Marc-Edouard Vlasic's Norris Trophy candidacy
Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been the Sharks' best defenseman this season, but is that enough to get him into the Norris Trophy conversation?
Want to know who's going to win the Norris Trophy—awarded annually to the "defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position" as determined by the PHWA—this year before a single ballot has even been cast? Log onto NHL.com, click through to the league's scoring leaders, sort by defensemen and you have your answer. Like clockwork, whichever blueliner has amassed the most points in a given season (or, if he has a particularly low plus-minus, the guy who's second on the list) is a shoe-in for the award.
This leads to some inevitable backlash ("why isn't there a separate award for offensive defensemen?" is hockey's version of "why don't they make the entire plane out of the material they use for the black box?") but never enough to actually change the process voters go through when making their picks. Although it seems a bit lazy, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with voting for the defenseman with the most points; it's impossible to watch, let alone remember, every minute of every NHL game and points provide a decent proxy for a player's contributions. Defensemen who contribute directly to winning hockey games by scoring and setting up goals are usually the ones deserving of recognition and point totals are generally pretty good indicators of other skills (mainly minimizing defensive zone time by effectively moving the puck) top defensemen possess.
But context matters—some defensemen are put in a position to produce by being given oodles of power play time or offensive-zone starts at even-strength—and, even beyond that, there are exceptions to the rule; some defensemen lacking gaudy offensive numbers are still hugely valuable to their teams. This season, Sharks blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been one of them. Just last week, former Norris Trophy winner and San Jose GM Doug Wilson called Vlasic "one of the most fundamentally solid defensemen I've seen in 20 years" and while he's understandably biased, it's hard to argue with that assessment based on what Vlasic has accomplished this season.
Vlasic, who just turned 27 on Sunday if you can believe it given that he's already coming to the close of his eighth full season in teal, has been a steady rearguard since coming into the league as a precocious 19-year-old but is pretty clearly in the midst of a career year. Soaking up the team's toughest defensive minutes alongside a wide array of partners, Vlasic has been near-flawless in thwarting opposing teams' top offensive weapons and turning play the other way. In a league where "stay-at-home" has essentially become a euphemism for "useless" when describing defensemen, Vlasic embodies the spirit of the Rod Langways and Ken Daneykos of the past; he's supremely effective in his own zone but quick enough, both mentally and physically, not to become a liability by getting trapped there. And while he'll never be Erik Karlsson, Vlasic has added a bit of an offensive dimension to his game as seen on two-line stretch passes like this one or cross-ice feeds in the offensive zone like this one.
So is all of that enough to garner Vlasic consideration for an award generally confined to defensemen capable of breaking the 60-point barrier? To try and answer that question, here's a look at some relevant numbers, points and beyond, for nine blueliners in the running for the Norris this season alongside those of Vlasic.
|Defenseman||GP||TOI/G||G||A||P||5v5 TOI/G||5v5 P/60||O/D Start%||QualComp||5v5 Corsi For%||5v5 Corsi Rel%||5v5 Goals For%|
Listed, in order, are each player's games played, overall time on ice per game, goals, assists, points, five-on-five time on ice per game, five-on-five points per sixty minutes, proportion of non-neutral shifts that began in the offensive zone, quality of competition, proportion of shot attempts generated by their team with that player on the ice five-on-five, the percentage point difference between the proportion of shot attempts generated by their team with that player on the ice five-on-five and with that player not on the ice five-on-five, and, finally, the proportion of goals scored by their team with that player on the ice five-on-five. The table is sortable by column.
Based on the aforementioned criteria (Erik Karlsson leads all defensemen in points but has a low plus-minus voters won't like), Chicago's Duncan Keith is likely the presumptive favorite but a closer look at top candidates' numbers reveals that he probably doesn't deserve the award. Don't get me wrong, Keith is a phenomenal defenseman and one of the top three reasons the Blackhawks have been the most consistently dominant team in the league over the past five years. But Joel Quenneville has doled out the majority of his difficult even-strength minutes, both in terms of caliber of opposing forwards faced and shifts started in the defensive zone, to Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson this season rather than Keith and Brent Seabrook. Despite that, Keith's Corsi% both in terms of raw totals and relative to his teammates, is strong but not chart-topping and the same can be said of his per-minute point production at evens.
The biggest point in Vlasic's favor here is that his on-ice goals for percentage slightly edges out Zdeno Chara's as the best on this list. That stat can often be heavily luck-driven but it isn't in this case; the proportion of shot attempts the Sharks generate with Vlasic on the ice at evens is nearly identical to the proportion of goals they score. The difference between San Jose's Corsi% with Vlasic on the ice and off is also a staggering near-7%, the widest margin of any defenseman listed here, which speaks both to the Sharks' lack of depth on the blueline and the load Vlasic has been carrying for the team this season. Every Shark who has played at least five minutes with Vlasic at even-strength has better possession numbers with him than without him. And while offense has never been, and never will be, Vlasic's calling card, his five-on-five scoring on a per-minute basis trumps that of Chara, Ryan Suter and Drew Doughty this season.
On the flipside, Vlasic's overall point total and overall time on ice pale in comparison to most of his peers, both of which are largely products of a lack of power play time but still represent legitimate marks against his Norris candidacy. Objectively speaking, Chara is probably a bit more deserving of a nod here; he starts a similar percentage of his shifts in his own zone to Vlasic, faces even tougher competition, logs nearly five more minutes per game and still turns out impressive results in terms of puck possession and goal difference. And while Karlsson will probably be snubbed due to atrocious goaltending behind him and his team's lack of success, his level of production and possession make him a more compelling candidate as well.
But the point here is that, while Vlasic probably isn't going to win the Norris, his performance this season in the most important categories compares very favorably to franchise cornerstones on the blueline from across the league. Whether or not that translates into awards consideration, it's time people start talking about Vlasic as one of the few elite defensemen in the NHL who doesn't need to pile up points in order to be extremely effective at his job.