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Is John Carlson’s Case for the Norris Trophy Airtight?

Does John Carlson have the award locked up, or is there a curveball headed his way?

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NHL: New York Islanders at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday afternoon against the Penguins, John Carlson assisted on a Carl Hagelin goal for his 475th career point, passing Calle Johansson to become the highest-scoring defenseman in Capitals history. It’s fitting that John Carlson would secure this accolade during the finest offensive season of his career, which, when all is said and done, could feasibly be the best season by a defenseman as measured by points in the last 25 years.

Carlson’s prolific production already has some people awarding him the distinction of the NHL’s best defenseman (or even more prestigious hardware). Others aren’t so sure. So what’s the deal?

Let’s start by investigating a hypothesis: the Norris Trophy is awarded more on the strength of offensive production than defensive performance. Below we look at even strength goals and assists for defensemen dating back to 2007. Don’t worry, we’ll incorporate power play production in short order.

It’s pretty clear that it’s exceedingly unlikely a defenseman has a real shot at the Norris unless they’ve got some real points production under their belt. You might think PK Subban looks like an anomaly here, but his totals are skewed by the shortened 2013 season. Subban and Kris Letang each notched 38 points that year, tying for tops in the League.

Here’s how Carlson stacks up against the field of 2019-2020 defensemen.

It’s obvious that Carlson is in a class of his own, with Roman Josi the only other defensemen even sniffing his stratosphere. However, five-on-five play is only one aspect of the game. Why don’t we look in on production levels at all situations through the years.

The tendency to select a top-tier offensive producer each year as the Norris Trophy winner becomes more evident here, though there are a few clear examples, such as 2008-09, 2015-16, and 2016-17, where the award went to someone who wasn’t at the top of their class in the boxcars.

In the following plot, we’ll use points-per-game in all situations to get another look:

With a few exceptions that are particularly notable for Capitals fans, points per game has generally been a strong predictor for the Norris Trophy, and John Carlson currently has the highest points-per-game by a defensemen in close to 30 years. And while Roman Josi’s season has been admirable, it just doesn’t stand up to the blistering offensive showing we’re seeing from John Carlson.

Unless...

Sometimes a controvertible notion of defensive contribution enters the conversation. We saw it last year when Mark Giordano’s nominally better defensive play earned him the accolade, even though Brent Burns offensive numbers looked better. We saw it when Drew Doughty won the award over Erik Karlsson in 2015-16, and we saw it when Mike Green was passed over in favor of Zdeno Chara in 2008-09, despite scoring 31 goals, which remains the highest goal total by a defenseman during the last 29 years.

So, let’s look at defensive performance over the years, the Norris winners during those years, as well as Carlson and Josi this year.

Here’s how to read the following chart at a glance: Norris winners are in orange. If they’re in the bottom left quadrant, that means their defensive performance was pretty good. If they’re in the top right quadrant, that means their defensive performance was not so good. Less important are the top left, which means underperforming expectation, and bottom right, which means overperforming expectation.

There have been a few examples of Norris winners not necessarily being paragons of stalwart defense — Nicklas Lidstrom in 2010-11, and Erik Karlsson in both 2011-12 and 2014-15, but for the most part, winners have either been on the right side of that distribution, or tucked innocuously into the middle. With John Carlson’s defensive numbers unlikely to change much one way or the other before season’s end, this season would be among the more forgettable defensive seasons by a Norris winner in recent memory.

But focusing on defense is really losing the thread here — after all, we’re talking about a defenseman who’s second in the entire league in assists, ahead of names like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, and Artemi Panarin. Add in the fact that conversations about defense in general have an unfortunate tendency to ignore important considerations such as team defense and systems, the guys a given player is skating against, and the general context of his minutes.

John Carlson is a tailor-made Norris pick, and the only thing that stands between him and some new hardware is the PHWA galaxy-braining their way to a conclusion that Roman Josi had a better season. The good news for Caps fans is that not a whole lot has changed between now and January, when PHWA voters awarded a hypothetical midseason version of the trophy to Carlson.

Here’s to hoping that if Carlson wins the award, he at least invites Mike Green over to hold it for a few minutes...