As the 2011-12 NHL regular season winds down, people have began to talk, as they always do, about the awards race and which player on their favorite team deserves this, that, or the other award. It’s great fun.
One of those awards, as we all know, is the Norris Trophy, which is given to the “defensive player who throughout the season demonstrates the best all-around ability at the position.” It’s one of the most interesting awards of the season, not because it almost always goes to Nicklas Lidstrom, but because there’s always an interesting case to be made for any of the three nominees for the award.
This season, almost everyone north of the border feels as though Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who has 71 points in 71 games as of this writing, should win the award. The Ottawa beat writers and fans are beating the smooth skating Swede’s ridiculous point totals into everyone’s head on Twitter, on their blogs, and in their columns. While doing this, however, they conveniently leave out the fact that Karlsson only averages 30 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game, which means that his own coach doesn’t even think he’s good defensively. But, yeah, he should win the Norris. Oookay.
But this isn’t a piece to bash Karlsson. Because he is a fantastic offensive player in his own right, despite his other shortcomings. Nor is it to laud who should win the award. Rather, it’s to ask a simple question.
Where is the love for Alex Pietrangelo?
Outside of Karlsson, there are three other defensemen who are in the running for the Norris according to popular conversation: Boston’s Zdeno Chara, Nashville’s Shea Weber, and Lidstrom, who has won the award seven (!) times in the last ten seasons. It should be noted, however, that Lidstrom has missed much of the last month because of an ankle injury. Nevertheless, almost nowhere will you find a mention of Pietrangelo’s name anywhere near the conversation for the award.
Consider this: among the 105 defensemen who have played 60 or more games this season, Pietrangelo is seventh among them in even strength Corsi rating with a 12.67, according to the website BehindtheNet.ca (BTN). That means that for every 60 minutes that Pietrangelo is on the ice, the Blues direct 12.67 more shots at their opponent’s net than their opponents do at theirs. Two of the players above him on the list, Ian White and Johnny Boychuk, have spent much of their seasons skating with Lidstrom and Chara, respectively, which certainly boosts their numbers; Chara leads NHL defensemen in Corsi at 18.74 and Lidstrom is fourth at 14.25. Karlsson is one spot behind Pietrangelo at 11.98, while Weber is far down the list at -1.43.
In addition, Pietrangelo is fifth in the NHL among defensemen in goals against per 60 minutes, at 1.55, according to BTN. That stat isn’t hard to figure out – for every 60 minutes that he is on the ice at 5v5, the Blues only allow an average of 1.55 goals. Karlsson’s stands at 2.43, Chara’s at 2.30, Weber’s at 2.12, and Lidstrom’s at 1.71. Granted, the Blues have four of the top five defensemen in this category partially because of their great goaltending, but it’s not like Weber, Lidstrom, and Chara have slouches in the net. Karlsson’s, by far the highest, can be blamed more on goaltending, but the message remains clear: Pietrangelo keeps the puck out of his own net.
Pietrangelo does both of these things while facing tougher competition at even strength than all but one of the six players in front of him in terms of Corsi rating, with that one player being Lidstrom, according to BTN. Moreover, he faces the toughest competition among defensemen on his own team, which means that he is putting up that level of puck possession against the other team’s top line every game. In the modern NHL, that requires speed and the ability to possess the puck, Pietrangelo is one of the best.
Even if you do not believe in advanced metrics, Pietrangelo is elite by more traditional statistics as well. He is fifth in the NHL among blue liners with 43 points (more than Lidstrom, Weber, or Chara), and tied for third with 11 goals (more than Lidstrom or Chara). He has 21 power play points, third among defensemen (and more than Lidstrom, Weber, or Chara), on an average Blues power play that converts only 16.7% of the time, 15th in the NHL.
Furthermore, and unlike Karlsson, Pietrangelo kills penalties. As I mentioned before, Karlsson only sees an average of 32 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game, which is last on his team among defensemen who have played more than three games, and 207th in the NHL among defensemen that have played more than three games. Roll that around in your head for a second. Pietrangelo, meanwhile, is second on the Blues and 20th overall in the NHL among defensemen in shorthanded ice time, skating 3:10 a night on a St. Louis penalty kill that is seventh in the league at 84.8%. That 3:10 of PK time per night also has Chara (2:46), Lidstrom (1:54), and Weber (2:21) beaten.
Oh, and by the way: as of this writing, the Blues lead the NHL in standings points.
When you add all of this up, it is unfathomable to me that a player as well rounded as Pietrangelo has possibly managed to fly as far under the radar as he has this year. Maybe it’s the masterful job Ken Hitchcock has done in St. Louis that has upstaged him, but other than that, I can’t understand it. He’s been a top-five defenseman in the NHL this season, and he turned 22 in January. It’s remarkable.
All of that being said, I am not saying he deserves the Norris this year, or even a nomination. Things could obviously change. But considering the well-rounded nature of his traditional and advanced statistics, especially when comparing him to what most believe to be the competition for the award and the NHL’s elite puck possessors at his position, I don’t see how you can’t give him a long, hard look.
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