Norris Trophy Race: Adam Fox a slight favorite to repeat

Norris Trophy Race: Adam Fox a slight favorite to repeat
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With about a quarter of the 2021-22 NHL season in the books, PHT will break down races for major awards. This feature continues with the wide-open race for the Norris Trophy. Here’s our look at the Calder Trophy race.

Note: stats collected from before Monday’s games, unless otherwise noted. The Professional Hockey Writers Association votes annually on the Norris Trophy.

Norris Trophy race: Repeat possible for Adam Fox

Some years, the Norris Trophy debate boils down to a couple defensemen. Other times, the best battles are to become the two finalists who lose to a formidable frontrunner. Other seasons, the Norris Trophy race is wide open.

At the moment, the 2021-22 Norris Trophy race feels wide open, although reigning winner Adam Fox boasts a strong argument to repeat.

Adam Fox

If you want a rhyming device, consider: Adam Fox checks just about every Norris box.

Heading into Monday’s NHL games, Fox held a small lead in points for defensemen, as he’s generated 18 in 18 contests (4G, 14A). Voters tend to lean toward workhorses, and Fox fits that bill, averaging 24:46 TOI. Fox even averages about two minutes of penalty kill time per game.

Move over Lex Luger, because Fox is basically “The Total Package.”

So, you satisfy some of the old-school talking points. Adam Fox became an analytics darling basically from day one because of his all-around brilliance. To little surprise, he ranks among the NHL’s best defensemen in expected Goals Above Replacement, along with vanilla GAR, as you can see from this Evolving Hockey chart:

Honestly, it’s hard to believe Adam Fox is already a perennial Norris-level defenseman at age 23. You’re simply not supposed to be so polished, so soon.

Roman Josi and Victor Hedman

Reigning Norris winner Adam Fox doesn’t enjoy much distance between two former Norris winners tied for second in points. Both Roman Josi and Victor Hedman enter Monday’s action with 17 points in as many games.

At this point, you likely know what Roman Josi brings to the table. He’s one of the highest-impact offensive defensemen, carrying the puck like few blueliners. While he’s not among the upper crust by every defensive measure, Josi doesn’t take much away from the table while bringing so much offense.

In 2020-21, Hedman sparked some “fancy stats vs. eye test” debates. To an extent, that could carry over a bit to this season, as his stature leads to some people mildly overrating his overall impact.

To be clear, that debate mainly revolves around splitting hairs in Norris debates of the absolute best of the best. If a strong postseason didn’t restore much of Hedman’s luster, then a rebound so far in 2021-22 should do the rest. With Nikita Kucherov and now Brayden Point sidelined, the Lightning will lean on Hedman, and that may really bolster his Norris case.

Aaron Ekblad

Last season, MacKenzie Weegar emerged as a stealth Norris candidate. Once Aaron Ekblad suffered a scary injury, Weegar probably landed on a few mainstream radars, too.

So far in 2021-22, Weegar continues to turn heads. Yet, by a lot of Norris standards, Aaron Ekblad’s arguably been even better.

Scroll up to that xGAR chart and you’ll see Ekblad ranked highly. If you prefer typical stats, Ekblad shines too. He’s one of the leading defensive scorers (15 points in 18 games) and will appeal to those who still cling to plus/minus (+17!).

Ekblad also isn’t as reliant on power-play production, as four of his 15 points are PPP. His 11 even-strength points ranks only second to Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington, whose breakthrough is truly something to behold.

(The Flames already bumped up Kylington’s ice-time average from 15:07 in October to 17:57 in November, but he might be primed for even more. Remarkable for a player who seemed like he was struggling to convince Calgary to give him more than cursory looks.)

[MORE: Looking at the 2021-22 Calder Trophy race]

Other Norris Trophy considerations

Truly, it’s a packed field so far, so don’t consider this comprehensive. (Feel free to mention more candidates in the comments.)

  • Will John Carlson ever break “The Mike Green Curse” of high-scoring Capitals defensemen who can’t win a Norris Trophy? Maybe eventually. But he’s a stride or two behind the truly elite from an all-around standpoint. No shame in that, but it may keep him from winning a Norris.
  • Often unfairly, Seth Jones absorbs a ton of blame for the Blackhawks’ struggles. Truly, he has his defensive issues. But he’s scoring (15 points in 18 games), logging big minutes, and writers love a comeback story. Narrative-wise, that comeback story might get “published” a little further away from one of the ugliest hockey scandals in recent memory, though. Still, plenty of voters look at points, even for defensemen, so Jones deserves a mention.
  • It may not exactly be a feel-good story, but Tony DeAngelo‘s enjoyed a strong start with the Hurricanes. He’s not quite getting the workload of a Norris Trophy defensemen, though, putting him more in range with the likes of Kevin Shattenkirk and Oliver Kylington.
  • Not the hottest starts for Charlie McAvoy and Cole Makar. Some of that is out of their hands, especially with more injuries for Makar. But both are special enough (in their own, different ways) that they can’t be counted out. And both defensemen are a mere hot streak away from being more prominent parts of the discussion.
  • Don’t look now, but Erik Karlsson‘s enjoying a nice rebound. Not quite to Norris-favorite-levels, yet it sure beats Karlsson and the Sharks being totally miserable.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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