Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Let's Give Erik Karlsson Some Norris Love

The 2013-2014 Norris Trophy finalists were announced yesterday, and they were, as you all know by now, Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, and Shea Weber. While all three guys are undoubtedly elite defenders and deserving of the recognition, the discussion I saw over Twitter centred largely around who was omitted from this list rather than how great these three guys are (as is tradition). And most of that discussion seemed to come to the consensus that Mark Giordano should at the very least be a nominee over Weber.

I'm not going to argue that Giordano didn't have a fantastic year. He did. His fancystats were insanely good. He was a standout on an awful Calgary team and probably the only thing that kept them from being Sabres-level awful. Be deserves to be considered among the very best defensemen in the game, for this year at least.

But for my money, he wasn't the biggest omission from Norris voting this year. As you can tell by the title, I think Erik Karlsson should not have just been one of the three nominees, but should have won the award in a landslide. The season he had this year was not only good, but it was one of the single best seasons that any defensemen has ever had, yet no one's talking about it. I think it's time we put just how freaking insanely good Karlsson is into perspective.

First off, we'll look at some work done by Travis Yost. If you don't know who he is, a) why not, b) change this immediately, and c) he's an excellent Sens blogger that Eugine Melnyk has personally tried to have erased from the internet. That's not a joke by the way. Look it up. Anyways, he's been looking at individual shot attempts the last couple of days, and has basically determined that Karlsson is the Ottawa Senators' entire attack:

It goes further. Yost also wrote this post detailing how dominant offensively Karlsson is. If you're too lazy to click on the link, this graph is the main takeaway:

Essentially, Erik Karlsson breaks hockey. He has outperformed his peers by so much since 2011 that it's unbelievable, and this despite getting his achilles severed which theoretically understates his production.

This makes it more ridiculous when you put Karlsson's production relative to his peers in a historical context. He beat Duncan Keith for the defenseman scoring title by 13 points. The last D to finish more than 10 points ahead of second place was also Erik Karlsson in 2011-2012 when he beat the second best guy by 25(!) points, so he's done it in back-to-back 82-game seasons. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 1991-1992 season to find a guy who's done it once. That was Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, who beat Phil Housley by 16 points.

The last guy to finish more than 10 points ahead of second in back-to-back 82-game seasons was Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who accomplished the feat on the 1988-89 and 1989-90 Pittsburgh Penguins. You'll notice that those teams also included a then 23 and 24 year old Mario Lemieux, who posted prorated 209 and 167 point seasons. Coffey was also the last guy to finish 25 or more points ahead of the 2nd highest scoring defenseman, and he accomplished this feat with the Oilers in 1985-86, during Wayne Gretzky's all-time record 215 point season (which may have actually been deflated by unlucky percentages).

And then there's this:
Add Leetch and Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque to that list, and you get every NHL defenseman who's ever scored more than 70 points in a season twice before they're 23. You'll notice that these guys Karlsson is equaling with his performance this season aren't just good, they're generationally good. Erik Karlsson is walking on hallowed ground.

The knock against Karlsson is that the Norris Trophy is for "all-around" ability and not just offence, and he's not good defensively. The thing is, Duncan Keith isn't good defensively either, but that largely doesn't matter because his offensive game is so, so much better than the average NHL D. In fact, it's pretty easy to make an argument that Karlsson shouldered a heavier two-way burden than Duncan Keith did this season:
Both defenders have a similarly strong possession numbers, but Duncan Keith is also backed by a much stronger supporting cast.

(As an aside, I'll note that I think using CorsiRel to compare performances across players is not a smart thing to do since it unfairly punishes guys for playing on great teams while it overstates the contributions of guys on awful teams. It's true that if you compare on the basis of raw Corsi, you're not taking into account the strength of team, but by comparing on the basis of CorsiRel, you're assuming equal strength of team. 

Mark Giordano's 53.3% Corsi on the year is more impressive given that he plays for Calgary, but let's not kid ourselves, he's not +10.3% better than his team on an average NHL team, and he certainly doesn't take Chicago to, say, nearly 65% Corsi if he played Duncan Keith's role. Part of the reason that his CorsiRel is so high is that the players that he never sees the ice with and have no material impact on him whatsoever like Shane O'Brien and Chris Butler probably aren't NHL-calibre players, and they get their teeth kicked in repeatedly. So while +10.3% CorsiRel looks gaudy, remember that Giordano has no control over the guys below him in the depth chart being insufferably awful.)

Erik Karlsson probably isn't an elite defensive defenseman. Ottawa hemorrhages shot attempts against like few other teams do, and having Karlsson on the ice improves them only marginally in that regard. At the same time, Duncan Keith will probably win the Norris this year and he actively and demonstrably makes his team worse defensively when he's on the ice. But, and I can't stress this enough, this doesn't matter. Keith, like Karlsson, is nitrous oxide to his team's attack and his offensive ability has by far a greater net benefit than any defensive deficiencies in his game.

The point of all this is that Erik Karlsson is a special talent that continues to do what no other NHL defenseman can: generate offense at a super-elite level. He did it in his last full season, earning a Norris trophy, and he did it again this year. He does have his defensive issues, but the point of hockey is to outscore the opposition, not to hold a 0-0 tie the longest. He proved once again in 2013-2014 that he's the only NHL D to have no equal in any critical aspect of the game, and for that he deserves recognition as one of the NHL's top-3 defensemen, if not the best in the world today.

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