The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Victor Hedman is the safe choice for the Norris Trophy. He’s not the best choice.

Victor Hedman is having a great season on the blue line, just not the best season. (Paul Vernon/AP)
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The end of the NHL season is approaching, which means it’s nearly time for voters to submit their selections for the end-of-season awards. The Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s top defenseman by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, could be one of the more compelling races. In mid-March, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman was the consensus favorite of a panel of 17 NHL.com writers, and oddsmakers have him as the favorite with a money line of minus-150, meaning you have to wager $150 to profit $100.

It’s an understandable, safe choice. Hedman has finished in the top three in the Norris voting in each of the past four seasons, and he won the award in 2017-18. Entering Saturday, the 30-year-old had 44 points, second most at the position, and was averaging more than 25 minutes per game. He’s a fixture on the Tampa Bay power play (playing 3:18 per game), and he’s certainly one of the top offensive-minded defensemen in the NHL. But the award is supposed to go to the “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position,” and Hedman falls a bit short when compared with another Norris candidate.

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When Hedman is on the ice at even strength, the Lightning has outscored opponents 47-40, giving Tampa Bay about 54 percent of the goals scored. Adjusting for shot quality and volume, you would expect Tampa Bay to have half of the goals in its favor with Hedman on the ice. In other words, it is getting a bit of puck luck with Hedman on the ice, and even then he isn’t drastically tilting the ice in his team’s favor. He has the worst expected goal differential and the second-worst actual goal differential at even strength when compared with the next four betting interests in the Norris race: the New York Rangers’ Adam Fox, the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar, the Boston Bruins’ Charlie McAvoy and the Montreal Canadiens’ Jeff Petry.

Norris Trophy hopeful
Money line
On-ice goal share
Expected on-ice goal share
Victor Hedman
-150
54 percent
50 percent
Adam Fox
+340
61 percent
56 percent
Cale Makar
+550
61 percent
58 percent
Charlie McAvoy
+650
59 percent
57 percent
Jeff Petry
+750
51 percent
51 percent

Fox has better scoring numbers, too. Entering Saturday, he had produced a league-high 47 points among defensemen, with 23 of those coming on the power play — one fewer than Hedman. He also had a better plus-minus rating (plus-21) than Hedman (plus-7), if you’re into that sort of thing. Fox had more blocked shots (93 to 69) and had accrued fewer penalty minutes (14 to 26). And Fox, like Hedman, skates with the penalty killers, making him active in all three phases of the game.

You also could argue Fox takes on tougher assignments than Hedman. Fox starts in the defensive zone almost three times per game, or nearly a third of his zone shifts at even strength. Hedman makes slightly more than two defensive-zone starts per game, or less than a quarter of his zone shifts. Makar and McAvoy have more defensive-zone starts per game than Hedman, too.

Despite the more challenging zone starts, Fox had been on the ice for 38 goals for and 24 against, giving him a plus-14 goal differential. Makar had the same goal differential entering Friday, and McAvoy was not far behind (plus-12). Even Petry’s goal differential (plus-4) entering Friday was better than Hedman’s (plus-1), suggesting that Hedman probably is the favorite because of his reputation, not his play on the ice.

Other metrics — such as Hockey Reference’s point shares, an all-in-one metric that translates a player’s contribution to standings points — paint a similar picture. You may scoff at an all-encompassing number, but this one passes the eye test: In seven of the past 10 years, the Norris winner has ranked first or second in point shares among defensemen. Entering Friday, Fox was second with 7.8; Hedman, who had 7.0, ranked fifth. (Shea Theodore of Vegas edged Fox with 7.9.)

Are we splitting hairs with such a narrow difference between the two according to a nontraditional metric? Perhaps, but when weighed in conjunction with all of the other data, it’s clear Hedman should be in the mix for the Norris but isn’t deserving of the favorite status he enjoys.

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