NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Penguins-Rangers stream coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
There are a lot of reasons for Rangers fans to be optimistic about their future.
The current roster is full of promising young talent, including back-to-back top-two picks (Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière) at that top. Beyond them you have Filip Chytl, Igor Shesterkin, K'Andre Miller, and the recent addition of Vitali Kravtsov to go with established veterans like Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Assuming they can get most of those players to develop as planned, that could be the foundation of a contending team in the not-too-distant future.
They enter Tuesday’s game against the Penguins outside of the playoff picture, but the long-term potential is most definitely there.
But for as promising as that above group is, the best young player on the team right now is pretty clearly second-year defenseman Adam Fox.
Not only is he one of the best players on the team, he is already one of the best players in the league at his position and should be a serious contender to win the Norris Trophy.
Not in five years. Not in two years, or even next year.
He is good enough to win it right now. Or at the very least be a finalist and a major contender for it.
[PENGUINS-RANGERS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]
The biggest obstacle he is going to have to overcome, though, is being a 23-year-old, second-year player on a rebuilding team that has not yet developed an extensive resume over several seasons.
Voting tends to follow reputation, or some sort of mindset that it is someone’s “turn” to win an award. Like you have to pay your dues and put in your tiime before you can win, or that it is some sort of career achievement award.
Go as far back as the 1990 season. That is more than 30 years. Only three Norris winners during that span were under the age of 25 — Brian Leetch (23) in 1992, Erik Karlsson (21) in 2011-12, and P.K. Subban (23) in 2012-13. Karlsson is the only one out of that group that won it while playing in fewer than four seasons in the league. Norris winners during that time have been, on average, 10 year veterans in the year they win.
In other words: You either need a significant resume, or you need to record so many points (Karlsson) that it is impossible to be ignored.
At this point Fox should not be ignored in this discussion because he is already right there with the league’s elite defenders.
Offensively, his 33 points are second in the league among all defenders, trailing only the 36 from Victor Hedman
His defensive impact is also already as good as you will find anywhere in the league. He is one of the most durable defenders in the league, averaging close to 25 minutes per game and playing true shut down minutes. He gets the defensive zone starts for the Rangers, draws the top opposition, and is one of the league’s best defenders in terms of suppressing opposing shots, scoring chances, and goals. That is not an easy role to take on.
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He also does all of that while playing a remarkably clean game, being whistled for just three minor penalties this season. There is a ton of value and skill involved with being able to play that many minutes, in those situations, against the players he is tasked with playing against, and not only shutting them down for the most part, but also staying out of the penalty box.
When you combine all of that with a near point-per-game scoring pace as a defender, you have a special player on your hands.
Ignore all of the noise that goes with awards voting and just focus on the actual play on the ice this season. There are probably four or five defenders that have separated themselves from the rest of the pack over the full season given their overall play. You have Hedman in Tampa Bay whose past resume and current dominance consistently makes him a force on the blue line. There is the Colorado duo of Cale Makar and Sam Girard. There is Montreal’s Jeff Petry (he definitely has to be in this discussion). And you have Fox. If we’re judging it based on overall performance this season, one of those five should take home the award. Fox is right there in that group.
Shesterkin gives the Rangers a potential No. 1 goalie to build around.
Panarin is already a superstar scorer while Lafrenière, Kakko, and Kravtsov still have enormous potential.
Adam Fox is already the top-pairing, bonafide No.1 defender that every contending team needs. He is going to compete for Norris Trophies throughout his career, and he is already good enough to do so this season.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.