tempered.