By Allan Muir
This morning, the NHL announced the three finalists for this year’s Norris Trophy, given annually to “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position,” as chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And not one of them was named Lidstrom, Chara or Weber.
In fact, all three of this year’s nominees — Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, Montreal’s P.K. Subban and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter — are first-timers. A signal of a changing of the guard among the league’s elite blueliners? That’s never a bad thing. All three deserve the recognition.
So, who’s going to win it?
Letang missed more than a quarter of the schedule, but still finished second among defensemen in scoring (5-33-38). That point-per-game pace is impressive, especially when you consider the numbers weren’t just a product of Pittsburgh’s potent power play — 25 of them came at even strength. But while his all-around game improved, he’s still not the player Pens’ coach Dan Bylsma turns to in shutdown situations – that would be Paul Martin — so don’t expect him to take home the hardware.
Subban got off to a rocky start, missing time due to a contract squabble and then stumbling through a few of his early games. But the Canadiens’ star took an obvious step towards his full potential, leading all defensemen in scoring (11-27-38 in 42 games) while playing a rude, physical game that made life miserable for opposing forwards. His performance against Ottawa in Game 3 notwithstanding, this was the season when Subban grew up, allowing him to be used freely, not managed. Still, he might have lost some support to teammate Andrei Markov, himself a legitimate Norris candidate through the season’s first two months and the player who coach Michel Therrien trusted first in the most critical situations.
That leaves Suter, who struggled early in the season while trying to adapt to a new system in Minnesota, but he rebounded with a second half during which he was clearly the league’s premier blueliner. He contributed to the offense, ranking second among NHL defensemen in assists (28) and third in points (32), and he complemented those numbers with one that really matters. Suter led all NHL players in average ice time per game (27:16), showing that he could be counted on in every situation. As the Wild battled to earn a playoff spot, he played upwards of 30 minutes in six of his final 11 games. That’s the kind of beastly presence that’s hard for voters to overlook.
And don’t forget the back story. This was Suter’s first year away from his tether in Nashville, Shea Weber. He came into this season not only needing to justify a massive new contract, but to prove that he wasn’t just a 1A, but a true No. 1. Safe to say he did that.
When it comes to “all-around ability,” there was Suter and there was everybody else this season. He deserves the hardware.
The league will be announcing trophy finalists every weekday for the next two weeks. Here’s the remaining schedule:
• Wednesday, May 8: Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
• Thursday, May 9: Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by NHLPA)
• Friday, May 10: Hart Memorial Trophy (most valuable player)
• Monday, May 13: General Manager of the Year Award
• Tuesday, May 14: Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (perseverance and dedication to hockey)
• Wednesday, May 15: Frank J. Selke Trophy (top defensive forward)
• Thursday, May 16: Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (skill and sportsmanship)
• Friday, May 17: Jack Adams Award (top head coach)
•Monday, May 20: Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award presented by Bridgestone (player who exemplifies great leadership qualities to his team, on and off the ice)