We're kicking off the final weekend of the regular season by asking the Globe and Mail roster of hockey writers to discuss which blueliner deserves to win the James Norris Memorial Trophy as best defenceman in the National Hockey League.
Looks like a slam dunk for Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit - though perhaps it shouldn't be. There is no arguing that Lidstrom plays the position with more efficiency than perhaps anyone has in history.
No arguing that his stats are impressive: 16 goals and 46 assists - perhaps the most impressive being his remarkable 20 minutes in penalties. No one will be upset if he wins for the 400th time this century.
However, his familiarity overshadows many other great seasons by lesser knowns, even unknowns. Who would have thought that Anaheim's Lubomir Visnovsky - hell, I still can't write his name without looking it up, checking a couple of times and correcting once or twice - would have almost exactly the same stats (18 goals, 48 assists, also 20 minutes in penalties) but be a plus-15 compared to Lidstrom's minus-1.
Or who saw the year coming that Phoenix's Keith Yandle has had. Who, for that matter, even imagined that the 2010-2011 defence corps in Atlanta would include Dustin Byfuglien, last year's forward hero for the Chicago Blackhawks. He had the Norris won in December, but not now, though his numbers remain impressive. And numbers will likely hurt Boston's Zdeno Chara, who doesn't run away with the defence scoring race (14 goals, 29 assists) but who is a plus-33 and has been critical to the Bruins' success.
I'd vote Chara and Lidstrom 1 and 1A, with Lidstrom almost certain to win.
Not so fast, Roy.
After six wins in the last decade, the Norris has indeed become the Nik Lidstrom Trophy. He may merit consideration again this season, but how does one explain Lidstrom being minus-1 on a good team? It's an imperfect stat, but if teammate Brian Rafalski can be plus-10, what does that say about Lidstrom's even-strength play this season?
Last year's winner, Chicago's Duncan Keith, also has warts. He leads the NHL in ice-time (26:56 per game), but is 25 points off last year's pace and is also a minus player (-2).
A new crop of contenders has emerged: Anaheim's Lubomir Visnovsky, who leads all D-men with 66 points; Phoenix's Keith Yandle, the backbone of the Coyotes who is plus-11 and has 55 points; Pittsburgh maestro Kris Letang, and Nashville's Shea Weber, who leads his team in scoring.
Earlier this season, Atlanta's duo of Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom earned consideration thanks to big offensive numbers. They still might pull some votes.
There is also Boston's Zdeno Chara, the winner two years ago, who leads the league in plus/minus (plus-33), while ranking amongst the leading defencemen in ice-time (25:30, sixth) and shots on goal (252, second).
I haven't looked at this closely enough yet, but my sense is that Chara and Yandle are going to get onto my ballot.
On the grounds that the Norris Trophy - as worded - goes to the defenceman "who demonstrates throughout the season, the greatest all-around ability in the position," the 2011 winner should go the Nashville Predators' Shea Weber, in a close vote over six-time champ Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings.
What Lidstrom has done at the age of 40 - he'll turn 41 later this month - is phenomenal. He is the model for the positionally sound, post-lockout defender. He plays with what coaches like to call a "good stick" in almost every situation; he is rattling off the points (60 in 76 games); and is the leader of a team that has made the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons, a significant achievement. Coach Mike Babcock has gradually reduced Lidstrom's minutes over the years, as a nod to his advancing years. Coming out of the lockout, he was playing 28 per night. It's dropped by about a minute per game per year, to the point that he's in the mid-23s this year, the lowest since the NHL started tracking the stat in 1998-99.
It's a prudent measure and doesn't take away from what he's accomplished. Weber has done a lot of the same things in Nashville - he's scoring goals, picking up points, defending well. The only thing that he adds is a physical component that Lidstrom lacks. On a Nashville team that may not boast a single player with 50 or more points, the Preds rely on Pekka Rinne's goaltending and the defensive work of the No. 1 pair - Weber and Ryan Suter - to stay competitive with far more talented teams. Nashville rarely registers a blip on the national hockey conscience and apart from Weber's turn in the spotlight during last year's Olympics, he generally stays far out of the limelight. But this has been a coming out year for the 25-year-old, in the same way that Duncan Keith emerged from the shadows for Chicago last year.
It should be Weber, followed by Lidstrom and then either Keith Yandle (Phoenix) or Zdeno Chara (Boston).
The key words in the Norris Trophy are "all-around," words which too often were ignored with the award going to the highest-scoring defenceman in too many years.
If you apply them, then the Norris has to go to Shea Weber, who effectively applies his skills at both ends of the ice. He leads the Nashville Predators in scoring (okay, I know, not exactly a Herculean challenge) and he is a defensive force in his own end. It is time for Weber to get his first Norris, and if I decide to vote he will be No. 1 on my ballot.
I was picked as a trophy voter but this business about Chris Botta and the New York Islanders has me undecided about voting. I am leaning toward not voting because I believe the Islanders' revoking Botta's media credential is an attempt to deny independent and legitimate criticism but still have not decided.
If I do vote, Nicklas Lidstrom will be No. 2 on my ballot for reasons my fellow hockey writers have aired here, with Zdeno Chara a close third.
Since the trophy is to go to the defenceman who demonstrates his all-around skills "throughout the season," I am not putting Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes or Dustin Byfuglien in the top three. They are both having big years but both were somewhat off in the last couple of months.