PHT makes the case for the Norris Trophy finalists

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While high-scoring forwards and dynamic goalies are precious entities, big-time defensemen also rank among the most important players in hockey. It’s a bit tougher to gauge which ones are the true greats – you can’t just “feel” your way to the best ones with 30 teams in play – but sometimes the elites are painfully obvious. The PHT staff weighs the strengths of all three candidates below.

Matt Reitz’s case for Zdeno Chara:

It’s an interesting year for the Norris voting. All three are captains, all are great leaders for their respective teams, and as much as the award as changed over the years, all three are true two-way defensemen. They put up points but they’re also defensive anchors for their respective teams. But of the three, Zdeno Chara puts it all together the best.

There are a lot of people who will disprove the importance of the plus/minus stat. Both Shea Weber and Chara were on the plus side of the ledger—but its debatable whether Weber is even the best player on his team. He’s a spectacular defenseman, but he also had the advantage of playing with Ryan Suter all season. If this were an award for best defensive pairing, they should win it in a landslide. Unfortunately for Weber, this is an award for best defenseman. He very well may be able to do it on his own—we just never saw him do it this season. When Suter was out with an injury, the entire term suffered.

When looking at the statistics between Nicklas Lidstrom and Zdeno Chara, it was hard to look past that Chara a league best +33 and Lidstrom is a minus player for the season. Both guys play against their opponents’ top lines, both score, and both are depended to play shutdown roles. The only difference is that Chara’s team scored significantly more than the opposition when he was on the ice. While Lidstrom was out there against the best, statistics prove that he didn’t thrive like he has before.

This season very well may prove to be Lidstrom’s swan song and he’s going out on a high note. You have to give him credit—he may have been the second best defenseman in the NHL year. Right behind Chara.

Joe Yerdon’s case for Nicklas Lidstrom:

He’s won the award six times already and after everyone was ready to start calling Nicklas Lidstrom an old man after his sub-par (for him) year last season, he came back with a vengeance. He was second on the Red Wings in points with 62, the most points he’s scored since 2007-2008 when he won the Norris Trophy. Points aren’t always where it’s at for defensemen of course and Lidstrom always plays the biggest minutes against the opponents top players. His 23:28 average time on ice was tops among everyone on Detroit that wasn’t a goalie. Oh right, and he’s 41 years-old.

We’re not going to pull the lifetime achievement card here for Lidstrom since he’s coming back next season, but given how he played this year, how important he was to Detroit’s success and how much the team relied on him at both ends of the ice he embodies what the Norris Trophy is all about. In a finalists class that has such other tremendous talent, Lidstrom is the guy both Weber and Chara hope to be when their careers are through.

James O’Brien’s case for Shea Weber:

With all due respect to Lidstrom and his outstanding 62-point season, Weber and Chara have been more important to their teams than the first ballot Hall of Famer from Sweden.

It isn’t easy to narrow it down between Chara and Weber, though. They both receive plenty of even strength, power play and shorthanded time on ice. Each player was above average in the overrated points categories (Weber had 48, Chara had 44) especially since their teams don’t generate buckets of scoring chances like Detroit does.

Chara gets a lot of attention for his intimidating size, but Weber was sixth among defensemen with 211 hits while Chara had 153. Despite this disparity in violence, Weber seemed to pick his spots a little better, being that he registered 56 PIM to Chara’s 88. Chara’s +33 rating definitely jumps out at you, but that is usually a team-based stat. Weber isn’t a slouch on the penalty kill, either.

He might not be the most obvious pick for the Norris, but Weber was the most valuable and well-rounded defenseman in hockey this season. (Although Chara was very, very close behind.)

Expansion Golden Knights are officially in first place

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Just like we all predicted in September, the Vegas Golden Knights are sitting in first place in the NHL.

The Golden Knights’ 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes allowed them to collect their 65th and 66th points of the season, which moved them one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning for top spot in the league (both teams have played 46 games).

PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote a terrific piece about Golden Knights’ amazing first season to date.

It’s only fitting that Vegas got a good amount of production from some of their most pleasant surprises tonight. Jonathan Marchessault, Colin Miller and James Neal also found the back of the net.

As you’d expect, the Golden Knights’ Twitter account is having fun marking this occasion.

We’ve had over three months to come to grips with everything the Golden Knights have done, but it’s still amazing to see how some of the players on their roster have produced during Vegas’ inaugural season.

 

43 points in 43 games for Marchessault? 25 goals at the midway point of the season for William Karlsson? Nobody saw those things coming. What makes this even more impressive is that they’ve had to roll four goalies (Marc-Andre Fleury, Oscar Dansk, Malcolm Subban and Maxime Lagace).

Now the question is, how far can this pesky expansion team go?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Struggling Lightning lose Ondrej Palat for indefinite period of time

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been going through a difficult stretch lately and things got a lot more difficult on Sunday. The team announced that Ondrej Palat is out indefinitely after taking a spear from Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon on Saturday night.

The Bolts, who are on an eight-game road trip, have confirmed that Palat will head back to Tampa on Monday for further testing. He’s accumulated eight goals and 30 points in 46 games this season.

Although the video isn’t the clearest, this is the play that led to the injury:

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Lightning have been slumping badly of late. They’ve dropped three games in a row to Calgary, Vegas and Minnesota.

Their once giant lead atop the Atlantic Division has dwindled to three points over the Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand.

“We’re just out of synch, it’s unreal,” head coach Jon Cooper said, per The Tampa Times. “The guys didn’t forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half. We’re just out of synch. One guy zigs, the other guy zags. It’s crazy that in the last week and a half, we kind of lost our swag.”

The Bolts will continue their road trip in Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia before the All-Star break. On top of their difficult schedule, they’ll also be without number one defenseman Victor Hedman for the next few weeks.

Their spot in the playoffs isn’t in any danger, but the number one seed in the league (Vegas is coming in a hurry) and top spot in the division is in doubt.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Konecny’s OT goal lifts Flyers to another win, puts them back in playoff spot

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The Philadelphia Flyers are on some kind of a roll, and now they are back in a playoff position.

They were 2-1 winners in Washington on Sunday afternoon thanks to an overtime goal from Travis Konecny, giving the Flyers their seventh win in their past eight games.

Sunday’s win helped the Flyers jump over the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, while also bringing them to within a single point of the Columbus Blue Jackets for third place in the Metropolitan Division and just two points of the New Jersey Devils for second place.

Considering that this is a team that lost 10 games in a row between Nov. 11 and Dec. 2 it is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

Since that losing streak came to an end the Flyers are 15-5-1.

The driving force behind the turnaround has been the trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. Those three were relatively quiet from an offensive perspective on Sunday (Couturier did get an assist on Konecny’s winner) but the Flyers were still able to come away with the win.

The big difference maker on Sunday was goaltender Brian Elliott thanks to his 27 stops. He was at his best in the first period when he made a handful of stellar stops on Alex Ovechkin, including this point-blank stop when the game was still scoreless.

Elliott was in need of a game like this because he had not played well over the past few weeks, giving up at least three goals in each of his past seven appearances. Only once during that stretch did he record a save percentage higher than .900 in a single game, and even that game was only .903.

Ovechkin did end up scoring his league-leading 29th goal in the second period, scoring on a power the play, but it was the only shot the Capitals would get behind Elliott.

Michael Raffl also scored for the Flyers in the win.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Golden Knights keep getting better, more powerful

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Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.

At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.

Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.

What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.

When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.

For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.

In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.

But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).

The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together.  Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.

If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.

[Related: Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas]

By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.

There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.

But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.

They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.

From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.

Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz