There is a battle shaping up for the Norris Trophy this season reminiscent of the decade beginning in the mid-1980s, when Raymond Bourque and Paul Coffey went toe-to-toe – or skate-to-skate – to see who would annually be chosen the NHL's top defenceman.
One, Bourque, was the consummate two-way defenceman, excellent at both ends of the ice, physical, smart, with a high hockey IQ.
The other, Coffey, was the most fluid skater of his era, someone who seemed to glide above the ice, and was always up on the play, posting record-setting offensive numbers while playing with some of the most talented scorers in NHL history.
They were completely different players in style and approach and the only common ground was both played the game at a high level, though Bourque was by far the more accomplished defender.
But how to evaluate one over the other, when their attributes were so different? Ultimately, Bourque won five Norris trophies and was first runner-up six times, while Coffey won three and was first runner-up twice more.
In the end, both got some love from the voters.
This year, the Norris looks as though it's a two-horse race again between the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty, a latter-day Bourque, the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson, the new Coffey.
Karlsson, the reigning champion, is a two-time Norris winner, and already has 73 points this season, seven more than he had all of last season. Impressive numbers and voters sure love numbers when casting their award ballots.
Doughty may be the best active player never to win the award, and has added a new wrinkle to his game this season, a goal-scoring component that wasn't there a year ago. He has 13 goals this year, nine on the power play, compared to just seven in total last season.
When the Norris votes were tallied last spring, Doughty actually received more first-place votes than Karlsson – 53 compared to 44 – but was left off 31 ballots completely. (Voters list five players at each position).
The edge in second-, third- and fourth-place votes ultimately tilted the competition in Karlsson's favour – his name was omitted from 11 ballots.
It probably hurt Doughty's candidacy that last year's Kings missed the postseason, while Karlsson's Senators went on a brilliant run in the final quarter that catapulted them into the playoffs.
This year, however, it looks as though it'll go the other way. The Kings, the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup champions, are comfortably in the playoff mix and just this week, recorded decisive road wins over two of the top contenders in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Dallas Stars. The Senators are running out of games and slowly fading in the East.
Will that make a difference? Should it? In 2002, the best position player in the league, Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, lost the Hart Trophy to the Montreal Canadiens' Jose Theodore in a tie-breaker, largely because he was left off multiple ballots because his team fell short of the playoffs.
Doughty's increased goal scoring may help his case. It is something he says came about after studying video last summer with assistant coach John Stevens and assistant general manager Rob Blake and making a few tweaks to his game.
"We looked over all my offensive takes in the offensive zone; and my shooting from the blueline and where I was going with my shots, or if I was going back door," Doughty said. "I really wanted to get more pucks on net and shoot the puck quicker. Those were the two main things. Overall my game is the best it's ever been right now. I'm really happy with it."
Unlike some players, Doughty is perfectly okay with telling you he'd like to win the Norris Trophy some time soon. His coach, Darryl Sutter, who rarely gushes and can be fairly stingy in his praise for his own players, suggests Doughty, is in a class by himself this season.
"I think a lot was put on his [sophomore] numbers, when he had 16 goals, but that was for a bad team, so it's a totally different situation," Sutter said. "Until we picked up Robbie [Scuderi], Drew's played with a young guy all year. If you look at his possession numbers and zone time, how much time he's got the puck, it's an incredible number.
"On a consistent, every-night basis, I can count the number of average games he's played on one hand. In the past, where he'd drop off for one or two shifts before, now he doesn't do that anymore."
Karlsson and Doughty are first and third in overall minutes played this season, which is common for them.
"The more I play, the better I play, but they do want to cut my minutes back here, and save me a little bit for the playoffs," Doughty said. "Lately, I've been playing 26 to 28 a night, rather than 28 to 32. It's less minutes, but it's giving other D a chance to play more."
And that speaks to the other part of the Norris Trophy equation. As much as the Kings want Doughty to win one, organizationally, they are more concerned with championships than individual hardware.
Doughty has won two Stanley Cups with the Kings, plus two Olympic gold medals playing for Canada – and was a key contributor on every one of those teams. As Sutter consistently notes, at age 26, in a 30-team era, for Doughty to have won so much so soon speaks volumes for the impact he can have on a team. The Norris? It's past time for him to win one.